Montreal’s Just for Laughs cancels summer comedy festival, seeks creditor protection

By Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL — Members of the comedy world say they’re saddened by the cancellation of this year’s Just for Laughs Montreal comedy festival, whose years of shows have highlighted some of the industry’s biggest names and launched the careers of many comedians.

Groupe Juste pour rire Inc., the company that operates the festival, said in a news release Tuesday it is seeking protection from its creditors as it begins formal restructuring under Canada’s Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

The company said its English and French festivals this summer in Montreal would be cancelled, but it plans to continue operations “in a scaled-down format” as it restructures and hopes the festival will return in 2025.

Kelly Taylor, a comedian from Prince Albert, Sask., said performing at the festival was the one opportunity he had to play in front of show bookers who wouldn’t have come to see his act at home. 

“It was one of these things where you could get something to happen, over a week, you have all these different people come watch you,” Taylor said in a phone interview from a Winnipeg comedy club. 

Taylor’s first performance at Just For Laughs, in 2005, remains his most successful: he placed second in a competition for Canadian comics, and his act got him booked for more shows at the festival that year — and helped him find a manager.

“A lot of good came out of it, for sure,” he said. “It’s kind of sad that it’s not happening this year — unless I didn’t get in, then I’m not too worried about it, as long as it comes back again,” he joked.

Matt Labov, a publicist in Los Angeles who has worked with comedians including Mark Normand, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen — and represented Dave Chapelle in the early 2000s — said the cancellation is “a sad day for comedy,”

“This is not like music, where there’s tons of music festivals,” he said in an interview. Montreal’s festival, Labov added, has been “such an important place, a launching pad and such an important destination for comedy in a world that doesn’t have a lot of destinations, and I can only hope that they get back on their feet.”

Julien Provencher-Proulx, a spokesman for Groupe Juste pour rire, confirmed that 75 employees, around 70 per cent of the company’s workforce, were laid off Tuesday. He wrote in an email that people who had purchased tickets can receive refunds. 

In addition to the festival, a number of other upcoming Groupe Juste pour rire performances in Quebec were cancelled — though several of the artists who had been booked for those dates said on social media they would produce the shows themselves.

The festival, which began in 1983, has expanded with events in other cities and television programs, including the Just for Laughs Gags prank show. Over the years, the festival has presented many of the biggest names in standup comedy, including Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld. In addition to ticketed indoor shows, the French and English festivals featured free outdoor performances.

The Toronto Just for Laughs festival, set to take place in September, has not been cancelled, Provencher-Proulx said, nor has the festival in Austin, Texas. 

Just pour rire blamed its financial woes on a number of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and the changing entertainment industry.

The company, whose officials declined interview requests, said it is looking for new investors, or buyers for parts of its business, and that it hopes to preserve operations “as much as possible.” It is 51 per cent owned by Bell and Montreal event promoter Evenko, while Los Angeles-based talent agency Creative Artists Agency owns 49 per cent.

François Brouard, the associate director of the Observatoire de l’humour, an organization that brings together comedians and researchers who study comedy, said the festival may have struggled to adapt to changing trends in French-language comedy in Quebec.

The festival said in 2023 that it would no longer put on French-language galas, he said, adding that Quebec’s francophone comedians are increasingly reaching audiences online and have become less dependent on events like the festival to build a fan base.

“Maybe there’s a lack of renewal,” said Brouard, who is also a business professor at Carleton University.

Martin Roy, the CEO of Quebec festival association the Regroupement des événements majeurs internationaux, said that while he’s saddened by the news, he’s not surprised.

“We’ve been saying for months, even years, that things are not going well in the festival sector, in particular for the festivals that are presented free of charge, among others, in downtown Montreal,” he said in an interview. Inflation has pushed the price of hosting a festival up by 35 to 40 per cent since 2019, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2024.

— With files from Stéphane Rolland in Montreal.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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