Backstage

A master of the art of laughter

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 20 1998
Backstage

A master of the art of laughter

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 20 1998

A master of the art of laughter

Backstage

Anthony WilsonSmith

The thing to know about Andy Nulman is that he never does one thing if he can do two, three or even more at once. In the Montreal office where he presides as chief executive officer of the city’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, he can often be found conducting phone calls in French while scribbling thoughts in English, and gesturing at an assistant to tell him who is holding on another line. At any time in the last year, his day included everything from planning this year’s events to producing related television spinoffs to pitching new deals to lastminute revisions of a book he has just written. “What can I say?” says Nulman in his trademark rapid-fire manner. “I’m a guy who would rather speak up than sit down.”

That aggressive energy is essential, because for the 38-year-old Nulman there are never enough hours in the day when the Comedy Festival is on (as it is from July 15 to 26) and never enough days in the year to fully plan the next one. It is 16 years since Montreal entrepreneur Gilbert Rozon started the Juste pour rire festival, with an all-Frenchspeaking lineup, and 14 since he took on Nulman—a McGill University marketing grad who had been struggling with his own public relations firm—to add an English-language component. Today, the French half still flourishes, and the English side has exploded.

This year, more than half a million people will attend events—including more than 400 registered industry executives from television and agencies looking for The Next Big Thing.

The festival is now recognized as the preeminent event of its kind, with guests over the years ranging from the venerable—Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore and George Burns—to the profane— Roseanne—along with Jim Carrey, David Hyde Pierce (Niles Crane on the television hit Frasier) and Tim Allen of Home Improvement. A key incentive, says Nulman, is that “it gives Hollywood people a chance to break new ground: here, they’re not shaclded to their usual persona.” This year, in addition to outrageous comic Don Rickies, headliners include Ray Romano (star of Everybody Loves Raymond), and ex-child star Fred Savage, now in the series Working. Nulman also makes a point of booking unknown, cutting-edge acts—with no idea how they will work. He describes some as “woowoos,” meaning “they’re so awful you hide under the table and shout woowoo so you don’t have to hear or see ’em.”

Nulman’s life reflects the festival’s fortunes—and the linguistic context of the city. In his personal life, he is as traditional an Anglo Montrealer as they come. He has been married 13 years to his childhood sweetheart, Lynn Harris, an education technology specialist. The couple, with their sons, Aidan, 10, and Hayes, 7, live a close-knit, relentlessly middle-class life in the suburbs of Montreal’s West Is-

Andy Nulman, a traditional Anglo Montrealer, has made the city’s comedy festival an unmatched bilingual success

land, where he plays goal in pickup hockey games twice a week. Professionally, the always meticulously dressed Nulman’s life is highoctane: he often goes to New York City, London, Los Angeles and Toronto to meet performers, agents, and network executives. In Montreal, Nulman, a devout federalist, presides over an office that is 80-per-cent francophone—and many are sovereigntist. On the night before Quebec’s June 24 Fête nationale holiday, he was the sole anglophone at a party of several hundred that featured deputy premier Bernard Landry, the most outspoken sovereigntist in the Parti Québécois cabinet, and Guy Bouthillier, head of the ultranationalist Société St-Jean-Baptiste. “Occasionally, I ask myself what a little Anglo Jewish guy like me is doing in places like this,” says Nulman. “The answer is that everyone is courteous and respectful.”

The festival’s way of confronting Quebec’s language wars has been to offer both sides a chance to mock each other, and themselves. Last year featured the Fête Carrée, a play on words on the disparaging Québécois term tête carrée (meaning literally “square head”) used to describe anglophones. Nulman invited musical satirists George Bowser and Rick Blue to work up appropriate songs, encouraged the audience to wear white square-shaped bags on their heads, and organized skits that featured everyone from Jean Charest to hardline separatist Josée Legault, who played the part of Queen Elizabeth. The event, billed as “the largest gathering of Anglos since the referendum . . . and twice as funny,” succeeded on both counts.

This year, the festival is presenting the debut of the play The Underdogs, by Montreal author and playwright William Weintraub. Based on a book Weintraub wrote almost two decades ago, it is a blackly satirical look at a separate, future Quebec ruled by a wildly zealous government obsessed with linguistic purity: the tiny English community alternates between cowed submission and the desperate acts of the underground Anglo Liberation Army. Says Nulman: “There is something to offend and amuse everybody, but I think people are ready to be more amused than annoyed.”

That upbeat philosophy is reflected in Nulman’s upcoming book How to do the Impossible, available in August in English and French. He describes it as “a smart-ass self-help book to be read in an hour.” Typically, Nulman, who has resisted offers to relocate in Toronto and Los Angeles as a producer, draws delight rather than despair from Montreal’s duality. On the night of the Fête nationale party, he left early—not out of unhappiness, but because “my friends needed to shoot pucks at my head” in his scheduled hockey game. “I love this town,” he says. ‘You live so many different lives for the price of one.” As always, Andy Nulman understands—and delights in—the art of the deal.