MONTREAL — Just for Laughs, Montreal's 7-year-old annual comedy festival, has emerged as the leading forum for showcasing and marketing comedy talent in North America's $1.1-billion laughs industry.
More than 400,000 people and 250 talent scouts attended this summer's event, which featured more than 250 performers from 12 countries in venues ranging from free street performances to nightclubs and gala shows in a 2,200-seat theater.
Unique among the world's comedy festivals, it is not like Las Vegas' Comedy Convention or occasional comedy gatherings in other cities. It treats comedy as both art and industry and does it in three languages, English, French and mime.
"It is the major comedy festival in the world," said Squire D. Rushnell, until recently vice president of late-night and children's television for ABC-TV. He added:
"It's a unique opportunity to see the talent showcased and spend time with the talent socially and get to know them as people."
Andy Nulman, director of the festival's English programming, agrees that Just for Laughs has become the premier venue for the comedy industry.
"It's not an opinion, it's a fact. I've traveled to other comedy festivals and comparing us to them is like comparing the (Montreal) Expos to the Tidewater Tides. They both play baseball, but it's not the same," he said.
Nulman says having the festival in Montreal is one of the basic reasons for the festival's success.
"Montreal has the melange of French and English cultures in one city; it allows us to bring on acts that wouldn't go over in Chicago, Milwaukee or New York."
The festival, frequently described as a "comedy camp" by the comedians, was started by one-time rock concert promoter Gilbert Rozon.
Beginning with a $340,000 budget in 1982, Rozon lost $128,000 on his small, French-only laugh festival. This year, he has a $6.8-million budget for the festival itself, TV production--for Home Box Office in the United States, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Canada and Britain's Channel 4--and $850,000 for the festival's comedy school.
'$5-Million Talent Bill'
"IBM is sending people into the schools. We are doing the same thing. It's not enough to have five minutes of material, we have to teach them everything about the business," Rozon said. "The (Quebec) government has approved our school as a way to teach people how to speak French by telling jokes."
Richard Fields, chairman and chief executive of Catch a Rising Star Inc. of Los Angeles, said the U.S. comedy industry generates $1 billion a year, from clubs, performers' incomes, TV shows, and commercials, albums, tapes and films.
"It's probably $500 million in the clubs alone," he said. "My seven clubs all gross in excess of $1 million a year. My talent bill next year will be $5 million to pay the performers and $1 million in airline tickets moving them around."
Rozon "and his troops have created an atmosphere you could not duplicate in another setting," he said. "We were thinking of doing something like this back in the States, but I'm not sure the feeling could be re-created."
Mark Breslin, chief executive of Yuk Yuks Inc., the cross-Canada chain of comedy clubs that has a virtual monopoly on the industry there, estimates the Canadian funny business at $85 million.
Almost alone among those attending the festival, he is critical of what he describes as "a gathering of Turkish rug merchants."
"I bemoan the day (comedy) became an industry. Because the moment it became an industry, it stopped being an art. The snake is eating its tail and it's a mighty thin tail," he said.
Budd Friedman, owner of the Improvisation chain of comedy clubs, expects the comedy-club industry to consolidate within the next three years.
He credits the success of the comedy boom to the parallel success of cable TV, which thrived on old films and comedy in its early years, and the explosion in late night TV shows competing with Johnny Carson. After that, the audiences wanted to see the comics live.
'Convert Bowling Alley'
"People saw how easy it was for me to do it," Friedman said, so they decided, "if Budd Friedman can do it, I can do it. I'll convert my bowling alley into a comedy club."
The comedy boom will continue, Friedman predicts, but in the next few years the "fringe operators will shake out and we'll be left with quality."
Nulman said the festival's $300,000 loss this year was due to less government funding than expected and lower-priced tickets for the major galas.
Just for Laughs produces the TV portions of the festival and sells the rights to HBO, CBC and Channel 4, who each co-produce their own versions that feature, respectively, American, Canadian or British headliners.