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Haiti to launch comedy school – with Quebec's help

Kids in the Hall show a portion of their act during a media call at Montreal's Just for Laughs in Montreal, July 18, 2007.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Did you hear the one about the country beset by poverty, homeless camps and periodic outbreaks of cholera?

That country is about to train teachers to set up a comedy school. And Quebec's top comedy franchise is behind the effort.

Haiti, where a crippling 2010 earthquake laid waste to the nation's capital, isn't the first place in the world one associates with belly laughs and stand-up routines. But Haitian officials have signed on with the world's biggest humour festival to train comics and open a school. It's no joke. Officials from Montreal's Just for Laughs festival and Quebec's École nationale de l'humour inked an agreement in Port-au-Prince this week.

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"Haitians love to laugh and Haitians need to laugh," said Philippe Leclerc, director of public affairs for Just for Laughs. "If your soul is happy you're in a better position to face your problems."

The effort, boosted by $10,000 from the Quebec government, begins with four Haitian comics travelling to perform at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival this summer. Quebec comics head south in December, and training begins next year for Haitian comedy teachers. The program's two spokesmen are Quebec comic Jean-Marc Parent and Haitian-Canadian novelist Dany Laferrière, who was in Haiti for the signing.

The Caribbean nation has a tradition of humour, not so surprising considering that comedy is adversity's creative by-product. And Haiti has had plenty of adversity, with calamities ranging from dire poverty and dictatorship to natural disasters, perhaps none more momentous than the Jan. 12 earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless.

Rebuilding efforts are under way, and that's where Quebec's contribution on the comedy front fits in. Louise Richer of Quebec's comedy school, who was in Port-au-Prince to sign the deal with Haiti's culture ministry, says she initially balked at the project, but she was won over and came away impressed by the perseverance she witnessed in the Haitian capital.

"I'm hit up by squeegee kids and panhandlers more in Montreal than I have been here," Richer, founder and director general of the École nationale de l'humour in Montreal, said on the phone from Port-au-Prince on Friday. "We all have our preconceptions about Haiti, but I see vitality here, I see people who are busy and who are laughing."

"A sense of humour helped the Haitian people get through their difficulties," she added. "It's part of their survival."

Quebec contributed $10,000 out of a provincial program headed by two ministries, Culture and International Relations, to promote joint programs between cultural groups in Quebec and Haiti. Quebec is home to a sizable and well-entrenched Haitian diaspora.

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Haiti's government has been working to try to wean the impoverished nation off international aid, give it an image revamp, and develop home-grown enterprise and tourism. Last month, Air Transat began offering holiday packages to Haiti from Montreal for the first time in more than 20 years. Justin Viard, Consul General of Haiti in Montreal, said hoped-for tourists will need something to do for entertainment, and that's where comics come in.

But Haitians themselves never lost their need to laugh either, he said, even in the rubble of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that claimed their friends and family. After the disaster, Haitian radio soon began broadcasting a program called Rigolo Thérapie, translating roughly as Comedy Therapy.

"After the earthquake we felt that young people weren't laughing," Viard said from Port-au-Prince. "With this program, we want to give them a chance to work and make a living."

But is hardship funny? "If you exist, you need to laugh," Viard said. "And in Haiti, we have to heal our wounds."

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