Arts & Entertainment, Comedy

Bankruptcy is no laughing matter

Laughs aren’t enough to save Just for Laughs Comedy Festival from financial troubles. On Mar. 5, the parent company Groupe Juste pour rire inc. released a statement announcing the cancellation of the 2024 Just for Laughs /Juste pour rire (JFL) Comedy Festival in Montreal and Toronto. The company is now seeking creditor protection from bankruptcy. Additionally, the company laid off 75 employees, which comprised about 70 per cent of the company. JFL explained that the combined factors of revenue loss during COVID-19, financial strain from inflation, and the changing media landscape all contributed to their decision to cancel this year’s festival.

JFL gave many Canadian comedians, as well as American counterparts such as Kevin Hart and Jimmy Fallon, their big break by bringing together eager start-up comedians, attentive booking agents, and talent scouts. Canadian comedian and writer Brent Butt explained in an interview with The Canadian Press that the festival provided an opportunity for comedians to get the “right eyeballs” on them. Performing at JFL could quickly provide them with international recognition. As opposed to posting their content online for a less-invested social media fan base, working with the festival events’ live audiences helps comedians improve preparedness in their sets and gives them the chance to improvise. It also exposes performers to an audience that wouldn’t be willing to make the trip to the comedian’s hometown for a smaller event. 

JFL’s sudden closure came with little warning, and many comedians had already wasted months preparing for this non-existent opportunity. Historically, Montreal’s comedy scene as a whole has benefitted from the festival; each summer, the city’s smaller comedy events and local clubs typically welcome an influx of spectators. This year, however, the city’s comedy venues are expecting to see a sharp drop in revenue. JFL is an important part of Montreal’s extensive lineup of summer festivals and its accompanying avid tourism industry. While visitors can purchase tickets for indoor venues, the festival also hosts free outdoor entertainment acts in both English and French. By doing so, JFL makes comedy accessible and exposes the comedian to an even larger crowd.

In general, the Canadian government does not do enough to protect comedians. Federal funding bodies like the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) do not offer comedy- or improv-specific grants. Instead, comedians are expected to find a way to include their work in a broader art form, such as theatre or literature. Canadian comedians like Howie Mandel end up feeling like they need to move to the U.S. in order to achieve success. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for Canadian comedians to obtain work visas since Canadian media industries were both protected under the North American Free Trade Agreement cultural exemption clause and renewed under the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement. The clause aims to promote Canadian content and protect it from being taken over by American corporations, but actually makes it harder for our comedians to succeed in other parts of the world. The cancellation of one of the world’s most important comedy festivals, centred around two major Canadian cities, will further weaken the already narrow opportunity for Canadian comedians to succeed. 

It’s crucial for Canada’s comedy sector that JFL returns, even if it operates on a smaller scale. JFL is responsible for starting comedic careers and celebrating prominent comedians. It is Canada’s largest player in the comedy industry, and its removal will damage Montreal’s decorated entertainment industry. While the future of JFL is unsure, not all hope is lost; the statement made by Groupe Juste pour rire inc. ended on an eager note, emphasizing the prospect of reopening the festival in 2025 after financial restructuring. If you are looking for a replacement in the meantime, the Quebecois reality prank show Just for Laughs Gags will continue to run on CBC.

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