The sad demise of the Montreal comedy festival

So much live entertainment has struggled to recover from lockdown.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Topics Covid-19 Culture World

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Montreal’s world-famous Just for Laughs comedy festival filed for protection from bankruptcy earlier this month and will not be taking place this year. The excuses given are vague, familiar and carry the whiff of a PR adviser’s midnight oil. Challenges, difficult times, changing marketplace, and so forth.

It could easily be down to simple incompetence, of course. Financial or administrative. It is, after all, a comedy festival. The fact that it is called Just for Laughs does perhaps point to a regrettable tendency that comedians have to overlook the bottom line, in favour of her more eye-catching sister, the killer line.

Still, this is a big brand, almost certainly the biggest comedy festival in the world (the Edinburgh Fringe has a small but disqualifying admixture of Bolivian puppetry, student theatre and Czech mask-work in its DNA).

Montreal is huge. Comedians used to schedule careers and international holidays around it. It was, crucially, the North American industry trade fair. For decades, it was the springboard between the club circuit and the five-minute breakout spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, or whatever thin Democratic Party propaganda-gruel the punch-drunk American people are currently accepting as their late-night swill.

So it is quite a juggernaut to drive into a ditch, even by Canadian-trucker standards. Supposedly, by 2025, Montreal will reemerge in a scaled-down format after a financial restructuring, but it surely won’t be the same.

There is no suggestion, at least not from me, that this is a ‘go woke, go broke’ thing. As far as I know, Dylan Mulvaney is not implicated, nor is an artificially elevated diversity element – long admirably high at Montreal, without the need for astroturfing and quotas.

You might be asking yourself, why should I care? The fall of Just for Laughs might look to outsiders like industry gossip rather than something that needs to bother non-comedians, or indeed non-Canadians.

But before you scroll on, I’d like to raise the possibility that it is symptomatic of something much bigger, more widespread, and that it should indeed worry us all.

My suspicion is that this is one of many events, former behemoths of live entertainment, that have returned post-lockdown, but in zombie mode. Lazarus-like, they walk out into the light, but something is awry. They have no soul. There is something missing behind the eyes.

Yes, live events are back – technically speaking – and have been for a few years now. Like London is back, and its nightlife is back, like pubs and the Tube and cafés are back. But something is still just very slightly off. Something’s not quite right. A husband long thought lost has returned from the war, or at least so he assures his wife. But her doubts cannot quite be shaken. Does he know why they can’t move the marriage bed?

Away from live comedy, cinema is similarly writhing in frozen death-agonies. Not the films themselves, but the locations. Officially, cinema attendance has tripled since 2020, but it is still down more than 30 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. Even these figures do not do justice to the sense of a hollowed-out despair and futility that one gets entering one’s local Odeon now. It feels like an obsolete fairground attraction running on fumes and regret.

London’s theatres, by comparison, are in very healthy shape. Ticket sales are well up on pre-pandemic levels. Live music is doing better, too, at least in the form of mega-gigs, with many a huge star on tour right now. These may suck up a regrettably large fraction of the average gig-goer’s budget, but they clearly serve something people want. So perhaps the comedy festival and the cinema are just a couple of entertainment options whose time had come.

I try to resist paranoia. I have more than one friend who is captured by a suspicion that the whole Covid thing was an horrific stage-managed project. I do not share this view and would not want anyone to read this as an endorsement of any conspiracy theory. But I certainly sympathise with the sense that things are not quite as they were. It does feel like a decisive shift has taken place since 2020, not just of billions of dollars from poor to rich, but from the authentic into the virtual. It seems that once you have broken people’s habit of seeking recreational catharsis in large crowds and have encouraged them to take their pleasures privately, a lot of people want to stay there.

I can certainly put up with the shift of cinema from the Odeon to my settee. But I would be very sorry to see the great international celebrations of live comedy shrink to fit a TikTok screen, to see it made just for clicks. That really would be a tragedy.

Get well soon, Montreal. À bientôt.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.

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Topics Covid-19 Culture World


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