This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bruce Hills, president, Just For Laughs.
Bruce Hills is a fervent Montrealer who loves his job.
Largely due to the international Just for Laughs powerhouse festival in Montreal, comedians the world over know of the overwhelmingly French-speaking Quebec city.
They both aspire to entertain at the celebrated annual summer event; or at multiple Just For Laughs festivals and comedy events in Toronto, Vancouver, Austin, London, and Sydney, Australia.
Just for Laughs (and its French affiliate Juste Pour Rire) are foundational components of Montreal’s summer experience, and arguably the world’s premier showcase for international comedy, attracting over two million people, having booked thousands upon thousands of comics, pantomimes, and acrobatic acts since its start in 1983 as a two-night event in a single theatre on Montreal’s St-Denis Street.
Among the comedic figures drawn to the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal over the years have been: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Rowan Atkinson, Tim Allen, Margaret Cho, Ray Romano, Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Craig Ferguson, Jim Jefferies, Jimmy Kimmel, John Cleese, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Drew Carey, Jim Carrey, Mike Birbiglia, John Mulaney, Jason Alexander, Martin Short, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Adam Sandler, Lily Tomlin, Howie Mandel, Bob Newhart, and Jerry Lewis.
Beginning his Just For Laughs career as a driver in 1986, the shrewd, and enormously gifted Hills climbed to the pinnacle of Just For Laughs after holding numerous prominent roles within the organization including as publicist, director of programming, VP of international television, COO, and president since 2018.
Today, Hills oversees all of the company’s English business properties across global markets, focusing on growing the business in all divisions, Including its digital and televised content.
What better time for Just For Laugh than today with comedic entertainers having attained an elevated place in global culture through increased subscription streaming services, and greater access to television, and social media.
With Hills at the helm, Just For Laughs’ global footprint has exploded to over 150 countries with over 1,500 television specials broadcast by key networks around the world.
As well, the company has partnered with Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, and with Kevin Hart’s HartBeat Productions, to name a few.
Hills has received three consecutive Canadian Screen Awards for Best Variety or Entertainment Special for stand-up specials featuring Trevor Noah, PK Subban, and Aisha Brown.
He served as a consulting producer on NBC’s “Bring the Funny,” and as an executive producer on Amazon’s Prime Video 6-episode docuseries, “Inside Jokes.”
In late 2022, Hills was inducted into the inaugural Canada’s Comedy Hall of Fame as a comedy creator for his years of contribution to Just For Laughs.
This induction heralded the honor of Hills representing Just For Laughs when the company was bestowed with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in the same year.
After being forced to postpone live events and follow up with an online version in 2021, the festival came out like a racehorse in 2022 as it celebrated its’ 40th anniversary with more than a dozen in-person live stand-up shows in Montreal alone, plus a variety of virtual programs including the Just For Laughs Awards Show.
And now Just For Laughs will take place this year in Montreal, July 14th to 29th.
Was there a period within the two-year absence of the full-fledged Just For Laughs due to COVID that you worried about its future?
Like everyone, we didn’t know when we would be up and running again. That’s for sure. But the good thing for JFL is that as much as we couldn’t do the live events we could do things online. A big part of our business is recorded content. We have huge catalogs of recorded content. We looked at every new thing that we could make within the restrictions of COVID. We sold a TV series to the CBC which was shot entirely under COVID. We looked at any way we could monetize our audio content and our video content.
It is fortunate that Just For Laughs is not reliant solely on live events.
We have an impressive catalog of material, and we basically had a great opportunity to spend some time really thinking, and planning ways to improve our performance in these areas to help carry us through. We had that luxury, and we were able to get out there monetizing our content around the world during the pandemic at a time when people were watching a lot of it. So luckily, due to the fact that we have a very wide span of businesses, that piece of business helped us enormously. Also with the government, and the different programs that they had in play, we were very grateful for that as well.
It is impressive that Just For Laughs further rebounds in 2023 by launching an ambitious four day March festival in London (March 2-5) at the O2 complex in Greenwich for the first time. It will feature 28 shows, a host of multiple events, panels club nights, podcasts, discussions, a UK incarnation of the New Faces showcase, and the showcasing of top stars from podcasting superstar Adam Buxton to high-energy character comedian Zach Zucker.
All very, very impressive.
We are such fans of British comedy, and British comedians have played such an important role with our festivals in Montreal, and around the world that it was only natural that, if we could figure out the right way to do it, we would do a festival in London. When we connected with AEG and the O2, we saw that we had a lot of common ground, and what came out of that is a festival that we have produced together that is well-founded in British comedy and local acts; from very famous to up-and-coming. Then we sprinkle in what we always do which is a really interesting array of people from all over the world, including Canadian Ryan Reynolds.
What were some of the obstacles in launching such an event at O2 London? After all, London is a big city. There’s plenty of people but it’s often hard to reach them.
The obstacles are really about we don’t need to go unless we have the right plan. So when the right opportunity arose, it was a natural. We never were going to force it because London, New York, and Los Angeles, they are markets that are enormously distractive. People have an incredible number of other things that they can do. It’s hard to get someone’s attention. So if you can’t go in and put up a premium project, there’s no point. So when we had this opportunity with AEG, and the O2, and we talked about what the concept would be, we felt very comfortable we could put up a premium event, and we are very proud of what has been produced.
The O2 connects to Europe. Europeans visit London, and fans fly there for shows. Just For Laughs at the O2 will likely be a big economic driver. It is not just the business that you are doing here. It is the fact that many of the people coming from outside of the U.K. will be staying in a hotel, probably for a number of nights; and they all will going out to restaurants, and going to other places in London.
Absolutely. So yes we are hoping to draw comedy fans from all over Europe, if possible.
Comedy has somewhat followed film and music into global markets with the advent of TV and other video streaming services rolling out across the world.
At one point, we had British comic stars that were popular in Canada but they weren’t known in America. For decades few British comics crossed over to America, excepting Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and Benny Hill. However, such Brits as Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, and Billy Connolly were popular in Canada as were shows like “The Goons,” and “The Two Ronnies.”
Also, films in the British comic tradition of music hall and bawdy seaside postcards, featuring Alec Guiness, Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, George Cole, Alastair Sim, James Robertson Justice, and Stanley Holloway were popular in Canada. As were the Ealing film comedies, and Peter Seller’s early UK films. Also widely popular in Canada were the 31 “Carry On” films released between 1958 and 1992.
Before the enormous international breakthrough of Monty Python, there was “Beyond The Fringe,” and then Peter Cook and Dudley Moore being popular in Canada, and then being on Broadway. Later, there was Alexei Sayle, and Rowan Atkinson being popular in Canada as well.
Absolutely. The British comedy scene had a huge impact on us (Canadians), Larry. Not only did we have a TV show on Channel 4 in England for many, many years, but we could sprinkle in our lineup every summer some of the most original comics in the world. So it broke up what would come at times from the North American comic scene which was a lot of repetition. A lot of comics working in similar styles. Ready for prime time. And then we’d have these crazy wild acts coming from England, just shaking it up like Monty Python did two decades earlier.
There has also been the impact of The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Established in 1947, it is the world’s largest arts and media festival. In 2019. it spanned 25 days and featured more than 3,841 different shows in 322 venues.
Absolutely Larry, but the most important point I want to make about the British comedians is that they were just fresh. They weren’t like the others. They sometimes failed because they were so fresh that our audiences didn’t always relate. But the lucky thing about what happened to us with British comedy was that the Brits did better in Montreal because Canadian comedy audiences always had American, and British influences. They had SNL (”Saturday Night Live”) and Python.
In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Canada’s CBC-TV would broadcast “Hancock’s Half Hour” and “Hancock” from BBC-TV with such supporting actors as Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Liz Fraser, and John Le Mesurier. The final television series, broadcast in 1961, featured such celebrated episodes as “The Blood Donor,” “The Radio Ham,” and “The Bedsitter.”
There you go. So when you think about that, the chances of connecting with a Montreal audience, if you were a really unique UK comic, were much higher than with an American audience. If they were in some comedy club in New York City, they wouldn’t connect. They wouldn’t connect for two reasons. They wouldn’t connect because some people had issues with the accent, believe it or not. And two, they were just too weird for the average (American) comedy fan.
Our audiences—Canadian audiences—were looking for originality. They were looking for something fresh. They already loved British comedy. So it was a more natural connection. That led to the Brits wanting to come to Montreal to be seen by the industry (at Just For Laughs). To be seen by Canadian comedy fans, hoping that they would be discovered. Or, at the very least, just having a new experience. They’d be performing in North America, and it would also be a very nice way to break into America because the American comedy industry was in our rooms, and that could lead to many positive things happening with their career in the U.S. That was what was so great about British comedy.
A lot of British music acts broke out from Montreal including the Police, Pink Floyd, Chris deBurgh, Supertramp, and Gentle Giant.
I just watched that brilliant Apple series (“1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything”) primarily based on music from the 1970s, It was superb.
While a UK-based radio plugger, my wife Anya Wilson broke T. Rex’s “Ride A White Swan” single in 1970. It reached #2 on the UK chart.
I knew a little bit about T. Rex, but to see the full story, and to see what they did, was interesting.
Anya followed English blues icon Long John Baldry to Canada.
Oh wow. I used to see Long John Baldry play at some nightclub on the west island of Montreal. I was such a huge fan, and it was so cool that he had that legendary history. As you know, he wasn’t a huge star, but he had this legendary career, and he was phenomenal live. So it was a chance to see a guy like that in a nightclub which was so much fun.
Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris. It’s Canada’s epicenter of art and culture with more restaurants, cafés, and entertainment events than anywhere in the country. It has the lowest rents of all the major cities in Canada, and there’s an affordable and extensive transit system.
Montreal has something special, and so many of performers on the Just For Laugh stage there talk of their love of Montreal. They are captivated by this city which is renowned for its booming nightlife, its food scene, its European-like appeal, and its enthusiastic audiences.
Of all of the things that they would say. Listen Larry, in the summer I have to tell you, and I say this to anyone who wants to listen, especially on a government level when I am fund-raising of course, Montreal is an asset for me. I can sell Montreal. When I sell Just For Laughs, and it’s in Montreal in the summer, within all of these festivals with beautiful hotels, some of the best foods in the world. Regularly winning top city in North America for foodies. It is beautiful to walk around. It is relatively safe. It’s an asset, man.
Festivals and grand events are the cornerstone of life in Montreal which is also busy each summer with such events as Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, Les Franco de Montréal, Festival TransAmériques, St-Ambroise Montréal Fringe Festival, Suoni Per Il Popolo, Festival des Musiciens du monde, International des Feux Loto-Québec, Carifiesta, Festival Fantasia, Osheaga, MUTEK as well as four-day M for Montreal in November.
Quebec, of course, is a bilingual province, culturally distinct from the rest of Canada, with a largely French-speaking population, and while Montreal is a North American city, it’s not like one visiting entertainers have experienced before.
Absolutely, especially for an American who doesn’t travel much. It is sort of France-lite. A lot of comics have said, “It’s Paris without the attitude.”
Comics appearing at Just For Laughs in Montreal, however, must be sensitive to local cultural facts. In 1991, American-born. British stand-up comic and magician Jerry Sadowitz was knocked unconscious onstage by an irate audience member during a performance which mocked French Canadians.
His offense was opening with, “Hello moose-**ckers. I tell you why I hate Canada. Half of you speak French, and the other half let them.” The rarely heard follow-up line, which Sadowitz claims is what actually led to him being attacked was, “Why don’t you speak Indian? You might as well speak the language of the people you stole the country off of in the first place.”
Conversely, the late stand-up comedian/actor John Pinette would go on and on in praising Montreal for several minutes at the start of his sets at Just For Laughs. He talked not only about the city, but spoke a bit in French, and related local stories.
Numerous comics have done the same.
Absolutely, and John Pinette is really missed. I was with his manager Larry Shapiro recently in Los Angeles. We talked about how much we both missed John. Obviously, Larry and John were so so close. Just For Laughs worked with John on concert tours in Canada, and at our festivals. He was such an important part of our festival history. There’s a documentary coming out next year or so that we are really excited about.
John Pinette died in 2014 in Pittsburgh after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Pinette, who underwent treatment for prescription drug addiction a year earlier, was found dead in his hotel room. He was 50.
One of the more intriguing moments of the early days of Just For Laughs happened in 1987 when English actor, comedian, and writer Rowan Atkinson sought to try out a non-verbal character developed while he was studying for his master’s degree in electrical engineering at The Queen’s College, Oxford. He asked to perform on the French-speaking segment of the festival rather than the English-speaking program.
His act in front of a primarily French audience at the festival was a test platform for his character Mr. Bean—though the character’s name was not decided until after the first TV episode had been produced. Rowan wanted to see how his character’s physical comedy would fare on an international stage with a non-English speaking audience.
Oh yeah. That is a story that goes back to a situation where we were reaching out to book Rowan, and he said he would come to Montreal, but he would love to perform in front of a French audience because he wanted to showcase a character that he was developing a TV show around, and he wanted to show the British broadcaster (ITV) that was going to finance the show that it would have international potential because he’s funny to people. That it would work. I guess that the British network said, “How do we know that the rest of world is going to relate because they don’t know you?”
Basically, they wanted to prove a concept that Rowan could connect to audiences that didn’t know him.
The moment he walked onstage in England or in Montreal at that point, when he was becoming a bit of a live star, they knew it was Rowan, and they were ready to laugh. If he walked out in front of a French audience they didn’t know who he was. And he killed. Absolutely killed. And was able to take that tape (of the show) back, and sell “Mr. Bean” as a show that had huge international potential. Of course, he was right, and that show ended up being a massive hit around the world as you know for many, many years.
The advent of TV and subscription services programming in the past two decades has enabled Just For Laughs to tour more extensively and be able to successfully establish festival events in London, Sydney, Austin, Toronto, and Vancouver.
The pool from which you can hire talent has changed dramatically in recent years with the proliferation of new subscription streaming services, and greater access to television, and social media, coupled with an abundance of recordings, the growth of various comedy clubs, and social media.
As well, any project you create now, there are so many different outlets available for comedy distribution today. So many different places to sell to now.
When Just For Laughs launched, there wasn’t much going on. It was a much smaller business with just a handful of gatekeepers. The people who could determine whether to let a comedian into the business or not were limited to the bookers of “The Tonight Show, “The David Letterman Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” and to a handful of executives at Showtime and HBO.
It was primarily a nightclub business. Very few comedians then could sell out a theatre, and there was very little crossover international business.
Comedians popular in the U.K., with the exception of Monty Python, were virtually unheard of in America.
The strategy of the ‘80s for comics was to play the comedy club circuit, and try to perform on night-time TV or in a TV series. During that decade there was a comedy boom, and as clubs sprouted up throughout North America, acts like Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison, Roseanne Barr, Dennis Miller, Sandra Bernhard, and Jerry Seinfeld surfaced.
By the ‘90s, if you were an unknown comic, it was a tough road because other than “Saturday Night Live,” “SCTV,” “In Living Color,” as well as a handful of spots on cable and nighttime TV, breakout opportunities were limited. Few comedians then considered interacting with emerging new streaming platforms or social media on the internet.
Today a comic can be a major star based purely on their YouTube and TikTok views. Comics are regularly programmed on such transactional platforms as iTunes, Amazon, Google, PlayStation, and Xbox as well as with such major telco and satellite providers as AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Dish, and Verizon; and with Netflix, HBO, Discovery, BET+, A&E Networks, Disney+, Hulu, MTV2, Viacom, Showtime, and History channels.
Nevertheless, if you are an unknown comic, it is still a tough road.
There aren’t that many opportunities there for the average comic. Netflix has done great things for comedy globally, but it is very selective. Comedians now have careers throughout North America and in international markets. When you and I first started watching comedy, sometimes comics that were household names in America would come to Canada, and not sell tickets because their body of work on HBO wasn’t seen. There was no way to see it. You had to get a VHS tape to watch Richard Pryor, or you listened to his albums.
A comic would tell me that they just did (played) Germany, and they were a huge megastar there, and yet they were still doing 100 seat rooms. Well, Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle can now do an arena in Germany because the country has English-speaking people, and Germans are pretty astute at being prolific learners of language. There are enough of them that watch these artists on Netflix. and now they can fill an arena for someone who would have a hard time filling a nightclub a few years ago. The business has changed, and the business is significantly bigger in terms of the financial. It is a massive business. It’s a multi-million dollar business.
Just for Laughs programming is now telecast in pretty much every international market, and you present shows and festivals in London, Sydney, and Austin. Not only has its foreign business footprint grown, but its ability to access international markets for crossover talent has dramatically evolved. You have a lot of talent to pick from nowadays.
Yeah, no question. We’ve always scoured the globe for comedy. In the old days, we received PAL VHS tapes from the rest of the world, and then we’d be touring, and scouting extensively around the world. Every year we will cover Canada from one end to the other, and that has happened forever. Thankfully, not by me anymore, but by someone way more in the loop, and who has a passion for that. To go out and really grind it to find the next great voices of Canada which they do so well.
There’s just so much comedy around. Last year there were 137 comedy albums submitted for Grammy consideration.
That’s because people have realized that they can turn their video special into an album.
“The Closer,” the Netflix stand-up comedy special written and performed by Dave Chappelle won Best Comedy Album at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards held at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Feb. 5th, 2023. Directed by Stan Lathan, the video/recording was recorded over 7 sold-out performances at The Fillmore Detroit from August 10-15, 2021. “The Closer” is Chappelle’s 6th and final special under his 2016 deal with Netflix.
Not only get a nomination. if they are so lucky, but also send it to all of the different audio outlets in the world. People are smart in realizing that when they record something for someone that there are many different ways it can be distributed. especially to SirusXM where royalties are pretty significant. For a lot of Canadian comics, that’s a good part of their earnings for the year. So it is quite important.
As the chief programmer for Just For Laughs in 1991, you have spoken of sitting in your apartment one night, sifting through a box full of videos sent by aspiring comics. You were on the verge of falling asleep, but suddenly one tape caught your attention an unknown 19-year-old, Dave Chappelle.
As you told Montreal Gazette entertainment writer Bill Brownstein in 2015, when Dave performed 7 shows at Théâtre Maisonneuve in Place des Arts, “It was a seven-minute tape and I was blown away. It was brilliant. Then I watched a second seven-minute set he sent me. It was brand new material and it was even stronger than the first. It was just so original and funny and so superior to anything I had seen in a long time. Immediately, I knew Dave Chappelle was not only bookable for the festival, but was destined for greatness.”
In 2015, Bruce Hills was honored by Dave Chappelle as the “Comedy Curator of a Generation” at the Montreal Festival. Two years later Chappelle turned up to present Just For Laughs with the Canadian Academy Icon Award, at the Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto.
In 2013, festival programming chief Robbie Praw snagged Dave Chappelle to do a single Just For Laughs show at Place des Arts in Montreal. No small task since Chappelle had been largely reclusive for almost a decade, performing only sporadically in the interim.
After a single tweet, the show sold out. Chappelle ended up doing 10 shows.
As it was, Chappelle’s JFL performance helped re-launch him into the comedy stratosphere. He went on to sell out a 10-night stand at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The New York Times hailed him as one of the greatest comedians of his generation.
There are certain shows that you have work hard to sell, and that you have to push, but If the show is hot, you don‘t need to do anything. The public knows about it. So even a single tweet can be effective.
When we brought Dave back twice to do a smaller theatre, like a 1,600 seat theater, he broke all records. At one point, he sold 10 shows. Yes, they sold out very quickly and yes it could have been a single tweet. I don’t remember. Obviously, Dave is a mega ticket seller, and we were very happy to have him play that role for many years because it was a return to the festival. He has been such an important part of our event since he was 19.
What led to Just For Laughs launching a festival in Austin, Texas?
This is our second year. Austin is a fantastic comedy market. The fans are smart. They are rabid comedy fans. The Moontower Festival was there for years before us. They have great taste, and they are friends. We thought there was an opportunity to make an even better event still in the spirit of what Just For Laughs does, and very importantly Moontower.
Moontower Just For Laughs Austin will run April 12th-23rd this year. Among the performers scheduled are: Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, Leslie Jones, Samantha Bee, Jenny Slate, Vir Das, Chelcie Lynn, Ben Schwart, Punkie Johnson, Jon Rudnitsky, Marcello Hernandez, Molly Kearney, Michael Longfellow, Devon Walker, Jay Pharoah, Randy Feltface, Matt Rife, Monét X Change, Ziwe, Lisa Ann Walter, Tone Bell, Ashley Gavin, Dane Baptise, Shalewa Sharpe, Vanessa Gonzalez, Avery Moore, Jay Pharoah, Randy Feltface, Patti Harrison, and Sarah Sherman.
For years “Keep Austin Weird” was the city’s unofficial motto—you saw it on bumper stickers, guitar cases, and VW buses, often alongside another slogan, “Onward Thru the Fog.”
Part of what makes Austin so vibrant are the cool comedy shows at The Velveeta Room. and The Hideout Theatre with younger local comics including Yola Lu, Angelina Nartin, Carlos Morrison, Robyn Reynolds, Lisa Friedrich, Justin Hicks, Chris Hills, Lando Shepard, Elizabeth Spears, Brett Vervoor, Carlton Wilcoxson, Hunter Duncan, Chris Cubas, Vanessa Gonzalez, Avery Moore, and “Funniest Person in Austin” winner Tyler Groce.
Quite a thriving local comedy scene in Austin.
Oh yeah, it’s a great city. As much as music drives Austin, comedy is not far behind. On top of that, Joe Rogan has moved there to do his podcast (The Joe Rogan Experience). He’s also opening up a comedy club.
Podcast host and UFC color commentator Joe Rogan started his entertainment career as a stand-up comedian and still does gigs today. He often hosts comedic guests on the JRE podcast.
He debuted his new Austin podcast studio during an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience with comic Tom Segura on April 10, 2021. It’s a significant improvement from his previous studio at his $14.4 million estate. in 2020, he shared a video of a couple of gigantic pythons above the ceiling.
Rogan is planning to launch the Comedy Mothership club at the Ritz Theater in Austin. Asylum Real Estate Holdings, who are linked to Rogan, reportedly bought the venue in late 2021. The business will be managed by Matthew Lichtenberg, but Rogan will likely be the main face and promoter of the club. The historic venue is currently undergoing renovations. There is no timeline for when the venue and comedy club will open.)
Lots of comics from L.A. have moved to Austin in recent times because the scene is so great. Tom Segura moved there, and he is one of the biggest standups in the business.
The 43-year-old Tom Segura has been on the road almost constantly since August 2021 for his “I’m Coming Everywhere Tour”—with the U.S. and Canadian legs of the tour alone including 250 shows.
This year’s Just for Laughs Vancouver marks the return to a full-scale festival as well as to the February dates that comedy fans have traditionally looked forward to for the popular shows.
Running February 16-25th, Just For Laughs Vancouver (formerly known as JFL Northwest) has an exciting lineup of superstars and up-and-coming comedians.
These include Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Jack Whitehall, Margaret Cho, Pete Holmes, Tim Dillon. Adam Pally, Steve Rannazzisi, Baron Vaughn, Jonathan Van Ness, Bassem Youssef as well as Canadians Sugar Sammy, Steph Tolev, Dave Merheje, Darcy Michael, and Jeremy Baer
In 2015. Just for Laughs united with NorthWest Comedy Festival to present new comedy festival, JFL NorthWest.
For two years earlier, the NorthWest Comedy Festival had made a solid connection to the city by presenting Craig Ferguson, John Mulaney, Maria Bamford, Hannibal Buress, Natasha Leggero, and Patton Oswalt.
Why the union of the two?
There was a good festival there run by our partner Heather Wallace who came to see us. She thought there was an excellent opportunity for both of us. We had always wanted to be in Vancouver. The Just For Laughs touring shows sell very well in Vancouver. I think that it (the union) offered us an excellent opportunity to increase our footprint across the country. To also have a meaningful place for the west of Canada, to have a JFL home, and to include a lot of that talent. And again to do what we do.
Despite the interruption of COVID, the pairing seem to be working well.
Some of the biggest acts from North America and the rest of the world come to that festival. It has grown a lot, and it’s getting better every year. We are excited about this year’s edition.
With festivals and shows directly connected to the Just For Laughs brand across Canada, you aren’t competing with other comedy headliners in casinos or in local comedy clubs. You come out clean.
Yeah. Listen let’s be quite honest, casinos are competition because they pay a lot of money. They don’t have to worry about the show making full financial sense because it’s a casino.
There are low production costs involved with casino dates for stand-up comics. They turn up with a microphone. We saw Jeff Foxworthy at Casino Rama in Orillia, Ontario a few years ago. He did two shows that night, and I found it hard to believe what he was paid.
I know. Jeff has made a lot of money in his life. He’s also one of the biggest record sellers of all time in the comedy space.
Jeff Foxworthy has reportedly sold over 8,250,000 albums to date. His best-selling album “Games Rednecks Play”(1995) has sold over 3.1 million copies while “You Might Be A Redneck If….” (1993) has also sold 3.1 million copies.
You grew up in Saint-Lambert, Quebec, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, opposite Montreal?
Yes. Saint-Lambert is where I went to CCHS (secondary school). I also spent considerable time in New Zealand. I went to boarding school there for one year. I also spent time in Austin, Texas.
While studying commerce at Concordia University in Montreal. you started chasing local promoter and Club Soda co-owner Rubin Fogel, and Just For Laughs director Andy Nulman for concert tickets.
For sure I was chasing Rubin for tickets, and also when Andy got into the comedy space. I had connected with Andy because he had a name for himself as a writer of a variety of newspapers and such. I was a little rock and roll promoter on my own, and I knew how to sell grassroots, and I knew how to connect with university students.
You tried to barter work with the two of them in exchange for tickets?
What I said to them was “I have a flier for universities that really works for my shows. Why don’t I apply it to your shows? Give me some tickets and, maybe, a bit of money.” And I started off with this little business of grassroots marketing for rock and roll, and comedy because it was effective.
Andy offered you a job at Just For Laugh as a driver. You started working at JFL in 1996 when you were 23.
Andy said to me one day, “You know that Just For Laughs is looking for drivers. They don’t have any other roles. Andy was in his first year. I think he was playing a pretty significant role. He was booking. He was doing marketing. He was basically running the English side (of Just For Laugh). At the end, I left Concordia to accept a full-time job with JFL that I couldn’t pass up.
Prior to joining Just For Laughs, Andy Nulman was a respected music journalist at the weekly Montreal tabloid The Sunday Express for 6 years. He was eventually promoted to entertainment editor and promotion manager there. During that period, he also freelanced for Variety, Us, and Circus in the U.S.
While Just For Laugh’s former president Gilbert Rozan co-founded the festival as a two-night, French-language humor event in Montreal, it was Nulman–joining in 1995–who introduced an English-language component to the festival, and who acted as creator/executive producer of the festival’s TV shows, starting with an hour special on HBO, and Showtime featuring 6 acts.
I was driving comedians around. I was driving Jerry Lewis.
John Candy too?
Not that year but later.
It was the second year when you became the publicist, even though you’d never been a publicist, and you were taking care of Jerry Lewis and John Candy, but you also drove the producer of “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
Yes. Barry Sand.
A former comedy writer and producer of “SCTV Network,” Barry Sand produced “The Late Show With David Letterman” in its first 5 years, from 1982 up until 1987. Je also produced talk shows hosted by Mike Douglas, David Frost, and later Joan Rivers.
Being a driver is often considered a low job in entertainment but it’s a terrific way to meet people who might be helpful with your career.
I say to people all of the time who think that they need to walk into a job at some executive level, that to make a career for themselves, that at the beginning of their career, they can get in the door, “Think of what 30 minutes gives you your from airport to hotel if you are smart.” Largely what I did was that I would ask them (the passengers) about themselves. Most importantly. What do they need? Where are they going to eat? Most of the time they had no idea what they were walking into. So I helped them with restaurants. I was reliable. I picked them up when I said I would pick them up. I gave them good advice. Barry Sand asked, “What can I do to repay you?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Do you want to come to the Letterman show the next time you are in New York?”
Boom, I realized. “Wow. what a great way to build a rolodex.”
As we both know, there are no small parts in entertainment.
Oh, 100%. You just don’t know what you are going to find. I talk to high school and even university students, and I say, “When you can afford to give away your time to get in the door, and work for very little money, especially when a roof is paid over your head, do it. It’s all an investment. It is called momentum. It is called investing in yourself. And sometimes, investing in yourself is about writing a check. It’s just not a large one, or may not be any check because when you are 25, and there’s an opportunity, you may not be able to work for free because you have to pay rent. But if you have an opportunity, do it when you have no better way to get in the door than creating the least amount of difficulty of entry with an employer.
A number of positions you held afterward, like director of programming, also had their advantages. You got to meet, and discover so much new talent, and then book Tim Allen, Margaret Cho. Ray Romano, Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes, Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Burr, to name but a few.
You got to know them early in their careers.
Then, as VP of international, and chief operating officer (COO) overseeing TV properties, subscription services, you again expanded your career horizons, while establishing Just For Laugh’s footprint globally.
So each of your jobs going up the corporate ladder was beneficial.
One of the pivotal ways of discovering new talent has been New Faces which has a track record of discovering talented, up-and-coming artists, from Kevin Hart, Mike Birbiglia, and John Mulaney. to comedian/actress Amy Schumer to internationally-renowned comedian Jo Koy, comedian, actor and Peabody Award winner, Colin Jost, and Canadian Comedy Award winner DeAnne Smith to name a few.
It is all about offering comics exposure to advance their careers. Not just stand-ups but creators. Not just stand-ups in North America. Stand-ups from international. International comics. We also do a program called Characters that’s a chance for people who are sketch performers. We have more people from SNL than any other company coming to see that program because a good amount of SNL cast members from the last decade have come off of New Faces, and Characters.
So being a big part of the discoverability aspect is a big part of our festival in Montreal, especially.is the discoverability aspect. We want people to come, not to find and see famous people, and buy tickets to some of the biggest people in the business, but one of our primary jobs is to offer exposure opportunities for the best young comedy voices of the moment.
What a joy to see one of the promising comedic voices move on with their career, whether it is playing bigger clubs or attaining TV stardom or whatever.
One hundred percent, Larry. Search YouTube for Kevin Hart talking to Mike Birbiglia about Just For Laughs and New Faces. Mike Birbiglia replaced Kimmel (on Jimmy Kimmel Live!) in the summer for a week, and Kevin Hart was his guest on the third night. They started with, “Where did we meet each other? I think it was at New Faces in Montreal.” Then Kevin Hart went off on a nice description of what JFL’s New Faces is. So that is unbelievable for us.
In this YouTube clip Kevin Hart and Mike Birbiglia reminisce about their experiences as part of New Faces in 2002, sharing how they credit JFL for propelling the trajectory of their careers.
When Jimmy Fallon congratulated us for having a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame he talked about being in New Faces and the impact that the festival had on his career. He’s done that on his show. He recorded that just for us. When you have fans like Jimmy and Kevin Hart, anytime anywhere, talk about the impact that the festival has had, not only does it bring a lot of pride to us, but it is fantastic for us to have that amazing support because those comics are grateful and we have become an important part of their lives.
Just For Laughs’ co-founder and owner Gilbert Rozon stepped down in Oct. 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and assault spanning three decades. He then unloaded his entire stake in the company afterward.
I’m not able to go into that area.
I understand but with his departure Québecor/Vidéotron had the right of first refusal to match or top any sale price, but when the group chose not to exercise that right, Just For Laughs was acquired by Canadian comedian Howie Mandel, and ICM Partners.
Bell Media, and Montreal-based event promoter Evenko, then partnered to purchase 51% of the festival from ICM and Howie for an estimated $33 million (Canadian). Evidently, the reason for the sale to Bell and Evanko was largely that majority Quebec interest in Just For Laughs would be retained in order to continue receiving annual government grants.
We have always had Quebec ownership. We have 100% Quebec ownership.
Bell and Evanko both strengthened Just For Laughs as a market leader and brought about unprecedented financial stability. As well you were immediately promoted to president from being chief operating officer,
We couldn’t be happier with the people who own JFL and couldn’t be more grateful that they came in and bought the company at the time that they did. Nothing but a positive for me.
A time of uncertainty for sure, though, until that transpired.
A time of uncertainty, and they brought credibility. In that situation, it was a very, very important move for the history of the festival.
Do you have much government funding?
We do for our not-for-profit events, yes.
What would those be?
Our Canadian festivals are non-profit events, and they receive some level of support from provincial, municipal, and federal governments.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.