Just For Laughs Goes Global For Discovery Talent

The Canadian chuckles festival, which wrapped Sunday night, targeted an increasingly international comedy business, online and around the world.

MONTREAL -- Just For laughs COO Bruce Hills can finally exhale, now that the 29th edition of the Montreal comedy festival wrapped Sunday night.

He’s been directing a lot of Hollywood foot traffic in the last few days, as Los Angeles and New York talent scouts in search of the Next Big Thing mostly flit from venue to venue to venue in the streets round Place des Arts and the Hyatt Regency hotel.

“You want to hit five shows, now you give four minutes to get from the Astral to the Imperial, or to the Gesu, or Club Soda,” Hills explained.

The irony is that, just as Just For Laughs performances have coalesced round a downtown Montreal hub, the festival is targeting an increasingly global comedy business, online and around the world, thanks to the digital age.

“This (Just For Laughs) will always be a place where people will find people to cast,” the festival’s talent producer Robbie Praw said.

“But everyone knows this isn’t the 1990s,” he adds.

That means Just For Laughs no longer depends on a nucleus of returning U.S. stand-up comics to entice Hollywood execs and scouts with comedy talent.

The Canadian chuckles festival is instead bringing more international acts to Montreal, especially from the UK and Down Under, to get the attention of industry scouts.

Typical was the Craig Ferguson-hosted Saturday night gala The International House of Comedy at the Salle Wilfred Pelletier, which featured Aussie Adam Hills, Brits Eddie Izzard and Russell Howard, and Scottish comic Danny Bhoy.

While showing off their talent in Montreal, international comics are also featuring in varied TV shows that Just For Laughs now makes for the international market.

“Besides performing, I tell the talent I’m going to give you a North American TV audience,” Bruce Hills explained.

The latest TV deal for Just For Laughs includes two one-hour stand-up comedy specials for BBC America.

Just For Laughs is also producing two TV specials for Network Ten in Australia, six shows for Sweden and The Netherlands, one hour of stand-up comedy each for Germany and Spain and shows for, in all, four Canadian networks, including the CBC and HBO Canada.

Hill insisted the increased international TV exposure for Just For Laughs illustrates how the comedy business is changing, as festival headliners this year like Russell Peters, Eddie Izzard, Tim Minchin, Jimmy Carr, John Oliver and Beardyman have gone from being homegrown to global talents, aided by their online fan base and exposure.

The British comic and ventriloquist Nina Conti this past week in Montreal signed with the Gersh Agency for U.S representation on the strength of her one-woman show, Nina Conti Talk To The Hand, which she performed at the festival.

“We met once and now I’ve lots of ideas of what I’d like to do over here,” Conti said after inking a deal with Gersh.

Just For Laughs' Hills underlines that the current overhaul of the festival has responded to a changing business.

“There’s still (U.S.) TV execs coming up. But deals are not done at the (hotel) bar anymore. And now international TV execs and festival artistic directors are circulating round the festival,” he said.

Just For Laughs is also deep into social media, has dedicated Youtube channels and branded smartphone apps are in the works.

Ultimately, the festival’s growing international focus makes sense for the digital age.

Despite the weird and wild comedy that filled varied venues over the last three weeks within a stone’s throw of the Place des Arts, Just For Laughs is not Montreal anymore, but someplace and everywhere else in an increasingly borderless and digital entertainment business.

The Just For Laughs festival wrapped Sunday night with the Decline of the American Empire?! gala, hosted by The Daily Show with John Stewart’s John Oliver.