Laugh Track

Left: Joan Rivers. (Photo: Eric Myre) Right: Aparna Nancherla and Brent Weinbach. (Photo: Miriam Katz)

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW LUCKY YOU ARE? I’m eighty years old—I could die at any moment,” bellowed Joan Rivers to a crowd of five thousand during the 2013 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. “Never mind all this shitty comedy. You’d be invited to dinner for the rest of your lives: ‘You were there?!’”

Well, no such luck. If there was a whiff of death, it’s because Rivers killed onstage, crawling around in a royal purple sequin robe as she attacked celebrities, derided her aging body and mind, and invoked a range of ethnic slurs with refreshing equanimity (“everybody’s something, calm down already”). Three hours later, Sarah Silverman echoed the elder performer’s incongruous presence in the same regal theater, “Home to opera, ballet, the symphony, and now, pussy jokes.”

I came up for the final four nights of the nearly three-week fest, where each evening hundreds of agents, managers, bookers, and comics flocculated amid touristy crowds at the multitiered Place des Arts, the heart of the outdoor, public portion of JFL. The real industry warriors headed east toward the seedier end of Rue Ste. Catherine, filled with strippers, vagabonds, and bachelorettes, en route to comedy shows at bars, black boxes, nightclubs, and even arenas. (It was a star-studded Just For Laughs.)

The festival organizers succeeded in booking many of comedy’s most relevant players, like Tig Notaro, whose boldly head-on set about a series of personal tragedies, performed last fall at Largo in Los Angeles, was heavily promoted by both NPR and Louis C.K. “I had bilateral breast cancer. I’m sure none of you have heard about that,” Notaro sarcasted in Montreal. “Before I had cancer, I made so many jokes about being flat-chested. And I started to think when I was going through recovery, maybe my boobs overheard me, and they were just finally like, we’re sick of this. Let’s kill her.” In response to the audience’s applause break Notaro teased: “That’s right, clap it up. That’s like on Facebook when you’re liking sad news. ‘Love it. Wonderful. What else you got?’ ”

Left: Mitch Hurwitz. (Photo: Dan Dion) Right: Sarah Silverman. (Photo: Eric Myre)

“Comedy is an elusive target,” argued Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz as he accepted his award for Comedy Writer of the Year. More often than not, this summer’s lineup hit the mark. Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, and John Mulaney blew me away with their masterful storytelling, while others, such as Brent Weinbach, Maria Bamford, and Bo Burnham, unveiled more unusual plays on the form. During his hour-long solo performance “What?,” Burnham read poetry, shot at a unicorn, argued with backing tracks, and crooned about the death of art.

The twin, seemingly evergreen subjects of rape and race were omnipresent, sometimes hackly managed, but occasionally innovatively wrangled. Lynne Koplitz’s line of defense against an attacker: “What are you gonna do, rape me? It can’t happen. I’ll kiss you on the lips. I’m gonna love the rape right out of you. Now you’re my boyfriend.” An amped-up crowd cheered the newly jacked Dave Chappelle, back on tour after a decadelong hiatus, as he defiantly lit cigarette after cigarette. “Yeah, it’s fun to smoke inside, it really is. This is like bizarro America. It’s the opposite of America— it’s a room full of white people watching a black person do some shit that they can’t do.”

In addition to stand-up and the occasional improv session, the fest was filled with ample panels, podcast tapings, and other events in the conference rooms of the Hyatt hotel, including Andy Kindler’s State of the Industry Address, his annual takedown of the things he deems overhyped, from social media (“Hey Vine, your six seconds are up”) to Eddie Izzard (“PreeeeeeeTENtious!”). Like Colin Quinn during his keynote at JFL, Kindler also defended a comedian’s right to free speech, with an essential caveat: “If you’re funny, you can say anything. If you’re not, you’re a bigot and a racist,” adding a jab at the popular podcaster and former The Man Show host: “Adam Carolla is like Hitler, if Hitler wasn’t funny.” (“He’s a fucking pile of shit!” yelled comic Todd Glass from the audience. “I don’t know why no one else is talking about it.”)

Left: Ron Funches. (Photo: Miriam Katz) Right: Just for Laughs' Robbie Paw and Bruce Hills with Rick Greenstein, Dave Chappelle, and Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon. (Photo: Dan Dion)

“I wish I could do the opposite of the Andy Kindler speech and just talk about how great everybody is,” said Amy Poehler during her acceptance speech for Comedy Person of the Year. “I wanted to pitch that I stand next to him and just go: ‘Come on, everybody’s working so hard! Give ‘em a break!’ ” The comedian gave gratitude to the festival organizers (“Thank you Montreal, you guys are such an elite class of weirdos,”) presenters Silverman and soon-to-be Late Night host Seth Myers, and winners Hurwitz, Michael Cera (Best Comedic Short Film), Edgar Wright (Comedy Director of the Year), and her new beau, Breakout Comedy Star of the Year Nick Kroll. “Thank you to Nick who is the funniest. I am very sexually attracted to you.”

The dirty little secret of the comedy world is that most people in it work incredibly hard. “It ain’t easy making things look breezy,” said Wright. And yet comedians carry on with the worthwhile pursuit of finding the funny and lightening our collective loads. As Notaro revealed during her show, a single headline from The Onion carried her through an extraordinary rough patch (“SEAGULL WITH DIARRHEA JUST BARELY MAKES IT TO CROWDED BEACH ON TIME”). Just for Laughs gives comedians a chance to share their work and secure the deals that make it possible to make more (the Hyatt lounge at 3 AM is a petri dish for future industry collaborations). It also allows them to simply let loose and celebrate each other. As Ron Funches put it: “I feel like I don't need to eat or sleep while I’m here. I’m just happy.”