Montreal's Just for Laughs has A-list talent


Ten years ago, manager Lee Kernis' partner arrived at the Montreal Comedy Festival with a comedienne who had just five minutes of material and a standing studio offer of $75,000. "In two days, we were able to take that offer and make it over $200,000," marvels Kernis, now a manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners. "It was an absolute feeding frenzy."

The feeding frenzy has abated now, as Internet resources available to self-promoting comedians have pushed Montreal's Just for Laughs festival down the assembly line for nascent talent, with younger comics being forced to forget the prospect of a Montreal panacea.

That was abundantly clear at a JFL audition that took place in May at West Hollywood's Laugh Factory, as comedian James Harris noted. Glancing up at the roster of hopefuls there, he said: "I recognize every single name. That makes me think there's some really funny guy in Iowa who's not catching a break, and I don't know if Montreal is even looking for them."

Shifting from being a place of discovery to a powwow for established comics has led JFL to raise its standards, in turn drawing even more established names -- a far cry from the near past. (See highlights from this year's event.)

"When I did Montreal in 1990, people were saying, 'We've never heard of these guys, what do they do?'" recalls writer-producer Hugh Fink (NBC's "Saturday Night Live"). "The last time I went, it was like, 'We know these people, what are they up to?'"

As expectations for the bloated comedy deals of the 1990s fade and the dynamic comedy marketplace swells across numerous platforms, JFL has actively worked to keep pace, expanding this year with a Just Comedy conference. Such efforts have kept the festival relevant, drawing nearly 2 million visitors each year, only 25% of whom are tourists, according to research firm Decima.

Comedy insiders now believe that, like many other long-running festivals, JFL has crossed a Rubicon, going from a motley arts assembly to being Ivy League. It has benefited from the closure last year of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, which left JFL as North America's only major international comedy festival. While Aspen was staggered by small-town attendance and high-level shifts at sponsor HBO, JFL has found support outside the industry, thanks to a large population of local fans.

A spurt of newer comedy festivals hoping to steal some of the thunder from up North (including November's Comedy Festival in Las Vegas) poses no danger to JFL, says Lou Wallach, senior vp original programming and development at Comedy Central. "Montreal has solidified itself as a place for highly credible talent. For guys on my side, that makes it a safe haven to see what's out there."

As networks like Comedy Central continue to supplement their primary interests with other media ventures, that haven for reliable talent has become increasingly important -- a fact that is not lost on JFL.

"For a number of years, the mandate for our programrs has not been to find the next sitcom star, but rather the next comedy star in any medium," Hills says.

This is smart supply for the modern demand, Wallach says.

"Our audience is watching comedy on iPods, cell phones, broadband, and buying live-show tickets. They're not interested in being tied to one format, and neither are we."

JFL spins off with the Just Comedy conference, hoping for a room of jokers

At a time of profound change in the comedy world -- as comedy breaks out beyond its three-camera mainstays, expanding into the Internet arena and a burgeoning number of broadcast formats -- the Just for Laughs festival is seeking to help industry professionals regroup with its inaugural Just Comedy conference.

The two-day event (July 17-18) at the Hyatt Regency Montreal features panels on subjects ranging from webisodes to live touring and attempts to help industry insiders navigate a comedy climate far more complicated than it was even a decade ago. Back then, the comedy scene was all about television sitcoms and little else, including comedy clubs -- many of which had closed down in the late 1980s.

"You have to keep in mind the changing needs of the industry," says Lou Wallach, Comedy Central's senior vp development and original programming. "Over the last few years, we've grown our record label and touring series. Those are very different needs than we had 10 years ago."

In form, Just Comedy does not differ substantially from most major industry conferences: Informative sessions and panels cover nuts-and-bolts topics, including project financing, building a writers room and adapting live shows to film and television.

But what sets Just Comedy apart from other industry conferences is the surplus of creative talent on hand, including Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin, who will deliver the conference's opening keynote address, and father-and-son filmmakers Ivan and Jason Reitman, who headline an "In Conversation" panel.
The conference will also bestow its first annual Comedy Person of the Year award on Judd Apatow.

"We're trying to put important creative people in our rooms," says Just for Laughs COO Bruce Hills. "By having Jason and Ivan Reitman here, and Judd Apatow and Steve Koonin, our view is that will create opportunity that hasn't existed in the past."

There are also exclusive networking events, such as "Take a Decision Maker to Lunch" and the speed-dating-like "Face to Face" pitch sessions, which Just
Comedy executive producer Deborah Day says are central to the conference's industry appeal. "Apatow and the Reitmans are going to be draws for sure, but so will the more intimate events where people are going to make headway with their business."

Also of interest to major comedy broadcasters will be an event called "The Hook Up," which showcases the work of established companies that have achieved success in smaller markets. This effort to bring VIP attention to proven-but-unknown talent permeates Just Comedy's purpose, Hills says.

"Jason Reitman brought four short films (to Montreal) prior to being a feature-length director," he explains. "Hopefully, he'll come here and find the next Jason Reitman."

Opening Acts

Judd Apatow
In addition to being named the first Comedy Person of the Year by the festival, Apatow
is returning to stand-up in "Apatow for Destruction" with cohorts Seth Rogen and Craig Robinson. Additionally, his "Pineapple Express" (left, Sony) will receive a special
advance screening.

Russell Brand
The "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (Universal) actor was named best newcomer at the British Comedy Awards in 2006 and sold half of his shows' tickets over a month in advance.

Brendon Burns
The Australian comic makes his North American debut in the "Flying Solo" series. His show, "So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now," won a prestigious award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year.

Danny Hoch
Big Apple native Hoch, one of very few standouts at the festival who isn't a stand-up comic, brings his "Taking Over," a one-man play about gentrification in New York City, to the fest. "This guy has no peers right now," says JFL's COO and the man who books the performers, Bruce Hills.