MONTREAL — Laugh-out-loud funny is what you’ll get as Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival celebrates its milestone 30th anniversary, on now through July 29.
In the past three decades, Just for Laughs Chief Operating Officer Bruce Hills, who has been with the fest for 25 years, has seen the popular Montreal summer fete grow in leaps and bounds. He’s even moved up in the ranks himself.
“For my first festival, I was the driver for Jerry Lewis,” Hills quipped.
Hills calls the change from way back when to now “astronomical.”
“When you think about it, the comedy business has changed,” he said.
When Just for Laughs first started, for example, “The Cosby Show” was only beginning.
“There wasn’t that level of sitcom star,” he said.
In addition, not too many movie stars were true stand-up comedians.
“It wasn’t the same business,” Hills said. “It was primarily a nightclub business, and small nightclubs at that.”
Hills said there were only a handful of stars that could sell out theater venues and arenas — think early Eddie Murphy and wild and crazy guy Steve Martin.
“Now comedy is truly international,” he said. “For example, a performer like Louis CK can sell out a venue in Montreal, Sydney or Oslo.”
The online age has also helped.
“The Internet has spawned a number of stars who have never even been on television,” he said.
In the mid- to late-1980s, only a few factors meant you really made it in the biz big time.
“And that’s if you did ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson, Letterman and got an HBO special,” Hills said.
Just for Laughs got in just at the right time.
“And we were able to grow into a festival that’s quite vital to the comedy community,” he said.
By the 1990s, the fest hit their stride and garnered many comedians that gold ticket — a television sitcom deal.
“There is no festival in the world that has spawned more television deals than Just for Laughs in the ‘90s and early 2000s.”
And even that role has evolved in the past decade as not only television reps wait in the wings for the next big act, but so do online digital venues, traditional nightclub live-booking reps and the movie-casting world.
Hills pointed out the popular Zoofest, which features 60 one-person stand-up comedy shows. That’s a pretty good pool of funny from which to choose.
“We love giving that exposure to up-and-coming comedians,” Hills said.
The annual comedy conference also brings in all the big shots from Hollywood. Directors Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”), Jason Reitman (“Young Adult”), Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy,” “Ted”), and Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year-Old Virgin”) have all attended the conference and festival in recent years. And that means not only are they enjoying the comedy, but possibly booking an act for their next big blockbuster.
“And wouldn’t it be great if you were a young comic and one of them put you in a cameo in their next movie?”
Hills also enjoys when a big-name actor makes a surprise appearance at a small club or when a young comedian is about to break into the big leagues.
“I love it when I know a famous person is going to do a cameo in a little comedy club and the audience is going to go CRAZY,” Hills said. “Or if there’s a comedian who is just about to become one of the biggest, funniest stand-ups in the business, and the set that they’re about to do will just destroy that crowd — I love to watch that happen.”
The fest has broadened its horizons over the years as well, with offshoot festivals in Chicago and Toronto.
“But Montreal is by far the heart and soul of what we do,” Hills said.
So, for a little comedic heart and soul, scheduled to appear at this year’s festival is Wayne Brady, Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, Lewis Black, Caroline Rhea, John Pinette, Kristen Schaal, Bill Hader, Bob Saget, Louis CK, Chelsea Handler, Danny Bhoy, Howie Mandel, Jim Gaffigan, Jimmy Carr, the Muppets and more.
There’s always lots of free fun to be had at the festival as well with dozens of daily outdoor activities at Place des Festival downtown July 17 through 28.
Call the box office at (514) 845-2322 or visit www.hahaha.com for details.