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Just for Laughs’ financial woes are worrying for future of comedy, Brent Butt says



Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

Published Wednesday, March 6, 2024 6:56AM EST

Last Updated Wednesday, March 6, 2024 4:55PM EST

The cancellation of this year’s Just for Laughs Montreal festival and the financial woes of the company that operates it threaten to leave a hole in Canada’s comedy scene, those in the industry said as uncertainty swirled about the brand’s future.

The company that runs the Montreal event, Groupe Juste pour rire Inc., announced Tuesday that it was cancelling this year’s festival and filing for creditor protection as it restructures the business in an effort to survive.

Canadian funnyman Brent Butt, who created the “Corner Gas” comedy franchise, said performing at the festival in 1992 helped him break out.

“It was the big thing for Canadian comedians to shoot for. There was no other platform that gave you anywhere near the kind of exposure and notoriety that Just for Laughs did, both nationally and internationally,” he said from Vancouver.

“It was the only place where Canadian comedians could get seen by big U.S. managers and big U.S. bookers. And if you did a gala spot you were going to be on TV across the nation and potentially in other countries too, as they sold the show around the world.”

Butt said connections he made at the festival hooked him up with a producer in Vancouver, and the rest was history – a common path for comedians.

“It can really take off for somebody if you get the right eyeballs on you – that’s all it takes,” he said. “At the festival, that’s where all the eyeballs are: all the prominent, important industry eyeballs.”

These days, Butt said, the eyes are on social media, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Inexperienced comedians can go viral with one really funny bit, he said, but then they have an audience they can’t sustain because they have yet to solidify their act.

“It happens really quick, and they’re not ready for it,” he said. “The nice thing about Just for Laughs was you didn’t get it until you were ready for it. It gave you something to try and get better for every year.”

Long touted as the world’s largest comedy festival, Just For Laughs Montreal first ran in 1983. Recent festivals have included comedy heavyweights such as Ali Wong, Hasan Minhaj and Amy Schumer.

Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy clubs, said JFL was traditionally the best place to introduce new faces to big audiences. And for managers of established comedians, it was where they could go to make a deal with TV networks or online streamers.

Just for Laughs was a major part of the Canadian comedy ecology,” he said. “If it’s gone, it leaves a big hole. It leaves a big vacuum to be filled.”

But he said the comedy scene has changed significantly over JFL’s 40-year lifespan.

Just for Laughs‘ importance was at a maximum before internet comedy became a thing,” he said. “Before the internet, there was no place that people in the industry could go to see new people or even people that were established. But now everybody is online. Everybody’s releasing material on YouTube and other platforms.”

These days, he said, JFL serves as a destination point for comedians to “schmooze” with others in the industry.

“I think comics will really miss that,” he said. “I think people in the industry will really miss that.”

Just pour rire blamed its financial woes on a number of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and the changing entertainment industry, though court records show a bailiff seized more than $800,000 in assets from the company last week after it failed to make a court-ordered payment to a former employee.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2024.

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