Just for Laughs: Funny Business

This year's festival features a cornucopia of international acts, but will everyone get the jokes?

Q&A: Todd Phillips
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When comedian Russell Peters took his stand-up act to Dubai last year, the Canadian performer proved so popular he not only sold one ticket every two seconds but he also caused the ticket system to crash and caused near-riots.

Peters is just one example of how the comedy business is changing, as comics shift from being largely local phenomena to names on a universal stage, aided by globalization and a digital age that have made it easier for comedic talent to be discovered by fans and talent scouts internationally.

"Any time I hear a new name, I Google them," says Kara Welker, founding partner of Generate, a production and management company. "Almost everyone who works in the talent space does that these days. It's a great tool for us to find and discover new talent, no matter where they are based."

The Web and easier travel around the world have also allowed some comics to develop an avid fan base in foreign territories.

At last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Just for Laughs talent producer Robbie Praw saw U.K. sketch troupe Idiots of Ants and decided to book them for this summer's JFL festival in Montreal. "I realized that I had seen some of their videos on YouTube," Praw says.

One of their videos, "Wii Breakfast," has garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube, plus various honors, including "spotlight video" mentions in Ireland, India, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

U.S. ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, a hit performer for Comedy Central, has sold out in London and other parts of Europe at least partly because skits, such as "Achmed, the Dead Terrorist," made it into the top 10 comedy videos on YouTube.

And Pablo Francisco, a Latino comic from Arizona, has an avid following in such unlikely places as Stockholm and Helsinki where fans galore have lined up to buy DVDs and get autographs and pictures after his shows.

With borders eroded, festivals -- particularly Just for Laughs -- have showcased more comedic talent from the U.K., Ireland and Down Under. This year, JFL is taking things another step further, adding a U.K. edition to its Flying Solo club series and even more foreign talent. "We will have more international acts in Montreal this year than ever before," Praw says.

The international focus is partly driven by the organizers' belief in the opportunities created by looking beyond borders and the industry's needs. "Fans can increasingly find new comedic voices from abroad," JFL CEO Bruce Hills says. "And the industry, especially in the U.S., is always desperate for the next big thing."

At the same time, the push of U.S. entertainment giants into faster-growing foreign markets has brought an awareness of comedic talents, TV shows and films to audiences in new markets and created the opportunity to produce programming for them.

While it has become easier for comedians to travel and easier for comedy to serve audiences abroad, many agree that the art of creating comedy itself remains deeply rooted in a culture and it is hard work to make jokes travel.

"For a lot of the material I write, I take pop culture and make it more normal and average," Jon LaJoie says when asked why his Web music videos like "Everyday Normal Guy" have become a hit as far as Poland and Germany. "For example, I talk about not wanting to go to the dentist, and I say 'mothafucka,' which most people understand. Also, music is a universal language."

He started seeing the global opportunity when he began receiving fan e-mails from Bulgaria and the like, but his main goal was to use the Web to produce comedy and maybe get discovered. LaJoie is developing a TV pilot and musical feature these days. "If the Internet wasn't around, I would probably have a pile of scripts in my basement and send them out."

Stage comedians have always had to be savvy about adjusting references and wording in their bits to overcome cultural hurdles when playing abroad. Similarly, in the TV space, observers say shows that carefully adjust a format and the writing to the local culture have tended to do better, such as U.K. imports "The Office" and "Little Britain."

Industry insiders point out that the international transfer of shows has been made smoother as the BBC and other foreign broadcasters have become more aggressive about pitching their shows to U.S. networks. "You used to go to MIP TV to find out what's around," says Comedy Central senior vp programming David Bernath. "They all have their offices in L.A. now and call us immediately once they pick up a show."

In addition, U.S. networks -- some more than others -- have continued to experiment with foreign comedy talent on original shows in recent years. HBO had success with its "Flight of the Conchords" series and recently premiered a one-hour New York special from Jim Jeffries, an Australian who made his mark in the U.K., but was so far a less proven stand-up talent in the U.S.

While the borders have opened up, several U.S. TV program pros say this hasn't fundamentally changed the way they approach their job.

"The international potential of any new Comedy Central original is not a driver of decisions," Bernath says. "It may be a downstream benefit though." Similarly, Smith says the main focus is on putting together a good show for the home market. "If we can export it to 10 other countries and make extra money, that is great," but the focus is on getting the initial product right.

Still, some see more opportunities to target groups across countries with comedy programming. Generate founding partner Dave Rath says comedy these days should be seen as being more about addressing a demo than one country or culture. "It seems like the Western world has culturally homogenized," Rath says. TV is inclined to look at males 18-34 for example. "And usually this type of comedy will resonate with that demo in many other countries, beyond the one it was produced for." That may explain why Idiots of Ants has struck a chord with the Facebook and Wii audience worldwide.

Still, reaching comedy fans abroad is particularly tricky if the humor lies in language details and is performed on a stage, where it can't be dubbed.

"In particular, comedy that relies upon idioms or cultural idiosyncrasies generally never works for the foreign-speaking audiences," says Kelly Leonard, vp of improv legend the Second City about stage comedy.

Second City and JFL are trying to tear down the language barriers this summer and experiment with a mostly physical, more "global" form of comedy in their JFL show "Reverie." They hope to eventually take it on tour around the world. Experiences that audiences worldwide likely have in common, such as Cirque du Soleil or ice shows, are expected to be key targets for any lampooning in "Reverie."

"Mr. Bean is the only truly global contemporary comedian," Leonard says of the appeal of nonverbal material. "He is very physical, and that has always done better (when it comes to crossing borders)."