Just For Laughs 2017 – 24 shows in 21 days
Just For Laughs 2017 – Nearly a month after its final show – the Montreal: An Intervention Gala – was staged (which gave me a sufficient amount of time to rest and recover from a whirlwind three weeks of nonstop laughs), the book on the 35th anniversary edition of the Just For Laughs festival has been closed. After seeing a record 24 shows in 21 days (mostly of a stand-up nature), it was great to see some familiar faces, discover some new faces, see some favorite shows and discover some shows that offered new approaches to comedy. And its multitude of spectators seem to agree, with a record 42 sold out shows to prove it, which also attracted many artists to play spectator and check out how this festival always manages to showcase the constantly changing face of comedy.
As is my journalistic tradition (after seeing so many shows and conducting countless interviews with comedians and performers before and during the festival), I always offer my personal highlights based on what I experienced and witnessed during this exhaustive – and fun – 21 days. So here is a sampling of how I spent my three weeks during the madness that was the 35th anniversary edition of the Just For Laughs festival:
“I said it before and I’ll say it again” moment: This year’s edition of the Ethnic Show was the best ever. Anchored by host Alonzo Bodden (who filled in at the last minute when original host Maz Jobrani had to withdraw due to a personal matter), this multicultural comedy mosaic had its strongest line-up ever, as Steve Byrne, Jessica Kirson, The Doo Wops, Mike Rita and Vladimir Caamano constantly delivered the laughs to packed crowds at Club Soda and Metropolis without any let up, and has set the bar high for future Ethnic Shows.
Shows worth staying beyond midnight to catch: “Midnight Surprise” and “Bumping Mics” proved that quality live comedy can happen even after the clock strikes midnight. “Midnight Surprise” certainly lived up to its billing, as audience members were not aware of that night’s line-up until the moment the show began. When I attended the first show of the series, Sugar Sammy hosted, and had Nasty and Ethnic Show comics like Big Jay Oakerson and Jessica Kirson perform sets that were not featured at those respective shows; even Kevin Hart, Michael Che, Moshe Kasher, Natasha Leggero and Jeff Ross made unannounced appearances on the Midnight Surprise stage, much to the delight of each sold out crowd.
Speaking of Jeff Ross, he and fellow comic Dave Attell perfected the art of ad-libbing during their three-night stand of “Bumping Mics” at the L’Astral, as they tried to outdo and out-joke each other, and the fans just ate up every word they uttered. And that show had its share of surprises, too; when I was there for opening night, Judd Apatow did a surprise opening set, and Jim Carrey was in the audience (and no mattered how much Ross and Attell cajoled him to join them onstage, he politely refused so that he can enjoy the show as a spectator).
Favourite new experiences at JFL: After covering this festival for over 15 years, I got the chance to experience Just For Laughs like a typical entertainment journalist would do in New York or Los Angeles. First there were the two press junket-style interviews I did. One was about the CNN series “The History of Comedy” with comic W. Kamau Bell and executive producer Mark Herzog and the other was with the three cast members of the CBS sitcom “Superior Donuts” (particularly, Judd Hirsch, Katy Sagal and Jermaine Fowler); both interviews will be the subject of two separate features that will appear in future issues of the Montreal Times.
Second was as a participant on the red carpet prior to the annual Just For Laughs Awards Show. Placed in the photographer’s pit with my puny 16 megapixel Canon Power Shot digital camera, I managed (with outstretched arms) to take some pretty decent pictures of the awards recipients and their presenters, such as Trevor Noah, Judd Apatow, Ali Wong, Craig Ferguson, Jim Carrey and Alonzo Bodden. Not only was it thrilling to get these once-in-a-lifetime celebrity photos as a temporary member of the paparazzi, I also got to see the quick displays of camaraderie between the comedians (especially between Jim Carrey and Craig Ferguson, and Jeff Ross and Mike Birbiglia).
Biggest golden opportunity at JFL: This year, I got the rare chance to see the most highly-anticipated show of this year’s festival: the double bill of legendary stand-ups Jerry Seinfeld and Gad Elmaleh at the Bell Centre. Whether Jerry was talking about large coffees, golf, or getting his kids to bed; or Gad talking about his American dream in reverse, the reality about life in Paris or why baseball is boring, I got the opportunity to see two giants of comedy perform on the same stage, not as student and mentor, but as equals.
Discoveries of the festival: Finnish comic Ismo Leikola, who was one of the major reasons why both Sugar Sammy International Galas played to sold out crowds; “Randy”, the no-holds-barred puppet from hell who killed at the Jane Krakowski gala and its own OFF-JFL solo show “Randy Writes A Novel”; and Canadian comic Mark Forward, and his dark, off-beat solo show “Mark Forward Wins All the Awards”.
Best way to spend your time between shows: Montreal comic Mike Paterson, as he made the JFL stage (located directly across from the Bouffons MTL site) his own mini comedy world for five hours a night, for 15 consecutive nights. Whether it was the kale smoothies or not, Paterson’s non-stop manic energy kept his audiences entertained every night with his ad-libbed interactions with the spectators, his “Late Night” talk show, and the comeback performances of his lip-synch, air instrument band “Never Surrender”. Hopefully, the Just For Laughs people will realize that the debut of the JFL stage was an immediate hit, and will make Paterson its regular host there for as long as he wants it.
Best Jimmy Carr line: (On the historical fact that Canadians burned the White House in 1814, during the War of 1812): “What would it take for you to do it again?”
Most out of the ordinary comedian’s merchandise sold at the festival: Arj Barker, who after performing his solo show “Get in My Head” at the Theatre St. Catherine and the MainLine Theatre, sold something called “Sticky Arjisms”, a cardboard stock panel with seven stickers that you can peel-and-stick that contain seven different Arj Barker quotes, such as “Get a deck of cards & deal with it”, which sold briskly at about $10 per set.
Indication that Just For Laughs is truly an international festival: The announcement made by Just For Laughs during a press conference on July 26 that it will expand its operations into Africa. A three-year development partnership between the festival and a conglomerate based in South Africa (led by Just For Laughs Africa’s director Moyikwa Sisulu) was unveiled to include a separate festival of comedy shows to take place in Durban, South Africa in July of 2018, as well as the chance to give comics from across the continent (i.e., Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya and Botswana) more opportunities to showcase their comedy talents to a much wider international audience.
Finally, I would like to thank Charlene Coy and her terrific P.R. team (Emile, Stephanie, Emilie, Channa, Michael, Jack, Josh, Lianna and Samantha) for their outstanding help in making my job of covering the 35th anniversary edition of Just For Laughs so much fun once again. As well, thanks to following people for making this year’s festival another memorable three weeks in July: Allan, Bill, George, Neil, Jason, Sheldon, Jake and Abdul. See you next year for JFL 36!
Feature image: Trevor Noah being interviewed on the red carpet