Skip to main content

Belly laughs must be rare these days at Juste Pour Rire/Just for Laughs (JPR), now that a rival comedy group has scheduled its first Montreal festival for the same dates as JPR's annual jokefest.

This week, Grand Montréal comédie fest (GMCF) unveiled some of its programming and claimed July 1 to 15 for its inaugural run, overlapping with a 23-day JPR festival that begins on July 5.

About 50 comedians clubbed together last month to initiate the new festival, after JPR founder Gilbert Rozon was brought down by multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Their aim, they said, was to create a co-operative event that was ethical and equitable.

The breakaway comedians promised a fairer shake for performers, male and female, and more affordable tickets for the public. The overall implication was that the steep corporate pyramid created by Rozon at JPR could have been part of a larger problem of how people are treated in the competitive comedy world. (Rozon is still looking for a buyer for his majority stake in JPR's for-profit operations; the JPR festival is a not-for-profit entity).

As the new event draws into sharper focus, it looks as if the dissidents may be mounting a broader challenge to JPR's empire. Acting general manager Paul Larocque said this week that an English-language festival was being discussed, and that partners were being courted in New York and Los Angeles. GMCF has informally retained former JPR executive Andy Nulman, the moving force behind JPR's English-language festivals in Montreal and elsewhere, as a consultant on marketing and planning.

The co-operative is moving on JPR's turf while singing songs of peace. Larocque said his group just wants to "enlarge the sandbox," in part by offering shows in more diverse locations. The first effort of that sort to be announced is a show in suburban St-Eustache on July 6. To ensure the event doesn't go unnoticed elsewhere, GMCF will fly the participating comics by helicopter between St-Eustache and a venue downtown, which will present the same show on the same day. You can just see the TV crews setting up their cameras to catch the airlifting of the comedians.

For now, the festival's performance headquarters is l'Olympia, a venerable 1925 theatre near the eastern edge of Montreal's Quartier des spectacles. The comics made their first programming announcements there on Wednesday, with some help from Guy A. Lepage, the prominent TV host whose show Tout le monde en parle gave the new co-operative some crucial visibility in its early days.

L'Olympia is a hub for comedy, is listed as an official partner for the festival, and will host at least two galas in July. Six clubs will host shows in the nearby Quartier Latin. L'Olympia will also host a benefit gala in April, pointedly devoted to generating funds for groups working against sexual harassment and the sexual abuse of minors.

JPR vented its displeasure at all this in a terse statement that vowed to deliver "the biggest edition of the festival yet." In other words: If you want to fight us for the laugh trade in Montreal, bring it on.

JPR has some huge advantages in this contest, including the weight of its brand and the public investments it has received for many years from government tourism and cultural agencies. The festival received $4.5-million in subsidies last year. It won't be easy for GMCF to get any significant public money for an untried new event. Quebec has a tendency to favour proven winners, and memories remain strong of one occasion when the province took a big stake in a breakaway festival. In 2004, Société de développement des entreprises culturelles and Telefilm put $1-million into a startup cinema fest that aimed to supplant the flagging World Film Festival. The new event flopped miserably, losing $850,000 in its first and only edition.

One other group not impressed by the new festival's presentation is the nationalist Société St-Jean-Baptiste, which denounced the blatant franglais of the event's name. A more correct French title would be Festival d'humour du Grand Montréal. The Office québécois de la langue française also objected, although a spokesman observed that it's not against the law to use French badly.

All this bodes well for a properly comic launch in July, as the tiny GMCF challenges the gorilla in the 'hood with helicopters, with a side order of pickets protesting the creeping shadow of anglicization. Bonjour/hi et bienvenue…

The public discussion on sexual harassment and assault sparked by the allegations against Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein has been chosen as the Canadian Press News Story of the Year, by reporters and editors across the country.

The Canadian Press