I never respected Just for Laughs Gags in its heyday. It was a four-word punchline that only ever made me angry that The Kids in the Hall wasn't on yet. Less angry, mind you, than The Red Green Show did. Nobody liked the middle (everybody likes the middle), and as far as Canadian comedy went, Gags represented the bottom.
Revisiting the show as a grown-up, I let myself belly laugh. Not as much as I've belly laughed for Mark McKinney, but harder than I've ever done for, say, Zach Galifianakis. I laughed at how ridiculous the premises were, which is what you're supposed to do, I have realized. I laughed at the good people earnestly freaking at the screaming "mannequin" head and emerging baffled from a porta-potty into a boardroom meeting. "Just for Laughs is actually funny," I texted a friend. "What a hot take," he replied.
Just for Laughs Gags was literally made to appeal to everyone. "The market of Quebec is very small," says Pierre Girard, one of the creators of the Montreal-based show. Girard had worked on the hidden-camera show Surprise sur prise, which pranked famous people a decade before Punk'd did. The non-verbal Mr. Bean had become a global sensation around the same time. From there came the idea for a wordless prank show, exportable anywhere. "He's a creative guy with a business instinct," Bruce Hills, the chief operating officer of the Just for Laughs organization, says of Girard. "And he combined both for an opportunity."
Fifteen years in, the show has produced more than 4,600 clips, which air in 134 countries and on 75 airlines. "There are five or six different kinds of gags that you can do based on different facets of human nature," explains Jean Kohnen, a long-term writer and director on Gags. Kohnen, who is from Luxembourg, speaks in sentences that skitter and snap like a flag in the breeze. He grew up loving Charlie Chaplin: "I always admired the way he managed to make everything understandable without the use of language." His is the head that pops out of the toilet in the famous head-popping-out-of-the-toilet gag.
"Human nature is the same everywhere around the world," Kohnen continues. "We all love to laugh, we all have our visceral fears, we all have good amounts of generosity. … When we are out in the streets, we are never really thinking about what's going on around us." We all like to think of ourselves as less gullible than everyone else; and we all, or at least many of us, underestimate our vulnerability to toilet jokes.
Gags is the sum of its victims. Every gag is designed to produce a reaction, so if the mark doesn't respond, it fails, no matter how elaborate the setup. If the prank has gone well, the victim is usually glad to have been targeted. "It's a superbly exciting intellectual exercise," says Kohnen, who is in his late 40s. Years ago, he worked in advertising. "You have to know what makes people tick, to [make them] buy what you are trying to sell them," he says, "but for me, it's only a fraction of what we do when we do hidden camera."
In the mid-nineties, Kohnen booked a two-week vacation at Club Med in the Bahamas. He stayed 4 1/2 years, working in scuba before his employers, noting his ease with languages and people, asked if he'd like to try his hand at entertainment. The club had its own stock material at the time, but Kohnen "found it, honestly, embarrassing," so he wrote his own. He might still be there, had he not fallen for a staffer from Quebec. "She wanted to leave Club Med. I didn't want to leave her, so I made my little suitcase and I followed her to Montreal."
He struggled at first – "we were basically homeless" – but settled in at the nascent Just for Laughs Gags about six months after he arrived. The relationship didn't last, but the job did, and the fire hasn't died. I'd called him just before a pitch meeting for the 2015 series, and he said he couldn't wait to be on set again. "It is always a new adventure into the human mind."
We'd spoken once before, about five years back: I was fact-checking a Walrus magazine article by Nicholas Hune-Brown, who'd shadowed Kohnen during a "blind race" prank. Kohnen confirmed to me that the extras ate Timbits, and that he'd been working on a "somewhat autobiographical" film about a failing comedian. When I asked him about the gag itself, he took it apart in such detail, with such passion, that I kept him on the line out of interest and some confusion. It only dawned on me then that there might be an art – or at least "a certain elegance," as Kohnen put it more recently – to making something for everyone.
"It's not the hippest show in the world, but it's not trying to be," Hills says. "It's trying to be funny for everyone. It's trying to be funny for the tourist flying from Beijing, the tribesman in the Sahara or yourself sitting in the airport waiting to take off on a delay. It's there to put a smile on your face and take away your worries for a minute."
"When you go to see a ballet performance, you always think it's easy, the way they move on stage," Kohnen says. "The day it looks difficult, that's when the ballet performance failed." As Hune-Brown put it, Gags has "refined the silent gag into a form as disciplined and tightly structured as the sonnet." If the audience – or the industry – can't see the complexity involved, the Gags team has done its job. "A stand-up comedian who is struggling onstage to make people laugh is not very entertaining," Kohnen says. "A good delivery is as if it were just coming up in conversation.
"I would prefer to be main shareholder of a big soda company rather than a very prestigious champagne domaine," he says. "I'm sure financially I would be better off, and it depends on what attitude you have toward what you do. I am good at what I do, so I do that."
Kohnen's film is still in development – "I'm [not] considered an experienced writer for motion pictures, because I do 'fast-food television,'" he says, without bitterness, before adding that he's not bitter. If the film is made, great; in the meantime, "I have a good playground to be happy in."