Brownstein: No laughs with news of Just For Laughs cancellation

This is dreadful news for the festival, which began in 1983 and brought the biggest names in the comedy world to town.

Article content

There will be no chuckles in the streets of Montreal this summer: the Just for Laughs Group revealed Tuesday that the 2024 editions of Just for Laughs/Juste pour rire have been cancelled.

The company also announced it is seeking protection from its creditors as it begins formal restructuring under Canada’s Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

Article content

The Just for Laughs Group has laid off 70 per cent of its work force — about 75 people — and has cancelled seven franco shows that had been scheduled, spokesperson Julien Provencher-Proulx confirmed.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Evidently, reduced revenues along with the pandemic and tough inflationary times all led to these decisions. The company is hoping to bring the festivals back in 2025. It also plans to maintain operations, although in a far more scaled-down format, throughout the restructuring process.

People who already purchased passes for the festival can return them to the box office where they were purchased or contact their credit card company, Provencher-Proulx said.

The Toronto Just for Laughs festival, scheduled for September, is run by a separate organization and has not been cancelled, Provencher-Proulx said.

But this is dreadful news for the Montreal festivals, which began in 1983 and brought the biggest names in the comedy world to town. It is also dreadful news for the city economy, which has benefited in a huge way from the from the funds the fests generated from locals and tourists alike.

The Just for Laughs Group is 51 per cent owned by Bell Media and the CH Group, with the remaining 49 per cent owned by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of Hollywood’s major talent agencies.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Sadly, the warning signs were there, after it was learned last week that Charles Décarie, the president and CEO of the Just for Laughs Group, had left his job in early January with rumours abounding that the company was experiencing major financial woes.

Those rumours were further reinforced with word from a former, well-placed Just for Laughs employee on the anglo side telling friends that “there are internal challenges and serious problems at the festival.”

Nor did it bode well that there had been total silence on the Just for Laughs side. Although major festival programming announcements are made in the spring, there are usually some communiqués prior, such as the name of an A-list star attending or the host of a club series. Nor was there any news about showcases taking place for local comics at city clubs, which turned out to be a prescient sign of things to come.

On top of everything else, Just for Laughs, which has long described itself as the biggest comedy showcase on the planet, was to face stiff competition on that front with the Netflix is a Joke Festival. Running May 2 to 12 in Los Angeles, the Netflix fest will feature more than 300 live shows at 35 venues. It would probably be easier to name the few major comics not appearing there than those who are. As an added enticement for the performers, many of their shows will become comedy specials to be streamed on Netflix.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Bruce Hills, who is at the helm of the anglo side of the festival and will apparently continue to hold his position, was unavailable for comment.

“I’m just devastated, completely devastated for so many reasons,” Andy Nulman, who began at Just for Laughs in 1985, said Tuesday after hearing the news. Nulman essentially ran the anglo side of the fest, from programming to promotion. He left about seven years ago. “Most important is what Just for Laughs means to the city financially as well as emotionally, and I know this from the vantage point of being on the board of Tourism Montreal.”

He’s now hoping others can jump in to save it.

“Just for Laughs is one of the major draws for the city,” he added. “It is an economic vehicle for the city, bringing in tens of millions of dollars every summer. My prayer is that someone local or a group of locals can understand these benefits for both the francophone and anglophone communities and can also understand the mood it brings to the city. And I actually believe there are people out there who can keep it going.”

Pantelis, the popular podcaster and standup comic who has performed at Just for Laughs, raised an interesting point about the grant funds from all levels of government that come to the festivals annually.

Advertisement 5

Article content

“I don’t get it, particularly because the festival gets this money to help, so there’s something a little screwy here,” said Pantelis. “It just seems a little crazy that this would happen. The festival has become so renowned with all these big names having performed here. And it’s such a big part of the city.

“I have a feeling that there was a tipping point for the festival, that maybe it just got too big and just too hard to manage. Then it’s inevitable that there needs to be a correction.”

Pantelis’s buddy Mike Ward, without question the biggest comic on the franco side in Quebec and a serial Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs performer, didn’t mince words: “I’m freaked out. The festival has been so big for so long. It’s really going to hurt a lot of comedians, particularly on the French side in this province. So many got their breaks there. I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

But Ward has hope: “I really believe the Montreux Comedy festival people in Switzerland could buy the festival. They want to move into Montreal. I think Juste pour rire needs an owner with money that’s not afraid to spend it.”

Advertisement 6

Article content

Comedy Nest owners David Acer and Phil Shuchat were also taken aback.

“I woke up to a lot of texts and kept hearing my phone buzz and I was thinking ‘how many packages is Amazon delivering today?’” Acer quipped. “But, seriously, we program comedy 52 weeks a year so this isn’t going to change that. But we have lots of friends at Just for Laughs and we really feel for them and hope they’re able to navigate through this.”

Added Shuchat: “Montreal is a festival city, and Just for Laughs has been at the heart of that for a long time. I really hope it can bounce back.”

Standup comedian Joey Elias, the king of the anglo comedy scene in the city, was saddened by the news. He’s been featured 17 times at Just for Laughs.

“News like this is never going to come at a good time, but this is the worst,” he said. “This city needs this festival during the summer. We’re not going to get it now. We’re going to get the Grand Prix and the Jazz Fest, but for the last 40 years, the festival has been a mainstay. Now there’s going to be this big giant void where people are going to ask what they’re going to do without the festival.”

As someone who has covered the festival since its inception and has had more than his share of laughs taking in and speaking to the giants of the comedy world, this will indeed leave an enormous void.

The reality is this city can use the laughs more than ever now. Fingers crossed they will return next summer.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 7

Article content

Article content