Brownstein: What could fill the Just for Laughs void this summer?

Cancellation of the comedy festival’s 2024 edition left a lot of unanswered questions — and a lot of speculation about what could come next.

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Questions are swirling as shockwaves are still being felt around the city and beyond over last week’s announcement that the 2024 edition of the Juste pour rire and Just for Laughs festivals has been cancelled this summer, thus leaving a mammoth cultural and financial void here in Festival City.

So what went wrong?

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The assumption has been that the long-running festivals were well-oiled machines — after all, Juste pour rire started in 1983 and Just for Laughs launched two years later.

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Evidently not. Groupe Juste pour rire, which runs the festivals, owes about $22.5 million to creditors and as such is seeking protection from them.

More shocking still is that prior to seeking creditor protection, a bailiff seized more than $800,000 from the company after it failed to make a court-ordered payment to a former employee.

The company also announced the layoff of 75 employees and the cancellation of this year’s Just for Laughs fest in Toronto.

So why haven’t the governments leapt in to bail the festivals out?

Many inquiring minds are miffed that the provincial government has not stepped in to bolster the company and to help save the festivals, all the more so since it seems to have few qualms about spending $870 million to replace the Big O roof or paying the L.A. Kings $7 million to play two pre-season games in Quebec City. This, in spite of the fact that the economic returns wouldn’t appear nearly enough to justify those latter investments. On top of that, a forecasted ginormous provincial budget deficit — either $11 billion according to Finance Minister Eric Girard or $8.8 billion according to Premier François Legault’s math — would likely put the kibosh on any assistance. But, in fairness, nor have the feds jumped in to help here, either.

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So why wouldn’t Bell Media, the CH Group and Creative Arts Agency (CAA), the seemingly deep-pocketed owners of Groupe Juste pour rire, jump in?

Likely for the same reasoning as the provincial and federal governments. Clearly, the company’s management and business model is broken to have accumulated such debts. Some major restructuring needs to be undertaken if the fests are ever to get back on their feet again. Plus, it’s worth noting that among the creditors are Bell and Équipe Spectra of the CH Group, not to mention the province’s Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) and the Business Development Bank of Canada. 

It’s also worth noting that one inside source says the company receives about $3 million in grants from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. And can’t forget box office revenues from the indoor shows. OK, reduced revenues from the shows along with the pandemic and tough inflationary times have taken a toll, but all the same some explaining is certainly in order here.

Groupe Juste pour rire hopes to bring the festivals back next summer if it can bring its finances in order. We’ll see.

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But hasn’t the comedy business been on the upswing these days?

Indeed it has been. The irony is that comedy has been crushing it of late — but on a more local level, save for the occasional visits of American wits like Chelsea Handler and Bill Maher. There are now numerous clubs in town serving up anglo and franco mirth throughout the year. And there is no stopping Sugar Sammy or Mike Ward as they continue to sell out everywhere they go throughout the city and province.

So what gives?

Successful though these shows are, they don’t draw the big tourist dollars in July, according to Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière.

The event that most sparks Montreal’s economic engine is the Grand Prix, which Lalumière estimates to bring in about $80 million to city coffers. The comedy festivals are in a slightly different class, estimated to generate around $40 million. But nothing to sneeze at, either.

“We are a city of festivals, that along with Montreal’s vibe and gastronomy is what we promote outside the country,” Lalumière says. “The Grand Prix is in the first line of events for the city, but not far behind is the comedy festival, then the jazz festival, Francofolies, Osheaga and the others.”

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Lalumière says the comedy festival “is so important to the city and we will definitely miss it in July,” but he feels very confident that commercial interests will step in to help save it.

“It’s more than a festival — it’s a franchise. But why Just for Laughs is so important to us is that its anglo program draws people from New York, Boston, L.A. and other parts of the country. It is an excellent, U.S.-market-driven event,” he says. 

“The jazz will attract more people from France and other countries. If we can’t do Just for Laughs this summer — although I still like to think there’s a chance — I think it will be replaced by something else. But there’s no doubt in my mind that we have to protect that franchise, because it’s too strong to lose.”

Wasn’t the Just for Laughs portion of the festivals once deemed the largest comedy event in the world?

Yes, but the sad reality appears it can no longer claim to provide the biggest platform of A-list performers around the globe. It certainly can’t compete with Netflix, which has the financial resources and, even more significantly, a streaming service as an enticement. That will be much in play with the Netflix is a Joke Fest, running May 2 to 14 in L.A. and featuring over 300 live shows with just about every standup star around the globe.

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So what if the comedy festival doesn’t return?

“I just had an important meeting, and there are already people interested in filling that gap,” Lalumière says. “I certainly hope that we can save part of the festival for this year, but if we don’t, there are already other festival people raising their hands.”

What happened to JFL?
Andy Nulman, co-founder of the Just for Laughs fest, has ideas about what could fill the void. “Never mind what comedy is in 2024, but what will comedy be in 2034?” Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Lalumière isn’t able to provide more specific information. According to comedian Ward, among others, there has been some buzz about Switzerland’s Montreux Comedy Festival expressing an interest in coming to Montreal.

“But we can’t forget that Just for Laughs is a different model from our other festivals. It has TV and other content, where a lot of the other festivals are more local. Comedy brings tourists from the international front. Osheaga is also up there on this first line, kind of like the Cole Caufield to the Nick Suzuki line,” adds Lalumière, making the sort of analogy relatable to Habs fans.

If the festivals were to come back, is a new model in order?

Andy Nulman co-founded Just for Laughs, the anglo component of the comedy fest, in 1985. He knows full well what kind of tourist draw it is to Montreal.

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“I don’t know if it’s going to come back,” says Nulman, who left Just for Laughs seven years ago. “I hope so, but I just don’t know.”

Nulman is not without suggestions for a new approach.

“Yes, but let me put this in context. When we started Just for Laughs, it was a totally foreign concept — not only for Montreal, but anywhere. People looked at us like we were nuts. Yet it was blue ocean territory.”

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Nulman feels the key to revitalizing the fest is to determine what’s foreign now.

“Finding something that doesn’t exist today, where people will look at you like you’re crazy and say it will never work. When we started with galas and theme shows, they were considered weird and not happening anywhere else,” Nulman says.

“Never mind what comedy is in 2024, but what will comedy be in 2034? What is the stuff that no one is looking at right now but that is going to be the next big thing?”

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Along that line, Nulman feels that AI and other new tech — the YouTubes and TikToks of tomorrow — must figure prominently.

“A lot of things can fit into comedy. You’re not doing a comedy convention. Comedy is wide. When I started at JFL, there were no Asian or Muslim comedy scenes. No longer. I would be looking for people who are not in the game now.

“I would also be thinking about something more concept-driven than more star-driven, which is becoming increasingly more pricey. Like something non-verbal to draw tourists from everywhere,” he adds.

“In my day, one of the crown festival jewels was the non-verbal Gags shows. We talked about doing a Gags festival with pranksters from all over the world doing live shows,” he says, referring to the festival’s TV take on the American hit Candid Camera series of yore.

Nulman, forever fantasizing about concepts far outside the box, has an idea that would likely go down well with many politicos here.

“Like doing something to capitalize on our unique culture, where tourists can learn a perfunctory amount of French in a festival atmosphere. Like adding an educational component to comedy,” he adds.

“Mass appeal is really the key. Such as doing something live that can’t be done on the Internet but something that is applicable to the general public. Comedy in 2024 is very different from comedy in 1984. And how will it be 10 years from now? Go chase that. This is the challenge now.” 

[email protected]

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