New comedy festival creates splash, but no word on space for Anglo comics

The Festival du rire de Montréal is getting the support of all levels of government, but English-speaking comedian Martha Chaves wonders what will happen to English-speaking Canadian comedians, who had lots of space at Just For Laughs.

'JFL, for us, is like the Holy Grail,' bemoans Martha Chaves, who got her start as comedian at Montreal fest

A number of the Quebec comedians banding together to create a new festival in response to the controversy surrounding Gilbert Rozon, the founder of Just For Laughs, appeared on Tout le monde en parle Sunday. (Radio-Canada)

The comedy festival planned by a group of 50 influential Quebec comedians wishing to distance themselves from Juste pour rire/Just For Laughs is already receiving support from various levels of government and sponsors.

Eleven comedians were on Radio-Canada's popular talk show Tout le monde en parle Sunday, less than a week after the group banded together in response to the sexual assault allegations against Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon 

Quebec's minister of economy, Dominique Anglade, appeared alongside the group.

Quebec's minister of economy, Dominique Anglade, said the government is looking into ways it can help the new Festival de rire de Montréal. (Radio-Canada)

She said the provincial government plans to back the new festival, once it comes up with a business plan. 

Organizers are moving quickly: the Festival du rire de Montréal is already incorporated. Monday, they met Federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and, Tuesday, they're planning to meet officials from the City of Montreal.

'We have a responsibility to accompany them,' says Anglade

Anglade said on Tout le monde en parle that she contacted the group as soon as she heard about the plan because she wanted to be proactive.

"We can't see a group of people mobilize and be interested in doing something together and stay passive as a government," Anglade said.

"We have a responsibility to accompany them."

Martin Petit, the Quebec comic who's been leading the initiative, said the festival is adopting a co-operative model that aims to be more inclusive and welcoming to female comedians, as well as to the new generation of young comics.

Desjardins Group has also pledged its involvement.

Quebec comedian Martin Petit says he felt betrayed when he heard about the series of sexual assault allegations against his old boss, Just For Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon. (Radio-Canada)

Petit said he felt betrayed when he heard about the allegations against his old boss, Rozon, to whom he'd spoken on the phone just three weeks prior. 

"He always finished his phone conversations by saying, 'Thank you, Martin, for your trust,'" Petit said on the show. Rozon was a producer on Petit's show on Radio-Canada, Les pêcheurs.

Notary Paul Larocque, former mayor of Bois-des-Filion, is the fledgling festival's interim director general.

Montreal mayor-elect Valérie Plante was also on the show and said she's ready to support the Festival du Rire de Montréal in the ways the city has done for Just For Laughs, which has mainly been with logistics, such as security.

Meanwhile, Just For Laughs has vowed its show will go on this summer, meaning there would be two comedy festivals in the city, possibly in the same season. 

Anglo comic got start at Just for Laughs

The new festival has not indicated whether there would be an English-speaking element, whereas Just for Laughs has both English and French components.

That's what makes it the most important place for Canadian English-speaking comedians to get discovered, said Martha Chaves, who said Just for Laughs is where it all started for her in the 1990s. 

"JFL, for us, is like the Holy Grail," Chaves told CBC News Monday, adding it's one of the only galas in the country at which English-speaking comedians can showcase their talent to American agents, producers and networks.

Toronto-based comic Martha Chaves says the opportunities for Canadian English-speaking comedians to showcase their talent to American networks are few and far between. (CBC)

Though the festival has shows in both languages, few of those shows are bilingual, Chaves said, and the anglophone and francophone communities are fairly isolated in their own communities. 

"French Canadian comedians are, let's say, a lot more organized than English comics," Chaves said.

United by the province sharing their language, French-speaking comics band together, she explained.

"They have a union, they operate differently, they do huge shows that we sometimes don't have the chance to do."

"It's just like the two solitudes of Canada: they are one, we are the other."

Chaves said ​she's not ready to turn her back on the gala and that if she's asked to perform again, she'll do it. 

She said she was heartbroken by the Gilbert controversy and that it tainted the industry, but that she doesn't want the event to crumble because of the actions of one person. 

"I feel like I'm part of the family of Just For Laughs," she said.

With files from Kate McKenna