Laughter echoes for JFL returnees

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MONTREAL -- On the 25th anniversary of the Just for Laughs comedy festival, it comes as no surprise that performers and other industry folks are reminiscing about the changing industry and their experiences in this host city.

"It's been fascinating for me to watch comedy grow over the years," JFL chief operating officer Bruce Hills said on the eve of his 22nd festival. "In my first year here, comedy was a (small) nightclub business. Now it is big."

And while in the old days Bill Cosby and a handful of other select names could draw a crowd, "there are now many strong niches" and talent to fill demand in them, he added.

Talent is exactly what a whole slew of industry folks saw in Tammy Pescatelli when she appeared in the festival's annual New Faces showcase of up-and-comers in 2002.

Although she had several years of comedy experience at the time, she had no manager or agent. Gersh quickly signed her, and Pescatelli has since been a successful tour comic, appeared on the "Tonight Show" and "Last Comic Standing," among other TV shows, and will be seen in two films this fall.

"It's just been amazing," Pescatelli said as she prepared for her third JFL, which began Wednesday. "The festival really jump-started my career."

But she said she wants to continue to show Montreal -- and other places, for that matter -- how she has evolved as a performer. "It's now five years after my first show at the festival, and I have a lot of different material," she said. While she is booked on the "Wiseguys" show of Italian comics this time, she said she "barely" talks about being Italian anymore.

Kurt Metzger, 30, hopes to remember this year for as long as Pescatelli as he was picked for the 25th anniversary edition's New Faces. But he is no Montreal newbie.

Metzger attracted attention at JFL three years ago when he proposed a TV show idea in front of the "Just for Pitching" panel of TV executives that draws an industry crowd every year. And with his offbeat ideas for "Paladin," a parody of 1980s shows with a touch of "Touched by an Angel," he emerged as one of the "Pitching" standouts that year.

Metzger, who has done stand-up and comedic writing for eight years now, said the "Pitching" experience opened some doors. While the show itself was never picked up, "people started looking at me for different things," he said.

He recently was featured on Comedy Central's "Live at Gotham" and is working as a writer on a Dave Attell pilot.

How does Metzger feel about waiting several years before getting picked for that show? "I am glad I do it now," he said. "I am much more confident now and have better material. I watched a New Faces show when I was in Montreal a few years ago, and I felt some of the young comics couldn't handle all the pressure and bombed."

Others have seen a much larger share of Montreal shows over the years.

"My first festival was in 1997," said comedy veteran Mark Scroggs, agent at David Shapira and Associates. "My favorite moments are of course the social ones. Also, I love finding people (especially Canadian) who are unique and very talented."

Scroggs has, for example, worked with Jann Arden and Steve Diamond, one of Quebec's Three Tenors of Comedy. "I saw them in shows I just happened to check out," he said.

The newer crop of talent representatives also already has a slew of memories.

"My first JFL was a few years ago, and I have been going ever since," said John Tae Lee, talent manager at Shapiro/West & Associates. "The veteran guys kind of take you under their wing and show you around and give you tips. I always have great memories from the festival."

Michael Cox, talent executive for E! Entertainment's "Chelsea Lately," was only 13 when he first attended JFL. Invited by his future stepmother, he had the time of his life.

"I was blown away by the grand scale and scope of the festival and how amazing it was seeing all the comedians just walking around and talking with everyone in the (hotel) lobby," he said. Cox said he remembers Bobcat Goldthwait "wearing a ratty, yellow faded T-shirt with the pen scriblings of 'Kill Seinfeld!' across it."

Overall, Cox says he found his calling at the festival. "I believe I owe a debt to Just for Laughs for opening my eyes to a world where it's considered work to laugh," he said. "There's nothing better."

Just for Laughs runs through July 25.
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