Midnight in the land of cheese and cigarettes…
It’s my last night in Montreal, a vaguely European city that’s largely famous for French fries smothered in cheese and gravy and the world’s largest comedy festival. Two things that you’d expect to hail from almost any major city in America. But non monsieur – this is the handy work of French Canadians!
For nearly 35 years Just For Laughs has transformed Montreal into a 2-week carnival where the biggest comedians in the world take over the town. For audiences and comedy purists, it’s a chance to get up close and personal with the current cream of the comedy crop. For us “industry” types – this is summer comedy camp. Our Superbowl. Our Woodstock. One massive meet-up filled with handshaking, career making and star fucking. A frenzied orgy of overpriced hotel booze and industry buzz, that eventually crashes and culminates in a hotel lobby littered with business cards and handbills for web series’, podcasts, and shows that have come and gone until another summer.
The Hyatt Regency hotel is the epicentre of it all, and walking through the lobby on the day after the festival is one of the saddest sights you’ll see. (Even by standup standards) Hangdog faces with hangover eyes, clutching silently to suitcases, waiting for an afternoon train or reluctantly looking for a lift to the airport. The party is most definitely over. You can almost hear “Tuesday’s Gone” by Skynyrd as you weave through the crowd of comedians counting down the hours until they’re doomed to get back to their regular routine. The usual clubs. The same old road circuit. The struggle continues.
But during those two weeks of the festival, it’s absolute mayhem. Upcoming comics and some of the best and brightest from across Canada, who fought their way to the festival (or in some cases had the right representation, it couldn’t hurt) their eyes light up like kids on Christmas morning as they share the stage and the green room with their own comedy heroes. During Just for Laughs, everybody who’s everybody is in town – well, unless of course they’re on tour. There are exceptions.
As our friend K. Trevor Wilson put it to me last year “this, Dean, is where the big dogs come to play”.
There’s a celebratory feeling in the air. A sense of community. For two fast weeks, we’re all peers. Part of one big interconnected industry. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a definite hierarchy. Unspoken maybe, but clearly laid out according to the colour of the lanyard on your neck or your rank on the festival lineup. But in the hotel bar between shows, at all the after parties, the panels and workshops and industry meet-ups – it’s all one big extended family.
Aside from the shows (which I will get to eventually, I promise) there are certain moments that happen at a festival of this scale that you just can’t capture anywhere else. Last year, my top two favourites were giving a cigarette to a very “spirited” Dennis Quaid. Or overhearing a girl at a brunch spot admonish a waitress who fucked up her eggs with “Umm excuse me, but I’m friends with Rob fucking Schneider – OK? Thanks!” Beautiful. Or when I stumbled upon Brian Posehn at 2am, simply trying to enjoy his McDonalds and smoke a bowl – and I intruded on him with a tape recorder, startling him like the majestic gazelle he is. To his credit by the way, he laid down a network ID for us even under the circumstances. A helluva nice guy!
This year my own personal best was a savage 18-hour bout of food poisoning on day 2 of the festival. I carpeted my Montreal friends’ condo floor with at least a dozen generous coats of pure bile. Yellowish green geysers of pain shooting out of me, made up mostly of a bad batch of sausage and sauerkraut and hotel whiskey. His dog tried to eat the vomit, and I missed a whole day of interviews. It was a whole to-do.
And every year at #JFL there seems to be a de-facto ‘Mayor’ of the whole thing. A big name comic who makes the rounds and goes out of their way to socialize with everyone, and finds themselves at the center of every party. This year, my money was on J.B Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Pootie Tang). Smoove was a crowd favourite at this year’s festival, and behind the scenes he was every bit the comics’ comic – taking in the experience and kicking back and enjoying the party with every one the lineup. From Canada and the U.S, worldwide. Talking shop with comics of every stripe. That kind of interaction really warms the cockles.
Show-wise I caught a couple of the galas again this year. Those are always a mixed bag. Often hosted by guest celebrities and actors, the Galas are the big ticket shows with a mix of comics that will air on TV, in those primetime slots on the CBC and Comedy Network. The Galas are the signature “Just for Laughs” TV tapings that my generation grew up watching – where we first saw Canadian mainstays like Mike MacDonald, Ron James, Mike Wilmot, Glen Foster, Kenny Robinson, Andrea Martin, Shaun Majumder and Brent Butt. This year featured a Gala bizarrely hosted by cult status character actor Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum was definitely a draw – he possesses the same sort of oddball star status and comedy fan following as Bill Murray and Steve Buscemi. There’s always a piano, and moments of monologue – and while Goldblum didn’t do standup per se, he did invite audience members up to take their turns at impersonating him.
The Gala hosted by David Cross was by far my personal favourite. The lineup was stacked, featuring Cross’ longtime friend Maria Bamford (whose solo show hosted by Jackie Kashian of the Dork Forest podcast was my top pick for this year’s festival) And an as always unfiltered Scott Thompson, of Kids in the Hall and Larry Sanders Show fame. Thompson is a national treasure. Cross delivered a powerhouse set off the top, opening the gala with raw and uncensored standup, vs. the usual kitschy and squeakier clean Gala tapings. He also spent a good portion of the show poking fun at the whole process and mocking the rigid “made for TV” rules put in place (I assume) by the network brass.
For my money, the Canadian comic who consistently slaughtered the most at this festival, and maybe the funniest comic working in Canada today, was without a doubt Mark Forward. I caught him on Cross’ gala, Kevin Hart’s LOL taping, and one of those “Comics to Watch” shows at Montreal’s Comedy Works my first night in town. In fact is was hours before the food poisoning set in – Forward was that good! He literally made me sick with laughter. Actually, it was a bad order of sausage and sauerkraut that did the deed, but credit where credit’s due. Every comedy purist in Canada who hasn’t seen Forward at work owes it to themselves to run out and do that.
Another highlight this year at #JFLMTL was the Homegrown lineup. A competition show that pits upcoming Canadian comics against each other, for a grand prize of $25,000 and a spot on the festival (and it’s Toronto spin-off #JFL42) This year’s Homegrown was a stiff competition, showcasing some of our own best and brightest from right here in Toronto.
And Jeff Ross returned with another festival edition of Roast Battles. After last year’s sell-out “Roastmasters Invitational”, this year Ross went live on Comedy Central, where our own returning champion K. Trevor Wilson (yes the one I mentioned earlier) fought his way towards the finals, squaring off against Mike Lawrence who ultimately took the championship title.
Meanwhile, my radio partner in crime Sandra Carusi (host of our radio panel show Inside Jokes on AM640 in Toronto, and our live “Inside Jokes” standup showcase happening monthly in the GTA) spent much of the fest getting coverage at all hours, between the Hyatt hotel bar and the red carpet. We even pulled Greg Proops (Whose Line is it Anyway? Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn) into the Facebook Live chat booth for an impromptu interview
And, I had a chance to sit down with L.A-based comedian and Chicago export Vic Cohen. In town for the Just for Laughs premier of his new documentary “Committed”. Where longtime friend, mentor and collaborator Howie Mandel spent 13 years documenting Cohen’s relentless pursuit of comedy fame. We covered the festival, the doc, L.A life, the late show circuit and TV writers’ rooms on a full episode of Forever Young podcast right here on Talkhole.
That, in a French vanilla hazelnut shell was Just for Laughs 2016. And every year, we here at Talkhole Podcast Network plan to worm our way into the action more and more! After all, we ARE Canada’s comedy podcast network. Comme la radio , mais génial!