Just for Laughs fest promotes new talent

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Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada has seen many talents pass through his club and go on to show-stopping turns at Montreal's annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, now in its 25th year, and he's pleased about the changes he's witnessed in the way today's young performers command club and festival stages. "It's a very different energy from the early '80s, when comics stuck to a routine that went joke, joke, joke," he says. "Now, the audience wants more than that, and the best performers can do it."

It's something other comedy veterans -- both club owners and performers -- have noticed as well, and many of them maintain that this newfound confidence and professionalism has everything to do with the way in which the business of comedy has evolved over the last quarter-century. Notes Christopher Titus, who landed two Fox deals via JFL, "Most comics understand it's a job, instead of a party, now."

JFL has undoubtedly had a hand in that maturation process. Since its modest start in 1983 as a few evenings of French-language stand-up, JFL (the fest's English-language portion began July 12 and concludes July 22) has become a highly anticipated part of the comedy calendar, serving as a tribute of the art and craft of stand-up while celebrating a broadly defined range of comedic performance. "We're renowned for stand-up and will never shy away from that," says JFL COO Bruce Hills. "But as comedy changes, we do what we can to keep the festival vital."

With that in mind, Hills -- along with new festival programming vp Maureen Taran -- has assembled a lineup focused less on retrospection and more on what's fresh and exciting in comedy. Newer elements of this year's fest include an expanded Flying Solo series for solo shows, a sketch comedy showcase hosted by "Mr. Show" creators Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, a showcase for comedic musical acts and a strong presence of Web videos.

More traditional highlights will include a reunion of Canadian performance troupe Kids in the Hall, a live reading with the cast of Fox's animated series "Family Guy" and headlining performances from George Lopez, Louis C.K., Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly, among others.

Over the years, the festival's welcoming approach to comedy has helped to blur some industry distinctions, particularly the line between what are considered mainstream and alternative acts.

"The hardest people on comedians are other comedians, and I say that as someone who started as a prop comic," explains Howie Mandel, who'll be a gala host this year, his third JFL appearance. "But ultimately what you always want to do is 'alternative.' The people who made it in the last 25 years and the people who continue to make it are unique in whatever it is they do. That's how you pop. The best stuff is always an alternative to what's gone before -- an alternative to where the mainstream is."

Craig Ferguson was a breakout talent at the 1989 JFL and returns this year as a gala host during a new Toronto extension of the festival. He says he doesn't like putting labels of any kind on comedy.

"Here's the one thing about it," he says, "Does it make you laugh? If it does, it does, and if it doesn't, it's not funny. And that's a personal decision. You can label it all you like, but even if you look at Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, guys who were working almost 100 years ago, there's absurdist, surrealist comedy there. So there's no such thing, there is no 'alternative' or 'mainstream.' I don't believe in that."

Tim Allen, who owes some of his early Hollywood heat to performances at JFL, echoes many of those same sentiments, pointing out that even so-called mainstream performers can retain an edge to their humor. "The comedy I see today is always funny, surprising," Allen says. "George Lopez is not only a friend but he has an angry, pointed, Hispanic, elevated perspective. And he's not (politically) correct."

Others see a new and encouraging freedom in the relationship between comic and audience, as so-called "niche" comedians are able to transition into a broader, if not entirely mainstream, appeal.

"The biggest and best change over the years is that there are now Asians and women and gays all allowed on stage, and there are more than just a couple of black superstars," says Greg Proops, a JFL veteran who returns this year as a show host and performer. "Everybody plays to a general audience now, not just people like themselves. We've all become more egalitarian about comedy. A white boy can like Margaret Cho and Dave Chappelle and doesn't have to sit around worrying about it."

The festival's embrace of versatile, less-easily defined performers has made it a valuable resource for the industry. By providing a platform for voices that might not fit elsewhere to showcase their talents before a broad, international audience, JFL allows burgeoning comics to gain experience, while agents and managers get to view them in the raw.

"From a business perspective, real work gets done at the festival," says Endeavor agent Conan Smith, a regular JFL attendee for the past 17 years. "It's a great place to present a hybrid performer -- someone who can do stand-up or a TV show or a one-person theater piece or write a book. The great comedic talents are like diamonds: They work in a lot of different settings."

While the festival prides itself on staying current, its 25 years of continuous presence in the comedy world can be seen as an asset as well. While each year organizers try to graft on new ways of comedy presentation (Cirque du Soleil, anyone?), vets also know that the galas and showcases are there when they're ready with new material.

"There's something constant about the festival, but I think that's one of its strengths," says Kathleen Madigan, who is making her eighth appearance as a JFL performer and show host. "They don't make big changes all of a sudden, and I think there's something comforting about that. Everybody's in shock this year because they switched hotels. What? A different hotel? Come on people -- so you have to drink at a different bar this time. I think we can handle that."

Titus says the switch in hotels (from Delta Montreal to the Hyatt Regency) is actually a good thing, if the comics and the agents and managers start sharing space again: "If you're a comic and you get to hang out with a bunch of industry people, you know who's really smart and who's a prick. If they're all put back together (in the same hotel), you can get to know them in a casual setting, rather than in their L.A. offices."

After 25 years, if the thing that tweaks regular attendees most is the shift in location, JFL clearly has a strong enough foundation to last for another 25, and beyond. That, of course, assumes that there will continue to be enough quality comedy out there to fill the stage in Montreal. Andy Kindler will be presenting his 12th annual "State of the Fest" address at JFL this year, and will in part be looking at how comedy has evolved over the last 25 years -- and where it's going next. But don't expect him to paint a rosy picture.

"Gallagher was big in the '80s ... now we have Larry the Cable Guy," he says. "In the last 25 years, I think we've steadily managed to lower the bar on the lowest common denominator. I've already been in meetings where executives start to explain to you why 'Seinfeld' shouldn't have been a hit. I predict that in a couple years you'll go into a meeting and they'll deny that 'Seinfeld' ever existed: 'A stand-up starring in a show about nothing? We have no record of that.' It will simply be considered an urban myth."  


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