Could a new comedy festival threaten Just for Laughs?

Comedians from across Quebec have signed on to participate in a non-profit comedy extravaganza, the Festival du rire de Montréal, next summer.

Festival du rire de Montréal to showcase 50 Quebec comedians next summer

In the promotional video for the Festival du rire de Montréal, prominent Quebec comedians say they want to make sure 'our cultural heritage will not belong to foreign interests.'

A group of about 50 influential Quebec comedians has banded together to create an independent comedy festival, in response to the controversy surrounding sexual assault allegations against Gilbert Rozon.

The group says the non-profit Festival du rire de Montréal will be "much simpler" than Just For Laughs, the annual comedy jamboree founded by Rozon that takes over Montreal every July. 

Quebec comedian Martin Petit, one of the promoters of the event, told Radio-Canada the new festival will run under a co-operative management structure

A group of Quebec comedians, including Martin Petit, has banded together to create a non-profit comedy festival based in Montreal. (Radio-Canada)

"It's a movement that people have asked us for on social media," Petit said. "Dozens of people were telling me on my Facebook: 'Organize yourselves, have a festival. We'll come watch that.'"

'A direct response' 
Quebec comedian Réal Béland is one of the organizers of the new festival. He hopes government money normally used for Just For Laughs could benefit the new event. (Facebook)

About 50 comedians from across the province have signed on to participate next summer, at a location that's still to be determined.

"The Festival du rire de Montréal's creation is a direct response to the scandal that recently struck Quebec," Petit said in a statement.

He said the group sees its project as a concrete, positive step forward, one that focuses on change, while still making Quebecers laugh.

Just For Laughs calls new festival 'unfortunate'

Rozon announced last month that he would sell his shares in the festival, amid allegations he sexually harassed or sexually assaulted 10 women.

​In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Just For Laughs said a new owner would be announced soon.

The statement said the festival will go ahead as planned next summer.

"Our partners have committed to support us as we move forward to plan the best year yet," the statement read.

"It was unfortunate to learn that some Quebec artists have chosen to create their own event. That being said, they have a right to create a new platform for their art," it continued.

Battle for cash?

Réal Béland, another Quebec comic involved in organizing the new festival, told Radio-Canada that the new festival hopes to attract the government funding that currently goes to Just For Laughs.

"We have to put the money in the right place, and we have to make sure that bad behaviour doesn't happen," Béland said.

A spokesperson for federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said in a statement Tuesday that Joly welcomes the new festival and would meet with organizers next week.

Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon has been the subject of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. (Radio-Canada)

Just For Laughs is a private conglomerate made up of several companies with a number of international projects.

The comedy festival that takes place every summer in Montreal — billed as the world's largest — is affiliated with the organization but run by a not-for-profit company that depends largely on government funding 

According to government documents, Just For Laughs received about $4.5 million a year in funding from all three levels of government in 2016.

Two weeks ago, Quebec Tourism Minister Julie Boulet said Just for Laughs was an important engine of tourism, but she said continued provincial funding was by no means guaranteed.

"Depending on how things play out and how the organization emerges from this, we will see how the government contributes," Boulet said.

Comedians soul-searching

Mike Patterson is a Montreal comedian who's performed dozens of times in both French and English at Just For Laughs.

Montreal comedian Mike Patterson told CBC he 'loves' Just For Laughs but was disturbed by the allegations against Rozon. (Mike Patterson website)

He told CBC the allegations against Rozon were "terrible," and have put comedians like him in a difficult position.

"All of a sudden we have to not like Just For Laughs?  I love Just For Laughs," Patterson said.

He said comedians in Quebec are all talking on Facebook about what to do about the two festivals now seemingly at odds with each other.

"Just For Laughs pays comedians a lot of money to work. I'm not necessarily as rich as Martin Petit. But also Martin Petit is a giant leader in our community, and we should all follow what he does," Patterson said.

Montreal comedian Derek Séguin told CBC the Rozon scandal has 'tarnished' comedy in Quebec. (Derek Séguin website)

Derek Séguin, another Montreal comedian who performs in both languages, told CBC the Rozon scandal has "tarnished" comedy in the province.

He hopes there's room for both festivals.

"For me, a new festival run by comedians for comedians to make comedy fans happy and make comedy accessible — it's a good thing," Séguin said.

"But the idea of killing a 35-year, world-renowned brand because of one person's transgression seems a little rash to me."

With files from Radio-Canada