Walking through the Just For Laughs headquarters is like visiting a museum dedicated to comedy. The halls are lined with memorabilia – personal notes from Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg, original sketches of the festival’s green mascot, Victor – and chief operating officer Bruce Hills’s office is no exception. His walls feature a cast-signed poster of Family Guy Live, which he produced, and a framed letter of thanks (typo included) from then prime minister Stephen Harper.
Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, Just for Laughs (and, by extension, Montreal) is now the undisputed epicentre of global stand-up. Last year, it attracted more than 1.7 million festivalgoers, highlighting the fact that JFL isn’t just a comedy festival, but also one of the city’s biggest attractions. Though Hills stresses that this is no time to rest on any laurels.
“Right now, we’re having a very nice run, but the last thing we should be doing is sitting around applauding ourselves and thinking that we shouldn’t touch anything,” says Hills. “We need to continue to adapt.”
The job of establishing JFL as the world’s top comedy festival has been driven largely by Hills. As COO, he’s overseen all English-speaking operations worldwide for the past 18 years. For the 15 years before that, he held roles as VP of international television and director of programming. However, his start at the company, when he was 23 years old, was surprisingly humble. Growing up in Saint-Lambert, Quebec, Hills always knew he wanted to work in show business. Later, as a student at Concordia University, he reached out to JFL’s festival director at the time, Andy Nulman, who gave him his first gig – as a driver chaperoning artists, TV executives and VIPs from venue to venue. It was a job that turned out to be more challenging than expected. He spent his first festival negotiating the territory between two comedians who notoriously despised one another: Jerry Lewis (and his entourage, which included a dog) and Sandra Bernhard. (Their feud started in 1982, while working on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.) Hills’ first few summers driving turned out to be a lesson in the relationship-building for which he’s now famous in industry circles.
The next big thing
Hills’s strength has been his ability to develop contacts on both the business and creative side. It’s the sort of thing most audience members will never notice, but is critical to the festival’s success. “It’s very important for us to be a place where artists want to come, where the industry wants to come and where it wants to invest,”
In recent years, Hills has also focused on maintaining the strength of JFL’s programming, growing its TV broadcasting rights globally and developing the brand’s international offshoots. JFL content is now seen in over 150 countries and on over 150 airlines around the world. JFL-branded events have expanded to the United States, Australia, Singapore, Mexico and Bermuda, and Hills himself has overseen the production of over 1,000 JFL television specials.
Although he now works on the bigger picture, he’s always had a natural ability to spot comedic talent. One of his first responsibilities was to go through the boxes of VHS tapes submitted by would-be comics. He would give each comedian a couple of minutes to wow him, and then would switch tapes if the act turned out to be unoriginal or “just another guy in a tie and bad suit talking about his kids.” He distinctly remembers being blown away by a young, New York-based comedian who delivered two perfect seven-minute sets. He called up the handwritten number on the back of the tape, got a manager and simply said, “He’s in!” “He,” in this case, was Dave Chappelle.
Chappelle is a perfect example of an artist who has stayed loyal to the JFL brand over the years. In 2013, he performed 10 sold-out shows at Théâtre Maisonneuve, and came back again in 2015 for another 10. That year, Chappelle threw an after-party and, in the middle of the celebrations, stopped the music to tell attendees how he first arrived in Montreal, flat broke, and was given his first big break by Hills. Chappelle hailed him as the “comedy curator of a generation,” and gave him an inscribed trophy. (Most recently, Hills was at Chappelle’s post-US-election Saturday Night Live performance, hanging out with the comic and his entourage until 5 a.m.) The UK edition of GQ magazine gave Hills an equally impressive accolade, calling him “the most powerful man in international comedy” – strong words for someone whose name is little-known outside the industry.
Key to attracting top-tier artists, says Hills, is finding out what makes each performer tick beyond comedy. For example, Seth Rogen hosted his own gala show in 2014 after the JFL team discovered that he supported the Alzheimer’s Association through his foundation Hilarity for Charity. JFL worked directly with the comedian, who donated his appearance fee, to develop the gala and raise funds. The same deal was reached in 2016 at P.K. Subban’s All-Star Comedy Gala, which raised $160,000 for the Montreal Children’s Hospital (with the hockey player donating his entire appearance fee to his own charity).
This isn’t to say that JFL is all gala shows and big-name comedians. Attendees and visitors to Montreal are just as likely to discover up-and-coming acts before they make it big, and comics from Margaret Cho to Jim Jefferies say they owe their careers to the fest. In 2012, a fledgling Amy Schumer performed during JFL at a Saint-Laurent bar for $15 – a far cry from her headlining 2017 show at the Bell Centre, where seats went for up to $139. Hills’s advice for those starting out a comedy career: “Get on stage, find a unique point of view and be stubborn about sticking to it even when everyone says you’re not funny or audiences don’t laugh,” he says. “And don’t approach JFL before you’re ready,” he cautions.
Montreal has a great audience. People are super-knowledgeable comedy fans.”
Although Montreal may not have seemed like the most obvious choice for the world’s biggest comedy festival, over New York and Los Angeles, Hills says it’s the city’s culture and its bilingual residents that have helped the festival on its way. “Montreal has a great audience. People here are super-knowledgeable comedy fans that are open to seeing new and original acts. The fact that it’s also a bilingual city makes it very receptive to different styles of comedy.” Popular comedians are also known to test out new material in Montreal with surprise performances at the city’s smaller clubs. In 2015, Aziz Ansari announced a show on Twitter a few hours before he took to the stage at Maison Théâtre. Fans also regularly spot comedians hanging out at local bars and restaurants post-performance.
Hills believes that the city’s culture, especially the cuisine, is one of the festival’s biggest drawing cards for sponsors and the comics themselves – and their love of Montreal is an organic way to promote the festival. “There’s no better way to sell this city than through artists posting on Instagram and sending out a tweet naturally.” (After he sent Seth Rogen to top restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, the performer tweeted that it was one of the “craziest meals” he’d ever had.)
Popular comedians are known to test out new material in Montreal with surprise performances at smaller clubs.
As this year’s 20-day festival (July 12–31) promises even more impressive performances, Hills is optimistic about the future of the event. Although many have speculated that the internet would reduce attendance at live performances, Hills has found the opposite to be true, stating, “I think more and more people are being turned on to comedy by watching stuff online.” Overall, he’s confident that regardless of turbulent world events and changing conditions, the future looks bright for Canada’s funniest festival.
“During the harshest economic downturns, we’ve actually done fine because people are looking for relief. Even when times are tough, people want to laugh.”