Returning to Montreal from July 11 to 29 is the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, a celebration of everything funny from the performers to the business behind the curtains.

Paul Ronca, the festival’s director of industry and special events programming and strategic partner development, describes Just for Laughs as the Coachella of comedy. “If you’re a fan of comedy or work in it, this festival should be at the very top of your list,” he says.
Now in its 36th year, Just for Laughs has evolved in direction and scope just like the industry that it celebrates. “We attract everyone in the world of comedy: creators, influencers, TV, web and film executives and podcasters,” Ronca says.

After such growth, the line-up this year boasts some of the biggest names in the business. “Where do we start?” Ronca exclaims when asked which performers will draw big crowds. “There are so many killer acts this year!”

The Kevin Hart Irresponsible Tour stops in for three shows during Hart’s worldwide circuit. Dave Chappelle and John Mayer bring their Controlled Danger show, while Steve Martin and Martin Short play three shows during their Canadian tour. David Cross, Trevor Noah, Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes, Chris D’Elia and Tig Notaro are also on the bill.

More of the most beloved of Just for Laughs institutions — the Comedy Galas — are also planned from Trevor Noah, Will Forte, Haddish, among others. And of course, there’s Variety’s
10 Comics to Watch, a popular event that spotlights emerging talent.

Just as in politics, it’s been a very tough year in Hollywood, and comedy isn’t immune. With names as big as T.J. Miller and Louis C.K. among those accused of abhorrent behavior, the comedy world has to come to terms with its own history of misogyny and sexism.

In distancing the festival from those who’ve been called out as abusers — including festival founder Gilbert Rozon — Ronca says the event has new owners and a fresh start. It is “the most demonstrative way we could possibly address this,” he says. “As an organization we fully support the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up. In fact, ICM [the festival’s new owner] is a founding sponsor of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and has hosted many Time’s Up events at its headquarters.”

It’s still a tricky balance to strike, but Just for Laughs certainly isn’t shying away from edgier material. “The Ethnic Show” and “The Nasty Show” are both returning, poking good-natured fun at the traditions of other races and showcasing comedy’s “filthiest minds,” respectively.

While risqué, “The Nasty Show” is nevertheless one of Just for Laughs’ most popular events and to Ronca, that’s par for the course for the art and science of making people laugh. “Comedy is the most honest art form on the planet, which automatically makes it risky,” he says. “Every decade has its envelope pushers. Remember George Carlin and [his bit] Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV? Society as a whole will always try to push the line further out, with comedy leading the way.”

While he says the abuse, assault and other bad behaviors have no place in our society and he has enormous respect for those who stand and fight back for what’s right, Ronca also thinks the goal of most comedians isn’t to demean or downplay a serious situation, it’s to help take the edge off. “Comedy is there to make people reflect — in a positive way on all that’s happened under a different light. The goal of comedy is to heal and make us forget our troubles for a little while, not to hurt.”


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