When Just For Laughs started small in Montreal

Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival became a must for aspiring standup comedians almost from its beginnings in 1983.

By 1991, the festival was a main event on the international comedy circuit

John Candy in front of a Canadian flag
John Candy hosted a live Just For Laughs special that aired on HBO in the United States and CBC-TV during the 1988 festival. (Les Films Rozon)

In almost 40 years since its founding in 1983, Just For Laughs has grown beyond its Montreal roots. A series of shows is about to take place in Toronto over a 10-day period starting Sept. 22.

The brand has extended not just to other cities in Canada (i.e. Toronto and Vancouver) but to places as far-flung as Bermuda and Sydney, Australia.

It's come a long way from the festival's start in a single theatre on Montreal's St-Denis Street. 

'Rough beginnings'

The 1980s origins of the Just For Laughs festival

15 years ago
Duration 2:28
Just For Laughs began with a four-day French-language event called Juste pour rire but quickly grew into an international comedy showcase. Aired on CBC's The National on July 24, 2007.

In 2007, the CBC's Lynne Robson visited the festival's headquarters and heard about those early years.

"Everyone who worked at the festival way back when wears the rough beginnings like a badge of honour," said Robson.

Bruce Hills was one of those team members.

"The second year, I was the publicist, even though I'd never been a publicist," recalled Hills. "And [I] was taking care of Jerry Lewis and John Candy and all these people, and no one fired me."

Celebrity impersonator André-Philippe Gagnon, whose act consisted of performing all the voices heard on the American charity single We Are the World, broke out at Just For Laughs, said Robson.

But a more enduring legacy from the early days of the festival was Mr. Bean, a non-speaking character that actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson tried out for the first time in Montreal.

"He only wanted to come and perform on the French side," explained Hills. "His manager said he had a non-verbal character. He wanted to test it and see if people would find it funny."

"And so, Mr. Bean was born in Montreal," said Robson.

Bigger names and a jump to TV

New Montreal festival gets wider attention in 1986

36 years ago
Duration 1:19
CBC's The Journal gives viewers across Canada a glimpse of Montreal's Just for Laughs festival of stand-up comedy. Aired on July 18, 1986.

In 1986, Paul Griffin, host of CBC's The Journal, told viewers the festival boasted 80 shows with comedians coming from nine countries.

Just For Laughs had even grown big enough to bring in SCTV alumnus Andrea Martin as host and American comedy veteran Jerry Lewis as a headliner.

According to a 2018 Montreal Gazette list of year-by-year events at the festival, Lewis received "scathing" reviews for his act — to which he replied in a "most misogynist manner."

Griffin ended the report by noting that later that year, the CBC would be airing a special filmed at Just For Laughs. The hour-long show brought viewers highlights from the festival.

'Very big and very Hollywood'

Making it in comedy at Just for Laughs in 1991

31 years ago
Duration 2:19
Stand-up comedians aim to succeed by headlining at the Montreal festival. Aired on CBC's The National on July 19, 1991.

For anyone trying to make a career in comedy, Just For Laughs had become "a main event on the comedy circuit," by 1991, said Kevin Newman on CBC's The National. It was "very big and very Hollywood," he added. 

Reporter Neil Macdonald noted that talent scouts and producers were known to be in the audiences.

"Schmoozing is important," said Macdonald. "Comics have to butter up and be seen, looking for a break in a heartless, itinerant business."

He introduced viewers to two comedians who were trying to make an impression at that year's festival. Sean Keane, Macdonald said, had been told Just For Laughs was "his big chance."

"I guess it's big," Keane said. "I'll find out how big it is when … when I get big."

Man in a clown costume rides a unicycle outdoors
A clown on a unicycle was one of the free outdoor events at Montreal's Just For Laughs festival in 1991. (The National/CBC Archives)

The reporter's own brother, Norm Macdonald, was also among the comedians playing the festival in 1991.

Norm Macdonald, who died in 2021 at the age of 61, went on to become a cast member of Saturday Night Live in 1993. But at the time of his reporting, Neil Macdonald seemed to be skeptical about what Just For Laughs could do for ambitious comedians. 

"Soon, if he's lucky, he'll be a success," he said, talking about Keane's well-received act. "Living in a hotel room, out of a suitcase, all for those few minutes under the lights."

P.K. Subban in a suit
Former Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban hosts the P.K. Subban All-Star Comedy Gala at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal on August 1, 2016. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

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