These are strange days for Montreal's Juste Pour Rire/Just for Laughs festival (JPR), the comedy juggernaut that suddenly has to prove it's not dead or dying.
Just weeks ago, JPR was an unchallenged titan on the city's festival scene. But since founder Gilbert Rozon was toppled by allegations of sexual misconduct, some people have begun to hear the first spadefuls of earth on the festival's coffin.
This week, Quebecor chair and former Parti Québécois leader Pierre Karl Péladeau fretted publicly that JPR might go the way of the Festival des films du monde, a formerly dominant entity now totally eclipsed by the Toronto International Film Festival. Newly elected Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante chimed in, saying the city could not allow its comedy industry to migrate down Highway 401.
Both seemed to have been spooked by a blaze of publicity for a recent plan by 50 Quebec comedians to create a rival event. So far, the group has no funding, no real organization and no festival. Their nascent uprising has nonetheless become a headline magnet. Last week, they copped a plum spot on the TV talk show Tout le monde en parle (TLMEP).
Quebec Deputy Premier Dominique Anglade, who also happened to be on the program, greeted the rebels sympathetically and suggested they draw up a business plan. "Organizing comedians is like herding cats," replied Martin Petit, one of the project's initiators. A day later, Petit and others scored a meeting with federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, who tweeted a group selfie of their "productive encounter."
"We encourage their efforts and initiative," Joly wrote. Whatever else these comedians manage to do, they have a flair for attracting high-level goodwill with nothing but talk.
In a group video that has scored 616,000 views, the comics say their aim is to create a co-operative festival that is ethically run and treats male and female performers equitably.
Petit also said on TLMEP that the organizational structure would be flat, not a pyramid with power concentrated at the top.
It's hard not to hear, in these positive intentions, an open critique of JPR – and of Rozon's imperial management style. Rozon's removal, the dissidents imply, didn't solve problems ingrained in the organization he created.
"You have to understand, JPR was one person," comedian Réal Béland told one interviewer. The irony is that Rozon worked hard to create that impression while building a layered empire that runs festivals, tours and theatre productions on several continents.
Groupe JPR launched a counteroffensive Thursday, with a barrage of data about the Montreal festival's scale, vitality and economic impact. The 2016 edition presented 1,600 performers in 25 venues, it said, to a total audience of 1.7 million, which presumably includes those who caught free outdoor shows.
The budget that year was $30-million, and the return to Quebec's GDP was $34-million (the not-for-profit event also receives $4.5-million in government funding). Far from being a one-man show, the festival employed the equivalent of 542 full-time workers, who helped return $6-million in taxes to provincial and federal governments.
"We will move forward to regain the city's belief in this festival, the company said in its only deflection from corporate chest-thumping. Moves by Petit and others to create their own festival are "unfortunate," it said, but "they have a right to create a new platform for their art." The dates for JPR 2018 are set, and festival passes are already on sale. Apparently, there's still life in this corpse.
Some may be surprised to know that Montreal already has a breakaway alternative to JPR: Dr. Mobilo Aquafest, whose next annual edition takes place in three theatres in April. It, too, is a co-operative venture, formed in an ethical, egalitarian spirit. It has already produced two festivals but is probably less well known than the still-imaginary event that has charmed some politicians and terrified others. Such is the effect of timing in Montreal comedy, even when you're not telling a joke.
One thing highlighted by the current festival skirmishes is how the mentality of Quebec Inc. affects entertainment in the province's largest city. Free-market competition is respected in Quebec, and entrepreneurship strongly encouraged. But there's also a desire to line up resources behind a single powerful entity in each industry that can take on the world. At the end of the day, in this view, Bombardier must prevail – and so must JPR. That was the message underlying the panicky statements from the mayor and Péladeau.
In this case, the perceived threat to Montreal, if JPR crumbles, would be another festival run by the same company. Groupe JPR already has a festival in Toronto. There's a natural limit, however, to how much funny business the Toronto event could siphon away from Montreal. JPR's French-language comics can't hope for much audience in Hogtown, and they're not going to start performing with subtitles.
So far, however, the only public spectacle launched by the comedians' uprising has been a week-long mutual slagging, in Le Journal de Montréal and online, by two married columnists and a TV host, who somehow found a pretext in the new festival to express their contempt for each other. One thinks of a Three Stooges pie fight, in which a misdirected pie launches a vicious battle between formerly uninvolved parties. Wub-wub-wub!