On Oct. 9 and 10, Montreal’s annual international comedy festival Just For Laughs (JFL) debuted its first online and free iteration since its beginnings in 1993. Typically scheduled for two weeks every July, the festival was postponed to October due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shortening its usual offerings to two days, with its organizers citing that cancellation was not an option.
JFL has always been a staple of Montreal’s cultural scene; moreover, it boasts the title of the world’s largest comedy festival. Every year, audiences gather to see emerging and established talent from around the world. This year, JFL managed to fulfill its mandate, offering shows of pre-recorded performances, to virtual industry roundtables, to live interviews with comedians.
The festival kicked off with a live conversation between comedians Kevin Hart and Judd Apatow, streamed across all three virtual rooms available on the JFL website. Hart and Apatow discussed the effects of the pandemic on the industry, and reminisced about their beginnings in comedy. Although this Zoom-call-esque conversation offered an intimate glimpse into the lives of two comedy giants, it set a precedent of disappointing redundancy, as nearly every question pertained to comedy during the pandemic. Whether it was actor Titus Burgess or drag queen Trixie Mattel, conversations often lingered on the same platitudes of taking time during the pandemic to relax and rework material. Coupled with occasional Zoom freezes, audio glitches, and awkward silences, many unscripted interviews proved to be duller and more repetitive than previously anticipated for the comedy festival.
Yet, despite the lack of natural jokes and live audience reactions, JFL proved relatable and at times even inspirational. In one room, comedian Nicole Byer sipped on wine from a straw as she chatted with Mattel. In another, comedian Andy Kindler acknowledged the uncomfortable awkwardness of giving his 25th annual State of the Industry speech online.
“I’m holding for the applause I hear in my head,” Kindler joked after introducing himself.
In an interview with comedian and JFL part-owner Howie Mandel, comedian Ms. Pat discussed her unlikely debut in stand-up comedy—a creative outlet suggested to her after she was released from prison. Ms. Pat spoke about her past with drug dealing, abusive relationships, and her desire to give her children a better life. When advised by her caseworker to pursue comedy as a hobby, Ms. Pat discovered a therapeutic outlet in stand-up.
“Find a way to laugh at the darkest thing in life,” Ms. Pat advised Mandel.
Comedy, Ms. Pat suggested, is more than an income or a source of entertainment: It is a way of processing emotions and showing others that even comedians are not exempt from traumas.
Besides divulging comedian’s personal anecdotes, JFL hosted several panels for industry professionals to discuss the current state of comedy and touring. In the roundtable, “Now What,” viewers learned about the adverse effects of the pandemic on stand-up comedy, like canceled sources of income, but also about the hidden positives, like the industry coming together to uplift comedians in a time of need. Producer Brian Dorfman pointed out the necessity of comedy during COVID-19, emphasizing the importance of finding joy in these tumultuous times.
“We might be the most essential business in this issue that’s happening with the world,” Dorfman said.
As most industries and technologically unsavvy individuals have learned, translating in-person events to online mediums is tricky. Though awkward and disjointed at times, JFL proved that this new format could still be comforting and familiar. JFL presented the best version of itself that it could have, reminding viewers that during a pandemic—in the words of Ms. Pat—we must know how to laugh at the darkest things in life.