Montreal’s festival of the funny bone

Brian D. Johnson August 1 1988

Montreal’s festival of the funny bone

Brian D. Johnson August 1 1988

Montreal’s festival of the funny bone


It was 2 a.m. in the hotel bar. The jugglers had gone to bed. But a few stand-up comedians were still sitting around, unwinding from a night's work at Montreal's Just for Laughs comedy festival, when a slim young man with a Scottish accent offered to show off his act. Glasgow's Stevie Starr began by swallowing 10 one-dollar coins. The first slipped down silent ly. The others clinked as they formed a pile in his gullet. Like a human slot machine, Starr thumped his chest and coughed them up, one, two or three at a time, as requested. He repeated the trick with his room key, then a light bulb, then a Rubik's cube-switching the cube's configuration before regur gitating it. Finally, Starr placed a deck of playing cards in his mouth, promis ing to "swallow the whole pack and bring up any card you ask for." The spectators gasped. Starr removed the cards from his mouth and smiled. "Just joking," he said.

Some people will do anything for a laugh—and that was the object of Just for Laughs, an annual event that has turned Montreal into an international crossroads of comedy. The festival, which closed on July 24, is the largest—and the only—event of its kind in the world. Converging on the city to perform during the past two weeks

were some 250 performers from 15 countries. They included stand-up comics and fall-down clowns. There were mimes, mimics, jugglers, musicians, big-city satirists and village idiots. Many were unknowns hoping to be discovered and sent up to serve as court jesters in talk-show heaven. But the roster also featured such es-

tablished stars as John Candy, American comedy veteran Steve Allen and French mime legend Marcel Marceau.

Six years ago, Just for Laughs began as two nights of comedy shows in French, with a budget of $400,000. This year, it was an 11-day, $5-million, twolanguage extravaganza that attracted at least 300,000 spectators. Television rights were sold to eight countries. And the final gala show, hosted by John Candy, was broadcast on the weekend by the CBC and by the Home Box Office pay channel, which has 15 million U.S. subscribers. Scouts from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman came to scour the festival for talent. In fact, Starr, the Glasgow regurgitator who climaxes his act by swallowing and disgorging live goldfish, appeared on the Letterman show the day before his Montreal appearance last week. Budd Friedg man, founder of the Improvisais tion comedy club in Los Angeles,

0 also was recruiting in Montreal.

1 Refilling his glass with Mumm’s

1 champagne in the hotel bar, he o said: “Every year we find an act

2 or two that we fall in love with. This Starr kid—he’s a freak act,

but he’s good. We’re going to showcase him in L.A. and book him in Vegas.” While Just for Laughs serves as a bustling mirth market for American impresarios, the festival’s organizers have tried to expand the event’s local appeal. This year for the first time, its activities have spilled onto the street,

picking up the precedent of the immensely popular annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, which takes place earlier in July. And the stages were set up on the same sealed-off section of Montreal’s rue St. Denis, under giant inflated models of the festival’s green cartoon mascot. Outdoors, crowds on café-lined St. Denis thrilled to the serene antics of the Institut de jonglage, a four-member troupe from France that elevates the art of juggling to surreal heights. But the man billed as the festival’s most outrageous performer was Jango Edwards, an expatriate American based in Am-

sterdam. At the end of his act, Edwards stripped down to a star-spangled jockstrap with matching suspenders. He stood on a chair, asked for a drum roll and prepared to execute his grand finale—a dive into a Dixie cup of Evian mineral water. The prodigal son of a Detroit sod merchant, Edwards combines American brashness with the baroque lunacy favored by such Europeans as film director Federico Fellini and artist Salvador Dali, who have both served as his patrons. In fact, Edwards is set to costar as a madman in a new film by Fellini next year. Immensely popular in Europe, he was almost unknown in North America until the Montreal festival. His style embodies the inherent schizophrenia of Just for Laughs—a Quebec festival stretched between the sidesplitting extremes of Europe and America. On the one hand, it featured San Francisco’s Reduced Shakespeare Company, which offers a slapstick solution to the tedium of iambic pentameter. The troupe compresses the Bard’s complete works into a 90-minute frolic: Juliet knees Romeo in the groin and Shakespeare’s histories are enacted as a football game with a crown as the ball. On the other hand, there was Marcel Marceau, who describes his art as a most serious endeavor. “Mime,” Marceau told Maclean’s, “deals with the profundity of human nature and the most intimate inspiration of the soul.”

After a session of mime, a festivalgoer could always lighten up with some loud American one-liners. Louie Anderson told Quebecers, “You shouldn’t have the two languages, really—just combine them.” Emo Philips said, “I was just in Winnipeg, which to me sounds like a cheap contest for pi-

rates.” And Canada’s own Lome Elliott got into the act with a comment on the new one-dollar coin. “This baby was supposed to boost confidence in the Canadian economy,” he said. “It looks like you could unwrap it and there would be chocolate inside.”

Local performers held their own at the festival. Wearing ski boots strapped to a teetering platform, the Cirque du Soleil’s Denis Lacombe electrified the audience with his impression of an orchestra conductor leaning into the storms of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Meanwhile, Quebec’s popular comedy stars regaled audiences with sketches and stories. “One-liners don’t really exist in French,” says comedian Dominique Michel, who cohosted the French-language galas. “Even when we say ‘un punch, un gag,’ we use the English words.”

The festival’s longest wait for a punch line was a 50-hour marathon of improvisation by five actors from Quebec and France seeking an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. Performing in shifts, they took breaks for massages onstage, where contributions of food and drink from spectators piled up like offerings at a Hindu temple.

Gilbert Rozon, president and founder of Just for Laughs, takes pride in the zany diversity of his festival. “We want Montreal to become the funniest city in the world,” explained the dapper 33year-old lawyer. “If Rio can become the capital of samba and Cannes the capital

of film, Montreal can certainly become the capital of comedy.” One of seven children born to a construction foreman in a village outside Montreal, Rozon says that he grew up committed to the work ethic—his first job was as a gravedigger at age 13. Rozon began his entertainment career promoting outdoor pop

concerts, and in 1982 he lost nearly $1 million on an event marred by bad weather and a transit strike. But he persuaded bankers to lend him more money to launch Just for Laughs, which remains a nonprofit venture funded by sponsors and governments. As he discusses his plans for expanding the festival’s comedy programs in the schools, Rozon sounds extremely serious. But he and his cohort, programmer Andy Nulman, enjoy the odd practical joke. When John Candy was shown to his hotel room last week, it turned out to be an 8,000-squarefoot ballroom outfitted with a massive bed, Shet-

land Ponies, a golf cart and great bowls of candy. The large comedian, who ended up staying in smaller quarters, said that he was not offended. After all, it was just for laughs. —BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Montreal