Juste pour rire (Just For Laughs) is an international comedy festival held annually in Montreal. It is the largest and most influential comedy festival in the world. Founded in 1983 (as a French festival; the first English edition took place in 1985), the festival draws more than 2.5 million people annually and generates around $100 million for the Quebec economy. Some 250 shows are held annually at venues in and around Montreal’s Place des Arts. The production company behind the festival — and its many successful YouTube channels — is owned by Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, Bell Media, American talent agency ICM Partners and Canadian comedian Howie Mandel. The festival was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2022.
The original Juste pour rire festival was humble in scope: four comedy shows over two nights, entirely in French. The early years also featured comedy films and live entertainment outside the main venue throughout the day. Over the years, the festival has featured numerous free outdoor performances of clowns, mimes and other types of live performance comedy. The festival has also organized parades, including a regular parade of twins.
In 1985 — the first year the festival included acts in English — Just For Laughs ran for nine days. It featured five French-language galas and two English-languages galas. The festival attracted about 40,000 attendees to performances by 55 comedians. Jerry Seinfeld headlined the first night of the English festival, while Jay Leno headlined the second night. Quebec impressionist Jean-Guy Moreau was slated to emcee most of the French events but underwent emergency heart surgery on the eve of the festival. The French galas were instead emceed by Michel Drucker and Dominique Michel. The roster of French-language comedians included Michel Forget, Popek, Yves Lecoq and Pierre Verville.
By 1986, Just For Laughs was already attracting the attention of Hollywood agents and scouts for American late-night TV shows. It was also drawing big-name entertainers while providing local talent, such as impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon, the opportunity to garner international attention.
The percussion group STOMP made its North American debut with a free outdoor show at the festival in 1992, and went on to have a successful show off-Broadway. In 1993, 97-year-old George Burns performed live to critical acclaim and received the festival’s lifetime achievement award. In 1995, a young Jimmy Fallon opened for Penn & Teller. In 1997, This Hour Has 22 Minutes castmates Rick Mercer, Cathy Jones and Greg Thomey hosted the galas. Kevin Hart made his debut at the festival in 2001, while Canadian allophone comic Sugar Sammy had his festival debut in 2005.
The festival began branching out into television almost immediately. In 1985, CBC TV agreed to broadcast a half-hour special featuring comedians from the English-language galas. The TV special was immensely popular, leading to a six-part series in 1988, which later evolved into a 12-part annual series. In 2009, a special edition of Just For Laughs, based in Chicago, began airing on the American channel TBS.
Another series produced by the festival, the hidden-camera pranks show Just For Laughs Gags, has been a fixture on Canadian television since debuting on Canal D on 26 December 2000. It has also become a global phenomenon. The JFL Gags YouTube channel — one of 11 YouTube channels the festival runs in several languages — has racked up over 7.7 billion total views from more than 12.1 million subscribers. It was estimated in June 2022 that the JFL Gags YouTube channel alone generates $3–5 million in annual revenue.
Touring productions have brought Just For Laughs to many other cities, including Toronto; Vancouver; Sydney, Australia; and Austin, Texas. Just For Laughs also hosts comedy conventions, including one for professionals working in the comedy and entertainment industry.
The main festival also features themed shows. These include the Nasty Show, a long-running showcase of comedians who specialize in gross-out humour; Comedy Night in Canada, a showcase of Canadian comedians; and Just for the Culture (formerly the Ethnic Show), a showcase of comedians representing various non-white ethnic, religious and cultural groups. It also organizes Zoofest, a festival of alternative comedy and improvisation held during the main festival at smaller venues around Montreal.
For most of the festival’s history, Montreal’s historic Théâtre St-Denis was the primary venue. As a result of the festival’s growth, it has since moved to the Place des Arts and the Quartier des Spectacles area, which is also home to several other major Montreal festivals, including Les Francos de Montréal (formerly Les FrancoFolies de Montréal), Festival international Nuits d’Afrique and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (FIJM).
Size, Scope and Global Influence
In 2016, the Montreal festival attracted 2.5 million people and is estimated to have generated about $100 million for the Quebec economy. Annually, the festival presents around 250 shows at about two dozen venues in and around downtown Montreal, though primarily focused on the city’s Place des Arts.
The festival has long been an important launching pad in the careers of up-and-coming comedians. Jim Carrey, Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, among others, have credited Just For Laughs with helping to launch their careers. In a given year, Just For Laughs talent scouts may review as many as 700 comedy sets to find the best new talent to showcase at the festival.
In 2007, the Guardian called Just For Laughs “possibly the most important comedy show on the planet.” In 2019, Big 7 Travel ranked Just For Laughs at No. 3 in its list of the 50 best festivals in the world. As of June 2022, the organization had a net worth of $12–16 million. In July 2022, the festival was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame for its contributions as "an international powerhouse in the creation of multi-platform comedy content."
Charges and Lawsuits Against Founder
In 2017, amid the global #MeToo movement, new allegations of sexual misconduct against the festival’s president and founder, Gilbert Rozon, came to light. A group of 20 women, who called themselves Les Courageuses, launched a class-action lawsuit against Rozon. They alleged years of sexual harassment and assault dating back to when some of them were as young as 15. The lawsuit was dismissed, but another group of about 12 women filed criminal complaints against Rozon. One of those allegations resulted in a criminal charge of rape, of which Rozon was acquitted in December 2021. He has since faced other allegations and lawsuits from multiple women.
Change of Ownership
In October 2017, Rozon resigned from his position and stated his plan to sell his majority share of Groupe Juste pour rire, the production company behind the festival. An offer was made to Quebecor Inc., which held a right of first refusal. In March 2018, Groupe Juste pour rire was sold to American talent agency ICM Partners and Canadian comedian Howie Mandel. In June 2018, Groupe CH (headed by Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson) and Bell Media (a subsidiary of BCE Inc.) bought a controlling interest in the festival.