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Just for Laughs

It started from a failed music festival and became everyone's favourite funny event, Just for Laughs / Juste pour Rire

Montreal, July, 1982

A million dollars. Gilbert Rozon still couldn’t believe it. How would he ever pay everyone back?

He stood by his window and stared at the busy street. “Where were you all during my festival?” he thought. La Grande Virée had been a huge hit in nearby Lachute two years running. And then in Montreal . . . nothing.

And now the festival’s biggest investor wanted to know why hardly anyone had come to La Grande Virée’s concerts. Just too much else going on in Montreal — all summer long, there were musicians everywhere, playing to huge crowds of people. Except at his festival, of course. The only bright spot among the money‐losing shows had been the comedians. Everybody had loved them.

Wait . . . if music hadn’t been successful but the comedy was . . .

Rozon grabbed the phone and dialled. “Before you ask about your money, let me tell you about the festival we have planned for next year. There’s nothing like it anywhere. No music — it’ll be just for laughs.”

Montreal, July, 1984

A circle of happy people watched as the mime tried once again to make it out of an imaginary glass box. Not far away, another performer juggled a chainsaw, a bowling pin and a basketball while people laughed and clapped in amazement. Only the two men walking by didn’t stop to watch; they were too busy talking.

“This little comedy festival is doing great, Gilbert, but we need to think bigger.” Andy Nulman pointed up at the banner ahead. “Why don’t we do it in English, too?”

Rozon looked doubtful. “Juste pour rire is all about comedy in French. Do you really think English people will come? Who will we get to perform?”

“Leave that to me,” Nulman grinned. “Next year, Juste pour rire will also be Just for Laughs.”

Montreal, July, 1987

High heels had been a bad idea. “Why didn’t you tell me this city had streets with stones instead of paving?” the TV executive snapped at her assistant. “And it must be a million degrees outside. Plus half of these people don’t even speak English. Remind me why we’re here again?”

“Because we don’t want to miss out. Remember that article in The Hollywood Reporter?” the young woman said. “This is where all the big stars of comedy come — to Just for Laughs.”

“I don’t care about the people who are stars,” her boss said. “I care about the people who are going to be stars. Those are the ones we want to sign up for a TV show while they’re hot.”

The assistant pulled out a file. “We have tickets for the big gala performances tonight and tomorrow night, plus we’re going to the late-night shows in the clubs afterward.”

“Fine, fine,” the executive waved her hand. “The point is to find the next big thing, and do it before anyone else. That is, if I don’t break my ankle first.”

Montreal, July, 2007

The young comic couldn’t feel his fingers or toes. He’d never been so terrified. How could he possibly go out on stage? Sure, he’d been doing comedy for years. Telling jokes, getting a few laughs, then more laughs and then lots of laughs. That’s why they’d asked him to be on the show tonight. He deserved it.

So why was his stomach acting like it wanted to get rid of every bit of food he’d eaten all day? Which wasn’t much, come to think of it. And why was his throat so dry that . . . so dry that . . . Oh, no! He couldn’t even come up with a good joke about it!

He had to leave. He couldn’t do the show. He couldn’t possibly go out there, with all those TV producers and agents and people watching him. No way. Too late — they were about to say his name! Could he handle it?

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, please say hello to a newcomer to our festival. For the first time at Just for Laughs. . .”

Yes, he could. He’d been working for years to get here. It was time to make them laugh.

Gilbert Rozon

Although we imagined the scenes in this story, Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs is a very real Canadian success story. After his La Grande Virée music festival flopped in Montreal, Gilbert Rozon decided to build a festival around comedy. The first Juste pour rire festival ran two nights of shows by French-speaking comedians. Soon after, Rozon and Andy Nulman added English performers and within a few years the festival, often shortened to JFL in English, took off. TV specials featuring the festival’s stars helped spread the word. Show business executives quickly learned Montreal was the place to discover talented performers for their movies and TV series. Comics hoped desperately to be seen at Just for Laughs, knowing that if they did well, it could make their careers. The festival expanded to include theatre shows and movies as well as the free street performances it had offered from the start. Smaller standup shows started touring Canada and the United States under the JFL name. The spinoff TV show Just for Laughs: Gags, which is seen in more than 100 countries, sets up wacky situations for unsuspecting Montrealers and records their reactions on hidden cameras, all without talking. Although similar festivals have started in other cities, Just for Laughs is still the biggest and best, drawing more than a million people to Montreal for shows in French and English by the world’s hottest standup comedians as well as unknowns who might just be the stars of tomorrow. The motto for everything Juste pour rire/Just for Laughs does is “Make people happy.”

Written by Allyson Gulliver; illustrated by Brendan Hong.

Project partially funded by the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage.
  • Canadian Heritage / Patrimoine Canadien
  • Government of Canada
  • HBC: Hudson's Bay Company
  • ecentricarts inc.