Through his 35 years of involvement with the Just For Laughs Festival, CEO Bruce Hills has been a present-at-creation eyewitness to the festival’s evolution. As well, he knows what audiences want when it comes to comedy, and knows how to adapt the festival to fit any kind of situation or circumstance that thrusts itself upon it.
And the festival faced one of its biggest challenges over the past 15 months, thanks to the COVID pandemic.
“When we decided last year to move the festival from July to the fall and make it totally online, it was the kind of appropriate approach for that time,” he said during a recent phone interview. “We hoped to be in a better place this summer. However, because the pandemic is still around, we decided to go one step forward and do this hybrid version that was more well suited to the current situation.”
This year’s 39th edition of the festival, which runs from July 26-31, combines smaller live shows with prerecorded in-person shows that are all going to streamed on www.hahaha.com free of charge.
“There will be first class comedy shows taking place in Montreal featuring great Canadian comics. And because the Canada-U.S. border is still closed, it made sense to have a number of shows — such as the perennially popular Nasty Show — to take place in New York or L.A., with comics that audiences want to see,” said Hills. “And there will be plenty of other shows that comedy fans can catch live or by streaming on the website. We are very happy with the approach we took for this year.”
Hills believes that the idea of putting together a hybrid festival this summer was a result of a great deal of thinking and planning ahead.
“The team did a lot of research and based our plans for 2021 on what we thought could happen. For example, we had a set of plans on what would happen if things started opening up, especially when it came to audience restrictions; and then there were plans that were drawn up in which if the situation worsened, we would have the ability to go totally online,” he said. “As for the performers, we got a lot of audience feedback from last fall, in which they said they wanted to see the comics perform stand-up, and not just sit and talk. So we acted upon that for this year and the fans won.”
Although it is unfair to play favourites when it comes to which singular show is THE must-see to catch, Hills is a great booster for every Just For Laughs show that appears on the festival line-up both past and present. However, one of his top recommendations for this year is the annual Just For Laughs Awards Show, which streams live on July 28 at 7 pm.
“This is a big ticket event. It’s a show that in the past usually took place in Montreal and was only open to industry people who purchased a ComedyPro pass, and now we are streaming it to comedy fans everywhere free of charge,” he said. “One pre-recorded awards show moment I am particularly proud about was when I presented Dave Chappelle the Comedy Person of the Year Award in person at his home in Ohio.”
As of this writing, Hills admitted that plans are currently underway for 2022, in which Just For Laughs will celebrate its 40th anniversary. “The festival will mark its 40th anniversary in a big way,” he said. “It’s very important to us that we have the biggest festival ever. One way of doing that is to have all of the comedians who have been longtime JFL fan favourites return to Montreal, so we can stage the biggest and best festival yet.”