Andy Nulman reflects upon 30 years of Montreal’s Just For Laughs

Just For Laughs may never have become the world’s largest international group of comedy festivals if not for Andy Nulman. After all, it’s difficult to imagine now. But in its first two years, Just For Laughs only existed for a weekend in Montreal — and only then for its French-speaking residents.

Nulman joined in year three to bring in the Anglophones.

Fast forward to July 2012.

Today, Montreal’s 30th annual Just For Laughs kicks the English-speaking shows into full gear with the addition of Zoofest shows for the second half of the now-monthlong celebration of funny and congregation of comedians and show-business executives. And JFL has expanded with multiple TV series — both original series such as a hidden-camera effort as well as stand-up comedy showcases and galas recorded during the festival. While Montreal remains the centerpiece of it all, JFL also truly has gone global, launching sister fests in Toronto, Chicago and Sydney in recent years.

How did Andy Nulman, President, Festivals and Television, get roped into this in the first place?

“He (Gilbert Rozon) was looking for someone who spoke English,” Nulman told The Comic’s Comic. “I had done Howie Mandel’s tour in the United States.” Nulman said he also had a lot of public relations experience already. So Rozon and Mandel had common interests.

When did you notice things start to change for Just For Laughs?

John Candy hosting a 1988 HBO special live from Montreal's Just For Laughs.

“I think there were a couple of turning points. In 1987, when the industry discovered it…that was one…but the major turning point was in 1988 when we were live in HBO with John Candy,” Nulman said. After a while, he actually left much of the festival in other hands for about 11 years. When he returned as a full-time executive, he noticed how much JFL had grown into two facets: “One, entertain the public. Second, give an overview of what’s happening in the world of comedy.”

The Montreal festival grew through one comedy boom, one comedy bust, and then another boom. But this boom includes the Internet, with comedy fans consuming stand-up, sketch and other funny people via YouTube or other social media.

“As long as people need to laugh,” Nulman said. “Whether there’s a comedy boom or comedy bust is irrelevant. We were there before the Internet. We were there…The future, then, is because the fact there will always be a necessity, a need to laugh, we will maintain our relevance.”

How exactly does Just For Laughs make sure of that?

“You stay relevant,” he said, “by taking some risks. It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s get the biggest concert draw. But it’s also relevant to say, ‘Let’s give you who you need to see.” He cited recruiting international acts from across the pond in the U.K. (Craig Ferguson, Eddie Izzard) to as far away as China as examples. In fact, that “HBO Comedy Hour Live” that John Candy hosted in 1988 included acts from Spain, West Germany, China and Australia. “We forced it on (audiences). We gave (comedians) a platform. We stuck to our guns. We never feel that desperation.”

“When you look at comedy and the Internet, what is it? These are the same jokes we sent each other via fax machine,” he said. “These shows are not dying…so what do you say? Kids are still watching television? They’re watching television on computers. They may not be watching on the network that is initially broadcasting it, but they’re watching it.”

Bill Hader, shown here with Judd Apatow at Just For Laughs in 2008, returns to host a Gala on July 24, 2012.

The traditional galas have become less traditional in the past couple of years. What’s the thinking behind that?

“We let people like Bill Hader, Joel McHale have fun. None of the analog stage sets. Especially now with the Bob Saget XXX set, we’re taking the set out,” Nulman said.

Speaking of less traditional, what was your take on those few years ago when Doug Stanhope put on his own anti-festival during JFL? Nulman

“We need rabble-rousers,” Nulman said.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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