In an almost last-minute decision, strings were pulled, favors were called in, nouns were verbed, and I found my passport, which means it's time to head across the border for the 2009 Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. Sure, talk to any member of the show business industry who has been around since Just For Laughs first took over this French-speaking Canadian city more than a quarter-century ago, and they'll be quick to tell you that the festival isn't what it once was. It's bigger, and yet not so big that comedians can return to the States with their dreams and pockets filled with six-figure development deals from the TV networks. No, times are different. We have the Internets now!
As I get ready to make the journey north once more, here are a few of the things I'm looking forward to seeing, following and preparing for over the next four days and nights.
1. Learning what the heck Zoofest is, once and for all. It's not part of Just For Laughs, but then again, it is. It's just the edgier shows? The shows with animals? I really don't know.
2. Seeing the industry hype machine in full effect, in both its most artificial and organic ways. Last year, I saw firsthand as NYC-based stand-up Sean Patton emerged from the "New Faces" showcase specifically because to the industry, he was a new face that they hadn't seen or heard from before, and they liked what they saw and heard. I've also read some silly things in the trades about certain comedians each year who got "buzz" and, having seen those comics, firmly believe that the trades sometimes get hoodwinked by the "buzz" comedians and their managers and agents who manufacture said buzz.
3. Speaking of which, that "buzz" machine also serves as a sad reminder of Michael Roof, aka "Chicken," the comedian who became infamous for scoring the last big TV development deal out of Montreal (the WB built a sketch show around him), only to find his career and life unravel. He took his own life last month.
4. What is Broken Lizard up to now? The sketch group made a big splash with their first independent film at Sundance, and followed up Super Troopers with a few more films, including Club Dread and Beerfest. They'll be performing new live sketches, taking questions and showing off their new movie, The Slammin' Salmon.
5. The British are coming, oh, wait, it's Canada, so they're already here, sort of. John Cleese, he of everything that is all and great about legendary British comedy, hosts an all-Britcom Gala (what the Montreal folks call their big televised variety specials) that should tell us if the English have some new comedy tricks up their sleeves.
6. Last year, Montreal named Judd Apatow the comedy man of the year. Or something like that. This year, Apatow is holding a red-carpet premiere of his new movie about comedians, Funny People, at the fest. Will it live up to its often-brilliant online promotional campaign?
7. Bill Cosby is back in Montreal for the first time in three years, and I look forward to experiencing a full set with him to see if he's as curmudgeonly as he has appeared on recent TV shows, or still the wonderful stand-up who set the bar for so many young comedians.
8. If Cosby has become an elder statesman of stand-up, then Louis CK is the new would-be king. At least if you ask me, Ricky Gervais or just about anyone else who has seen Louis CK perform in the past couple of years. He's been the toast of Montreal, too, so it'll be interesting to see how the city and the comedy community receive him this weekend.
9. How will the Upright Citizens Brigade play outside of the friendly confines of the UCB theaters in New York City and Los Angeles? In New York two years ago, the UCB co-founders staged ASSSSCAT in a rock club as part of the New York Comedy Festival, and it felt, looked and sounded like trying to watch an improv comedy show standing up peering over hundreds of other standing fans. The UCB is mounting several shows in Montreal, and I'll be curious to see if they seem any different in a new atmosphere.
10. Will AMP'd have the same "buzz" it had last year, when Bo Burnham and Jon Lajoie both proved that lots of audience members (and industry) still like guys who write clever musical hooks, and Craig Robinson tried to make everything a party? Well, the Dan Band is here. And Reggie Watts, too. So it should be fun, at the very least.
11. Will Andy Kindler's State of the Industry Speech continue to be the one event that everyone in the industry attends? Last year, there was a funny scene as the standing-room-only ballroom emptied out after Kindler's speech, despite the fact that Judd Apatow's event was following it.
12. Montreal is giving its industry-based Comedy Conference a second try this year. Will we hit upon a big idea? Or will the industry get caught up hearing itself talk and talk some more? Let's hope for the former.
13. Will the exchange rate be any better? It has to be better than last year, when it seemed like the first time in forever that Canadian dollars were stronger than our American greenbacks. Loonies, I tell ya! Loonies! (Yes, I know that's a different coin.) I think the weak dollar last year had an impact on everyone's mood.
14. And yet, the forecast for just about the rest of the week calls for rain in some form or another — both in Montreal and in NYC, and the rest of the Northeast. What is this, Bumbershoot? No, that's in Seattle. We're Canada-bound. And we're packing our umbrella!