Bigger is better when it comes to Montreal's Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. What began in 1983 as a two-day Francophone event has grown into the biggest comedy festival in the world. From July 12 to 29, about 250 comics from North America, England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and around the globe will preside over Montreal's comedy clubs, black-box theaters, and gala events.
"The fact that we have a bigger festival is a testament not to the fact that it's our 30th anniversary but more that the comedy world is strong and comedy is growing as an art form," says Robbie Praw, the fest's director of programming. Among the boldface names scheduled to participate are Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, Bill Hader, Jimmy Carr, Bob Saget, Mario Cantone, Wayne Brady, Joel McHale, and Lewis Black.
"We are part of the comedy community," Praw says, "and I'd like to think that our festivals represent who that community wants to see."
To ensure that the festival represents the comedy climate, a team of organizers talks to comedians, agents, managers, and club owners throughout the year. Scouts in Canada, New York, L.A., and London are always on the lookout for talent, and they may follow comics for months or even years to chart their growth and development before presenting them at the annual fest. "New Faces" auditions are also held in various cities leading up to JFL. And as soon as the 2012 fest ends, scouts will travel to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival to begin planning for next year.
As part of the 30th anniversary festivities, Patton Oswalt will deliver the keynote address; "Key & Peele" co-creators and stars Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele will receive the Breakout Comedy Star award; Hannibal Buress will be the recipient of this year's Rising Comedy Star award; and Chelsea Handler, returning to JFL a decade after her first appearance there, will be given the 2012 Comedy Person of the Year award.
Praw says that Just for Laughs is honoring Handler not only for her own popularity and growing brand, but because her late-night E! chat show "Chelsea Lately" has become a unique platform for comics to gain exposure.
"When we looked around at the comedy landscape," Praw says, "we saw that she was giving comics a real opportunity to be seen and to then go out across the country and sell more tickets." Natasha Leggero, Jen Kirkman, Jo Koy, Arden Myrin, Chris Franjola, and Fortune Feimster are some of the "Lately" regulars who have toured successfully as the "Comedians of Chelsea Lately" since being featured on the show. "I mean, how many places are there out there for those types of comedians to be seen by that many people?" Praw asks. "We hope our festival provides that, but on television she has been an incredible resource for comedians."
So how does a comic get to Just for Laughs? "Planes, usually," Praw deadpans.
"It's kind of like going to camp every year," says Paul Provenza, a veteran performer who has appeared at JFL about a dozen times, including the past six years. He says comics who spend most of their time on the road can catch up with old friends, compare notes with their peers, and see how others have continued to develop their acts since previous fests. "The only thing that really is a problem is when people expect so much to happen or have some sort of mythological notion of what it means [to be part of JFL] that they can end up being kind of desperate," Provenza says. "And that's when nobody really wants to spend too much time with you."
Yet Praw contends that more comics are being discovered at JFL than ever. When he joined the team in 2004, 16 comedians were chosen to perform at the annual "New Faces" showcase. This year, there will be 40. (Their names will not be announced until the week of the shows.)
Comics are playing to an audience of Canadian comedy fans as well as studio and network executives, agents and managers, and club owners and bookers who come to Montreal specifically to freshen their contact lists. Only a small percentage of those industry heavyweights would sit down to watch the same comics' 5-minute set on a late-night show.
"The way that I think the comedy community views Just for Laughs, and the way we see ourselves as well, is as a step in a comedy career," Praw says. "Nowhere in the business are people being given the development deals that they were given years ago. And for a 'New Face' from Just for Laughs, it could take five or six years for that person to really get the fruits of being seen by the industry. But it's a step, and I think a valuable step, for many comedians out there."
"It's becoming more of what a festival should be," Provenza says, "which is less about business and more about the comedy."
Daniel Lehman is a staff writer at Back Stage. Follow him on Twitter: @byDanLehman