A funny thing happened to Just For Laughs when Covid-19 crashed its calendar of live events. The global comedy brand took its 2020 festivals, concerts, and club dates online.
For Bruce Hills , Just for Laughs’ president, it meant a complete reboot of an enterprise that depended on live performance, and a rapid rethink of its fast-growing digital and media businesses.
The anchor Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, which drew two million people in July 2019, went online-only in October—a first. “That festival is the Olympics of comedy,” Hills says. Gatherings that once drew thousands of spectators and industry insiders took place in internet “rooms.” Short films, industry showcases, and celebrity-studded chats streamed over two evenings.
“When we sensed the seriousness of the pandemic, back in the spring, we realized that anything we’d planned for 2020 was unlikely. So we decided to create many other things that are truly in the spirit of what Just for Laughs is,” says Hills, 58, from his Montreal home. “Fortunately, we have great relationships with talent, and we quickly learned to tailor streamed experiences for both them and the audience to succeed. We’re evolving to match the platform.”
That meant “no standups playing to an empty room,” but instead allowing them to work socially distanced audiences with Covid restrictions in place. It meant pairing talent like Hannah Gadsby with [friend and fellow comic] DeAnne Smith , “who can get the best out of her,” Hills says. It meant a streamed conversation between Judd Apatow and Kevin Hart, whose Laugh Out Loud Productions is a Just for Laughs programming partner.
Instead of the annual New Faces showcase, closely watched by talent scouts and industry insiders, Just for Laughs presented the first Creators New Faces event focused on digital content creators. “It was a better fit for the online edition,” Hills says.
The loss of New Faces this year was a blow to aspiring talent, though. “There isn’t a more impactful comedy showcase in the world,” Hills says. “It means more than a set on The Tonight Show . The industry comes to Montreal, and their number-one priority is to see New Faces. It’s an opportunity that can change lives.”
Stars like Amy Schumer , Tim Allen , Dave Chappelle , and Jimmy Fallon all performed at “New Faces” before making it big.
Hill, who became president in 2018 after nearly a decade as chief operating officer, now oversees festivals in Montreal, Sydney , Vancouver, and Toronto; a live/concert business in North America and Australia; “standup media,” which records performances for online and terrestrial media; and a broadcast arm whose programming runs in 150 countries. The Just for Laughs juggernaut also includes a powerful marketing division.
For now, Just For Laughs is continuing to invest heavily in social and broadcast—an acceleration of what Hills had already planned before the pandemic. But, he admits, “nothing beats live. That’s why the festival has the same clout, even in the age of social. You can’t beat a comic in a room with 600 people, killing it.”
For 2021, “we’re optimistic,” he said. In fact, Just for Laughs has a full slate of performances starting in April, including Trevor Noah in Western Canada and Bill Maher in Montreal. “We’re going to be ready for whatever comes our way,” Hills said. “We’re looking forward to big audiences again. Until then, we’re positioning ourselves in ways that make sense.”
Hills shared his five recommendations on where to get quality comedy content online:
Laugh Out Loud Network . “ Kevin Hart ’s Laugh Out Loud Network & YouTube channel is, to use their own words, where comedy meets culture. Kevin’s been making me laugh since I first met him in 2001 and he’s never stopped. We love working with him and his whole team.”
Twitter . “If you curate your feed properly (or have a comedy-specific account that only follows comedians) you get comedy in real time. Love what Sarah Cooper is doing. And love that comedians are using their platforms to say what they really want to say.”
Vulture.com . “This culture & entertainment news site (via New York magazine) does an excellent job reporting on the current trends of comedy; from discoverability of new artists, to industry news, reviewing comedy specials, and everything in-between. A trusted source that both the industry and the comedy community follow to get their news.”
Earwolf Podcast Network . Lots of great comedy podcasts I listen to, including Comedy Bang Bang , which always features a great mix of established and up-and-coming comics improvising. Also like How Did This Get Made? , Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend , and many others.”
Just For Laughs YouTube channel . “Bias acknowledged, but it’s the No. 1 collection of standup that has star power, diversity, and unique POVs. You won’t find this level of quality and volume collected in one place anywhere else. We hit over 1 million subscribers this past spring.”