SHOW BUSINESS

Montreal madness

Just for Laughs is now a major comedy summit

ANDREW CLARK August 7 1995
SHOW BUSINESS

Montreal madness

Just for Laughs is now a major comedy summit

ANDREW CLARK August 7 1995

Montreal madness

SHOW BUSINESS

Just for Laughs is now a major comedy summit

It is 2:30 a.m. and the bar at Montreal’s Delta Hotel—home to many of the performers and industry heavies attending the Just for Laughs festival—is buzzing with the serious business of comedy. Quips and one-liners from several comics in the room fly overhead like bullets. Agents flit from table to table, glad-handing and schmoozing. Occasionally, a pair of Hollywood types separate from the scrum to engage in a private chat. Brandon Tartikoff, veteran film and television executive and chairman of the Los Angelesbased television company New World Entertainment Ltd., has seen it all before in five years of coming to the festival. “It’s like a college mixer,” he says, “except here no one wants to go home with an unfunny person.”

Now in its 13th year, Just for Laughs—which drew 420,000 fans last summer, is the world’s largest comedy festival. And the Hollywood presence at the bilingual, 12day event continues to grow. Last year, 400 managers, agents and producers flocked to Montreal to browse through the talent; festival organizers said last week that the number for this year’s event, which wrapped up on July 30, will be approximately 500. The list reads like a who’s who of comedy big shots, including: Robert Morton, producer of Late Show with David Letterman; Charles Joffe, who produces Woody Allen’s movies; and Theresa Eddy, vicepresident of comedy development for Fox Broadcasting.

Just for Laughs draws the industry because it offers a chance to scout a lot of new talents in search of a career breakthrough. A number of stars have been discovered in Montreal, including Home Improvements Tim Allen, Grace Under Fire’s Brett Butler and Saturday Night Live’s Norm MacDonald. But the festival also offers established performers. Among those featured in this year’s 400-plus shows were Americans David Schwimmer {Friends) and Richard Lewis and famed Canadian impressionist André-Philipe Gagnon. ‘The community is there for the specific purpose of sifting through the talent,” says Tartikoff, whose company is now involved in a development

and production partnership with the Just for Laughs festival. Adds the former whiz-kid president of NBC’s entertainment division and chairman of Paramount Pictures: “There’s a great deal of adrenaline and networking.” James Kellern, senior vice-president of the major Los Angeles talent agency APA, has been going to the festival for eight

years. “Here,” he says, “you can see who’s out there, plant the seed, and then carry out those deals over the next few months.”

For Canadian comedians such as Torontobased stand-ups Chris Finn and Tim Steeves, who both made their festival debuts this year, it is an opportunity to impress both American and Canadian power brokers. “It’s like you’ve moved up a league,” says Steeves, 30. ‘You become one of the elite.” Most Canadian comedians are completely unknown to the American industry, and

that anonymity can often work in their favor. “Some of the Canadian comics have been working for 10 years but have never been seen by an American scout,” says Bruce Hills, the festival’s director of programming. “When they finally get seen they’re coming out of nowhere with huge skills.” As he psyched himself up for performing his sardonic and edgily political act at a festival gala last week, Finn, 33, declared: “It’s like Wimbledon or Cannes. If you can do well and keep delivering, in a few days you can swing your popularity.”

The success of Canuck comics including Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey has earned Canada a reputation as a breeding ground for comedians. “There must be something in the Toronto water supply,” jokes Tartikoff who, as a television and film executive, has been involved in projects involving Thomas, Meyers and other Canadians. After four performances at last year’s festival, then-Montreal-based comedian John Rogers signed a deal with the CBS television network to develop a new television show. However, comics who finally secure a toehold in the big time do not always make it to the top right away, and CBS decided not to make a series with Rogers after producing a pilot. Rogers is still under contract with the network while negotiating with others.

While the comedians feel pressure to perform onstage, there is also considerable pressure on agents to perform behind the scenes. Everyone is afraid of missing the next Tim Allen. Last week, at Montreal’s Club Soda, while Finn, a very pregnant Cathy Jones (of CBC-TV’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes) and five other comics went through their acts, agents and producers lurked at the back of the room. They are a tough bunch who are given to talking loudly on their cellular phones during a comedian’s performance. And although 2 they appear to be distracted by 5 each other, they never seem to I miss a killer joke or performance.

I “A lot of deals get made looking I over their shoulder to see what J their competitors are doing,” says Hills. “They’ll see a comic surrounded by a scout and 10 competitors. Sometimes, they’re more concerned about missing than finding.” Their search often keeps them working late, but Hollywood’s lust for money-making talent never rests. By 9 a.m., the restaurant at the Delta is jammed with comedians and industry types, all fantasizing about being, or finding, the next comedian who will make the world laugh.

ANDREW CLARK in Montreal