JFL 35 showcased future household names, reeled in millennial crowds

JFL 35 showcased future household names, reeled in millennial crowds
JFL 35 showcased future household names, reeled in millennial crowds

The Just for Laughs festival's outdoor component included small-stage histrionics from Montreal comedian Mike Paterson. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

Just for Laughs has seen the future, and it’s digital. And we aren’t referring to any proctological Nasty Show material, either.

The comedy festival wrapped its 35th edition Monday, and execs had to be feeling euphoric, not just because there were 42 sold-out shows. The Lilly Singh Gala Sunday night at Place des Arts marked a turning point of sorts for the festival. The venue was crammed with millennials, eager to catch YouTube Superwoman Singh. In the process, her event brought down the average age in the venue by a good 25 years compared with who normally shows up for the galas.

Those millennials might not know a Milton Berle from some sort of stomach affliction, but they know what they like, and that is a new set of cultural heroes hatched from social media and YouTube. That bodes well for JFL’s future.

And with the Lilly Singhs of the new world of comedy came a slew of fresh faces who also enthralled at this year’s fest: Tony Rock, Jermaine Fowler, Sam Jay, Vir Das, Desus and Mero, Aunty Donna — all likely to become household names. One can’t lose sight of the fact that the likes of Kevin Hart, Hannibal Buress, , Hasan Minhaj, and, yes, one Jerry Seinfeld all credit the fest for launching their careers when they arrived here as virtual unknowns.

Seinfeld was back this year for JFL 35’s signature event at the Bell Centre, a venue that will never match the intimacy of a club room. Regardless, Seinfeld slayed again, showing no sign of slowing down at 63. He actually opened the show for his buddy, the French Jerry Seinfeld, Gad Elmaleh.

Millennials crowded the venue to watch YouTuber Lilly Singh perform during a Just For Laughs gala at Place des Arts on Sunday, July 30, 2017. Graham Hughes / Graham Hughes/The Gazette

So many comics, so little time was once again the mantra for many aficionados this year.

OK, so there was no Dave Chappelle, no Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Aziz Ansari or Sarah Silverman this year. Bill Burr, perhaps the funniest man on the planet, wasn’t here, either, but he did make a local pit stop just prior to the festival.

But there was Mike Birbiglia, Ali Wong, Trevor Noah, Dave Attell, Jeff Ross, Rick Mercer, Judd Apatow, Joel McHale, Jimmy Carr, Alonzo Bodden, Robert Kelly, Sugar Sammy, the Lucas Brothers, Michael Che, Colin Jost, Chris D’Elia, John Mulaney, Craig Ferguson, Elon Gold, Rod Man, Jim Norton, Ari Shaffir, Andy Kindler, Moshe Kasher, Wyatt Cenac, Godfrey, Steve Byrne, Vladimir Caamano, Arthur Simeon, W. Kamau Bell, Big Jay Oakerson, Natasha Leggero, David Baddiel and Ryan Hamilton.

And Hart, primarily here for the Laugh Out Loud! Short-film competition, did stop by for an unannounced 45-minute set at the aptly titled Midnight Surprise show.

Another highlight was Jessica Kirson, who, after 20 years in the trenches, emerged from the shadows and simply killed at the Ethnic Show series as well as at the Rick Mercer Gala and her own solo shows.

Hats off as well to Tom Papa, one of the most underrated wits on the continent. Not unlike the man he used to open for — Seinfeld — Papa never fails to bring down a house, riffing hysterically on life’s absurdities.

Tom Papa during the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal on July 27, 2017. Allen McInnis

The aforementioned made for a lot of hilarity, and I can’t say enough about the continuing progression of Birbiglia, Noah and Wong, all comedy geniuses in the making.

On the non-genius front, hopefully the hecklers at the Nasty Show series were a one-festival occurrence only. Then again, no heckler should try to match wits with the likes of Carr or go up against the truly Big Jay.

Some critics bemoaned the fact that such caustic political wits as Lewis Black, John Oliver and Bill Maher weren’t on hand to tear a strip or 10 off American President Donald . But there were plenty of potshots taken by Bodden, Byrne, Mercer, Noah and Bell, who might have got off the most searing remark about The Donald:  “Completely blunting the myth of white supremacy.” Bell followed that with this stinging overview of ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer: assembled “by the bare minimum amount of sperm it takes to make a human being.” Ouch.

It would have been nice to touch base with such serial JFL visitors as Dom Irrera, Bobby Slayton and Mike MacDonald, particularly in an anniversary year.

On the other hand, does the public really care about catching podcasts or TV show panels? It seems that panels featuring cast and crew of shows like I’m Dying Up Here, The Mick, Superior Donuts and Vice Principals are more geared for the industry than for the paying public. Despite numerous warnings that Jim Carrey, an executive producer of I’m Dying Up Here, wasn’t going to do pratfalls or reveal anything personal on the Maison symphonique stage, some patrons still came away disappointed.

Jessica Kirson slayed at the Ethnic Show series as well as the Rick Mercer Gala and her own solo shows. Allen McInnis

On the positive side, some skeptics, myself included, used to mock the outdoor component of the festival for being little more than an arena for mimes, jugglers and the annual Twins Parade. That is no longer the case. Sure, the aforementioned are still kicking — and sometimes getting kicked — but the Quartier des spectacles is now abuzz with a vibe to rival that of the jazz festival.

There was big-stage music by Russell Peters’s Old School Mixtape bash, the Jacksons and Kool and the Gang, and there were small-stage histrionics from hometown comic-wrestler-lip-syncher Mike Paterson, who was among the hardest-working fest performers.

Montreal was represented by such locals as Sugar Sammy and Rachid Badouri. And the city got its due at Monday’s closing gala, Montreal: An Intervention, which could have used some Joey Elias and Derek Seguin spice. If there was ever a time this city needed an intervention, it’s now.

Perhaps fest-founder Gilbert Rozon could prevail on his good buddy, Mayor Denis Coderre, and ask him to hold next year’s Formula E race at another time or on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve — or not at all.

One really can’t fault, much less mock, the late-comers at this year’s shows, when not even a Magellan could have figured out how to navigate city streets to get to the venues on time, particularly patrons coming in from the West Island or the South Shore.

Nope, nothing much funny about this city’s newest carnival, the Chaos Fest. All of which explains why Montreal always needs the laughs.

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