35 Years of Non-Stop Laughter

A Look at the Rich History of Just For Laughs

  • Just For Laughs celebrates 35 years of non-stop comedy. Courtesy Just For Laughs festival

What do Saint-Denis Street, the Old Port, and the Quartier des Spectacles have in common? Just For Laughs! These three locations have hosted the iconic Montreal comedy festival since its creation in 1983.

Before conquering the city with laughter, Gilbert Rozon, President and founder of Just For Laughs, created La Grande Virée music festival. The first two years were held in Lachute, presenting concerts and stand-up comedy

In 1982, La Grande Virée experienced a catastrophic failure due to bad weather and a Montreal wide bus strike that prevented Montrealers from travelling to Lachute. The failure put the team into debt and Rozon had two options, either to declare bankruptcy or start a new project.

“After this failure, I was looking to construct an international festival project and my accountant told me, why not do comedy?” said Rozon.

Rozon decided to name his new endeavor Juste Pour Rire, which would include a diverse range of entertainment, including musicals, concerts and busking performances.

Just For Laughs at Places Des Arts. Photo Julia C. Vona

The first edition of Juste Pour Rire was held on July 14, 1983. The event lasted for four days, two of which focused on comedy and the other two on music.

In 1985, the Juste Pour Rire organizers added an anglophone side to the event called Just For Laughs. Entertainers from the United States and the United Kingdom gathered at the St- Denis Theatre and other venues around Montreal to perform, which in part helped launch the careers of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.

In 1988 Just for Laughs turned into an international phenomena by broadcasting a live gala across the United States.

“When the director began the countdown inside the St. Denis Theatre that we were going to be on live television in the United States, the place could not have gotten any louder,” said Andy Nulman, Co-Founder of Just For Laughs.

This was the first non-sporting event broadcasted live from Canada to the United States. The show was hosted by Canadian movie star John Candy, who had just finished filming the iconic film Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

“It was an unbelievable experience and people realized that we had crossed over into the big leagues and [were] never [going to] look back.”– Andy Nulman, Co-Founder of Just For Laughs

“When the announcer said, ‘Here is your host, John Candy’, literally, people went nuts,” said Nulman. “It was an unbelievable experience and people realized that we had crossed over into the big leagues and [were] never [going to] look back.”

Nulman explained that right before Candy had to get on stage to announce the first act of the Gala, he lost his voice from partying too hard the previous night.

“We were live on television, so we had three minutes of an act to get his voice back,” said Nulman.

Technicians and executives from the Just For Laughs festival brought Candy some tea with honey. Candy’s voice recovered slightly but sounded dry throughout the rest of the set.

Apart from airing the show on live television, Just for Laughs organizers had another big plan: closing off Saint-Denis Street and using it as the festival site.

“We realized that you can only grow incrementally just by keeping it in theaters and if you grow substantially then it goes outdoors by allowing access to the world,” said Nulman.

A plain street was decorated with colourful streamers that offered a variety of performances, which included mimes, acrobats and stand-up comedy.

Over the years, the festival has experienced its share of ups and downs. In 1991 Just For Laughs hired the one man band Remy Bricka to sing the festival’s theme song at their closing parade. One of the technicians stopped Bricka in front of the St-Denis Theatre, which caused the fireworks attached to Bricka’s acoustic guitar to fly into the crowd, injuring some members of the audience.

Popularity on Saint-Denis Street grew over the next few years until the organization decided to move the event to the Old Port in 1994.

Just For Laughs on Saint Catherine Street, circa 1990. Photo Gilles Menon

Constant tension between the festival team and businesses on Saint-Denis Street led festival organizers to move Just For Laughs to the Old Port.

“We told [the restaurants and bars on Saint-Denis street] that we were going to move and they thought that we were bluffing until 1994,” said Nulman. “We charged for admission, owned all the concessions and had five outdoor stages where we did plenty of broadway and comedy shows.”

The festival moved back to Saint-Denis Street in 1997 to sell products from their sponsors, such as refreshments and snacks, but also kept the Old Port formula alive with several stages scattered around the area. In 2010, the festival moved to the Quartier des Spectacles, adding additional activities and street performers.

With a handful of stressful moments throughout the years, the Just For Laughs festival has managed to be the most recognizable comedy festival in the world, and continues to surprise and entertain audiences of all ages.

Juste pour rire/ Just For Laughs // 15th – 31st July // 12 – 31 July// hahaha.com

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