When Just For Laughs started small in Montreal
By 1991, the festival was a main event on the international comedy circuit
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.
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
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'
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."
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."