JFL: Taran talks comedy in the digital age


Maureen Taran is a comedy industry veteran, having managed talent for 14 years before last year taking the lead role in shaping the lineup of the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal as vp, programming. With the 25th edition of the annual comedy fixture - the first one whose programming she oversaw - set to kick into high gear this week, Taran talked to The Hollywood Reporter's New York bureau chief Georg Szalai about how comedy has changed in the digital age and what sensibility she has brought to JFL.

THR: What kind of approach did you take when planning the programming for the 25th anniversary edition of the festival?

Taran: One of the first things I wanted to do was to focus on the theme of "Look at what we have done for 25 years and now this is a taste of what we are going to do over the next 25 years." The next 25 years is going to show you how having things in little boxes doesn't work anymore. There is so much growth out of the box from what we were used to.

THR: It seems like the digital age and the decline of the network sitcom have changed what kind of deals festival attendees are looking for...

Taran: I managed people for 14 years, primarily in television, and it was the same thing every year. You had your development season, you had your pilot season, you had your testing season. That's still around, but there are so many new layers and additions. I wanted the festival to address this. Yes, you are used to seeing a lot of standup comedy, and that's terrific. But there are so many other things going on that are funny and maybe not necessarily funny that people can take to another level, whether it is a play or a film or something on the Internet or something you can see on a cell phone or so.

THR: As you said, there is more interest in comedy for digital and new media. Is there a change in the type of industry attendance?

Taran: Absolutely. There are so many people who are coming from these new Web, viral video and other departments. We have a lot of people coming from the networks and studios on that end. And we have those production companies, such as Endemol, that strictly produce content for the Web. That was a big goal of mine, but I was blown away because there are way more of them than I thought. And they come in addition to the more traditional crowd. We also have a lot of international people coming - from France, England and Australia and more.

THR: Tell me a little more about the addition of new types of comedy, such as your first-ever sketch showcase, and the expansion of other types!

Taran: The Flying Solo series started last year, and they had six shows. I bumped it up to 10. In that, it's not just standup comedy. Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall has his one-man show this year, and you are going to laugh, but you're also going to cry, and that's OK. Also, there is a massive music scene in this city, and that1s a way to reach young audiences. So, I brought in Freedom Love Supreme who also do 13 different shows. And we added a new musical comedy show called "Tune In." There, you are going to see Kevin Hearn from Barenaked Ladies, Kid Koala who is hot and more. Let's say things like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords. And our new sketch show, "The Line-Up," is my other baby that I am so proud of. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross are hosting it, and Bob is directing it. The (sketch) guys are so excited. There are four different sketch groups and two groups that just ave viral videos.

How did you go about choosing the sketch talent for this new show?

I had four people on Saturday Night Live in the 14 years I was a manager and two on MadTV. I tried to bring a mix of unbelievable actors, people who do impressions and great writers, as well as different types of characters to the sketch show.

THR: I know Andy Kindler is doing his popular show of alternative comedy again at the festival. How about some of the other more alternative offerings?

Taran: We have "TJ & Dave." I was blown away when I first saw them. They will do 13 plays over the course of 13 days - unscripted, unrehearsed, and they will walk out every night and give you a different night...Also, last night, I was watching the audience come out of Spymonkey, this Monty Python-type over-the-top physical British comedy. I loved that they were laughing and saying that was so different from anything we've seen before.

THR: You also took a slightly different approach to the traditional New Faces showcases...

Taran: Well, let me say that you don't necessarily have to be 22 - keep that in mind. It1s not all about being young and cute and having a sitcom. And I'm taking risks. There is a lot of clever, smart stuff and more thinkers. One more thing: if you haven't seen this person splattered across your TV, the Internet, the magazines, a billboard - then you don1t know them. Doesn't that make them new?! Given that I was Jim Gaffigan's first manager, he is my perfect prototype. I always loved his work.

THR: You also have an All-Star Gala this year. What was the idea behind that?

The galas have been the same year after year, and I know people don't like too much change. But you have to open your mind and embrace it. The All-Star Gala has no host. It's just one comic after the other handing over the baton. And that show sold out the fastest. I think people thought it sounds cool and the lineup is just incredible.

THR: How are the sketch people and some of the newer attendee crowds to work with?

Taran: They are the youngest, nicest, smartest, most professional group of people I've ever worked with. Unbelievable. These are kids who get up at 9 o'clock in the morning, and they are writing. There1s a whole new group of talent out there that is savvy and so smart...The Web world is also a really nice group of people to do business with. It's competitive, of course, but not in the exhausting kind of way. There may still be bidding wars, but people seem to all cooperate more and do (non-exclusive) things together. They really seem to have fun.

THR: I heard that you guys have some sort of a climate/environmental initiative going on this year...

Taran: The city allowed us to put feet in paint that just washes away easily with water all along the streets to the different venues with different colors representing different venues. We did it to encourage people to walk more, not drive cars...The majority of our industry is from New York or LA. New Yorkers walk everywhere, and LA people complain that they never get to walk anywhere.

The festival's official hotel for industry attendees is now the Hyatt for the first time. Why did you switch to that location?

Taran: It's a beautiful hotel with wrap-around terraces. They host the jazz festival, which is bigger than our event, and ours is huge. It's the number 1 convention-style hotel in the city, so they are used to it all. They are really professional...And the bar is bigger, which will make a difference for the social aspect...We have had a contract with the Delta Hotel, and we still were able to fulfill those obligations because we have lots of artists in the street festival who are still there.

THR: How is Comedia, the festival's film portion, different this year?

We are presenting a lot of shorts from the Web. We have "The Best of Comedia" hosted by Marlon Wayans. We are featuring short-byte cinema with Heavy.com and others. We have taken this whole viral world and infusing it into Comedia. The response has been terrific. We also had Rob Corddry presenting "The Ten."

THR: How much has the Internet really been a driver of industry change?

Taran: The Internet has been one of the biggest components to how much the industry has changed. If you look at how Andy Samberg exploded in and onto Saturday Night Live, people were like: hey wait a minute, let's not ignore these people that are doing stuff on the Web - maybe there is some talent there. We all still have to acclimate to that change. We have to be online looking for people in addition to a club, as well as reading a script, etc.