Brownstein: Reports of turmoil at Just for Laughs have comics waiting for a punchline

Club owners and comedians are wondering why the festival has been so silent lately, while word swirls about “major financial problems.”

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There have been few chuckles in Montreal’s comedy community with news and speculation that Juste pour rire and its anglo festival counterpart Just for Laughs could be facing rough financial climes.

Le Devoir has reported that Charles Décarie, the president and CEO of Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs, left his job in early January. The story also noted that “at least 10 employees” of the group were let go prior to the holidays in December and that the company is “experiencing major financial problems,” with other difficult decisions to be announced shortly.

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There has been no official statement from the Just for Laughs Group to confirm or deny the story. Bruce Hills, who is at the helm of the anglo side of the festival in Montreal and other cities in Canada, was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

However, one former well-placed Just for Laughs employee on the anglo side, who can’t be named, told a few friends here that “there are internal challenges and serious problems for sure at the festival, and there is no question about that.”

Mike Ward, on the other hand, has heard nothing. Ward, without question the biggest comic on the franco side in Quebec and co-owner of the standup club Le Bordel, was mystified after reading Le Devoir’s report.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” he said Tuesday. “I asked my manager, Michel Grenier, if he knew anything, and he said he hadn’t heard either.

“What I think is that if (Juste pour rire) is planning more layoffs — which they would wait until the last minute to announce — I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe then the Montreux Comedy Festival in Switzerland would make an offer to buy it. They’re trying to move into Montreal. I think Juste pour rire needs an owner with money and isn’t afraid to spend.”

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The Just for Laughs Group is 51 per cent owned by Bell Media and Groupe CH, with the remaining 49 per cent owned by Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood’s major talent organizations. At one point, comedian Howie Mandel had a small interest in the festival, but there is no news if he still does.

No question, there has been much silence on the Just for Laughs side. Although major festival programming announcements are made in April and May, there are usually some communiqués before then, such as the name of an A-list star attending in July or the host of a major club series.

There is also usually news about festival showcases for local comics taking place at city clubs. But so far, there has been none.

“The festival has not reached out to us to schedule a showcase yet,” Comedy Nest co-owner David Acer said Tuesday. “Typically, the festival would have reached out to us by now and there would be a showcase upcoming shortly.

“The Comedy Nest has been doing festival showcases since the start of Just for Laughs, so this would be a first not to have one this year. And as I understand it, having spoken to other club owners and comics, there are no other showcases around the city in the works either, so I can’t believe any Montreal showcases are scheduled.”

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It should be mentioned that Just for Laughs has been active on the non-festival touring front. There are four Matteo Lane shows at the Olympia in March, as well as tours bringing Seth Meyers and Brad Williams to other Canadian cities.

It’s hard to imagine Juste pour rire and Just for Laughs would disappear from Montreal in the foreseeable future. For starters, they receive considerable grant funds from all levels of government. Along with events like the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Osheaga and Lasso, they bring an enormous kick to the local economy every summer, and it’s highly doubtful the various levels of government would stand idly by if their existence were in turmoil.

On a creative level, however, there could well be a problem looming for the anglo portion of the fest, which has long described itself as the biggest comedy showcase on the planet. That standing may be in severe jeopardy with a Netflix festival set to run May 2 to 14 in Los Angeles.

It’s called the Netflix Is a Joke Fest, and it’s likely no joke for Just for Laughs.

Produced with Live Nation, this festival, last held in 2022, will feature over 300 live shows at 35 venues. It would probably be easier to name the few major comics not appearing there than those who are. Among the headliners are Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Kevin Hart, Trevor Noah, Ali Wong, Jim Gaffigan, Nate Bargatze, Sebastian Maniscalco, Sarah Silverman, John Mulaney, Taylor Tomlinson, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Mike Birbiglia, Chelsea Handler, Tom Papa, Wanda Sykes and, yes, Tom Brady, who is slated to toss a few lines.

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As an added enticement for the performers, many of their shows will likely become comedy specials to be streamed on Netflix.

“This is a special time for comedy, both for Netflix and the genre at large,” Robbie Praw, Netflix VP of standup and comedy formats, said in a statement. “We have the privilege of working with comedians who are selling out arenas, winning awards and building fandoms in the millions. In the 10 years that we’ve been doing standup, we’ve seen the art form reach levels we didn’t think possible. This festival aims to capture this moment by bringing together the world’s best comedians.”

If Praw’s name rings a bell, it should. He was JFL’s programming wizard for years before heading to Netflix a decade back. He also plays a major role in programming Netflix’s comedy specials.

“The Netflix Is a Joke Fest is an absolute monster, a mega-festival. It’s the first real threat to JFL since the Aspen Comedy Festival years ago,” said a prominent local comedian, who wished not to be named.

“Netflix has drawn the biggest comedy guns in the industry … veritable howitzers. I suspect this has really got the attention of JFL. That’s some really tough competition and could really impact its festival standing in the world. JFL has to be under some duress now.”

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