TORONTO – Canadian comic Brent Butt can’t help but have a few concerns about the new ownership group taking over Just For Laughs.
“I hope that a U.S.-based company is still going to afford opportunities for Canadian comedians,” the stand-up star said Wednesday when reached at his home in Vancouver.
“If expanding Just for Laughs means the opportunities for Canadian comedians are expanding as well, then that’s great. If this new ownership group decides, ‘Well, the best way to expand globally is to really rely 100 per cent on big American stars,’ then that’s not a good thing.
“And I hope with all my heart that’s not the road that they take.”
News that the venerable comedy showcase had been sold to an investor group led by the massive U.S. talent agency ICM Partners and Canuck comic Howie Mandel caught comedy watcher Andrew Clark by surprise.
As the program director of comedy writing and performance at Toronto’s Humber College, Clark is attuned to a shifting industry in which global markets are drawing increasing interest from Hollywood.
He noted the group promised to expand the festival’s global presence and wondered if that meant future showcases would be staged abroad.
“Why not have a Just for Laughs tour that’s touring China or that’s touring those other parts of the world? Or having a Just for Laughs festival in Shanghai?” said Clark, musing on the possibilities.
“I think they’re looking at: ‘Well, Just For Laughs (spinoff) JFL42 has worked in Toronto … what if we do Just For Laughs Atlanta? Or Just For Laughs Chicago or Minneapolis?”
And it wouldn’t take much to pivot, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, he added.
“I’m glad that there will be an international component to it. It doesn’t frighten me too much.”
Despite the festival’s deep roots in Montreal, the festival has always featured a lot of U.S. and foreign talent.
“It was never just a Canadian comedy festival. In the ’90s, it was a festival where Canada got to mingle with the Hollywood industry and then as the Internet kind of took over, the need to fly to Montreal to judge talent dimmed,” Clark said, nevertheless seeing opportunities for Canadians to shine even brighter.
Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin also saw much to be hopeful about, largely because of Mandel’s involvement.
“I think a lot of Canadian comedians right now are heaving a sigh of relief that the festival … has not transferred it entirely over to American hands. I think it was very smart of ICM and also a very astute investment of Howie Mandel to have a Canadian that has a such a prominent position in the ownership of a Canadian legacy company.”
And Butt, too, found some solace in knowing that a seasoned comic was involved, but wondered to what degree Mandel would wield his influence.
“It’s always better if somebody’s making decisions about the stage when they’ve been on the stage before,” said the “Corner Gas” star, who first performed at the Montreal mainstay in 1992.
“Is Howie going to be calling shots? If he is, I have a higher level of confidence. If he’s not, then we really have to take a wait-and-see attitude.”
Mandel insisted Wednesday that he intends to champion Canadian talent.
“We know the British rock-and-roll. Canada is really not on the map as far as what Canada has meant to comedy,” Mandel said.
“I don’t need to be the face but I want to be a strong voice in promoting and continuing and growing the Montreal comedy festival as somebody who is a comedian and somebody who loves comedy, every type of comedy, in every language and loves Canada.”
Comedian Mike Paterson said Mandel’s involvement “is great,” calling him “an awesome person and a great man.”
And he hoped that the involvement of an entertainment juggernaut like ICM — one of the world’s biggest talent agencies with clients in film, television, books, music and live performance — would mean more Hollywood attention on homegrown acts.
“There’s a lot of good opportunity for Canadian comedians,” said Paterson.
At the very least, Mandel’s association will remind partners that the festival began and flourished in Canada, said Breslin. He chose to believe Mandel would ensure that connection remains strong.
“A voice at the table is better than no voice at the table. And I think that having Howie’s voice at the table will really mean something for Canadian comics.”
— With files from Ross Marowits in Montreal