Just how friendly Montrealers are becomes apparent when you spend all day being sick in bins. They’re all very concerned, they want to help: in London I’m pretty sure they’d just assume I was drunk. I’m not, but I am considering it — it might help with the nerves. It’s 1pm on Saturday: just nine more hours before I go on stage as part of the Best of the Fest show at the biggest comedy festival in the world, Just for Laughs. I retch again.
First held in 1983, Just for Laughs takes place every July; a month when comedians, talent scouts and producers all converge on the city to find the next big thing, make deals, and, presumably, to have a laugh. In 2016 it pulled in 2.5 million visitors. It’s a big deal.
I’m not a newbie comedian but neither do I have the comedy chops of some of the big names here (Jane Krakowski, Jerry Seinfeld, Trevor Noah, to name just a few) — or even the medium names. Performing on the UK’s open mic circuit for three years, I’m not exactly big stuff. So when I approached Just for Laughs about performing, it was to my considerable surprise that they agreed. Even after they’d seen videos of my act.
I start my first evening in Montreal at the beautiful Monument-National, the oldest theatre still in use in Quebec, for the New Faces show, a line-up of the hottest upcoming talent. Assured, sparkling comic after comic takes to the stage, most from New York and filled with boundless confidence. Then there’s the crowd. British audiences are usually fairly restrained, sometimes a bit shouty. This audience is not like that. They whoop. They holler. They scream with laughter. And they also sit in absolute stony silence when something doesn’t connect. There’s no doubt what they’re thinking: we’re here to see the best in comedy. If you deliver, we love you. If you don’t, we hate you. I go outside for some fresh air. And throw up in my first Montreal bin.
Thus purged, the next night, I make my way over to the Hyatt Regency to see how the award-winning Brits do it. Surreal seems to be the way forward, at least in the case of Jamie Morton, James Cooper and Alice Levine who perform a routine around an erotic novel written by one of their fathers, in the shape of the phenomenally successful My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast. The team looks about as bemused as I feel but they manage to be utterly hilarious nonetheless, and fairly instantly have the audience in fits of laughter. It’s confidence-inspiring but when I emerge, there are meetings going on everywhere: the Hyatt is Just for Laughs business HQ — the press room is here, most of the top people stay here; deals are being done left, right and centre. I panic. I’m not ready for this. I dash out into the sunshine and decide to explore the city. I need to get into the heads of my audience.
A street art walking tour is the answer, taking me past the beautiful stone buildings of Old Montreal with gorgeous wrought ironwork, a nine-storey mural of Leonard Cohen in his old Saint-Laurent neighbourhood, and a cold-press coffee at super-hipster hangout Dispatch. Montreal’s the kind of place you idly start wondering if you could afford to live in, and what your life would be like if you did. “In the winter, I hardly ever go outside except to skate,” a chatty barista tells me. “It snows so much, you wouldn’t believe it.” I hate the snow and I can’t skate, I tell her. “You could just stay indoors: that’s why we have the underground city,” she offers.
I elect instead for a darkened room: more comedy. This time, downtown at Theatre Sainte-Catherine for Hosts with the Most, part of Off-JFL, a programme of fringier, alternative shows. These sound perhaps more like the comedy I’m used to in London. Yet once again the comics are much more confident, more in your face than at home. But it’s the audience that really takes me aback. They’re on board for most things but are easily shocked. The sort of sexual innuendo that a British comedy club audience wouldn’t bat an eyelid at elicits gasps and some outright hostility.
Find the festival vibe
I’m now unbelievably nervous. I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with that audience. I don’t know how they would’ve dealt with me. I do know I want a drink. I text the only other person I know in this city: comedian Heidi Regan. Heidi’s here from the UK after winning the 2016 So You Think You’re Funny? competition at that year’s Edinburgh Festival, the prize for which was the chance to perform at Just for Laughs. We arrange to meet in the festival bar, back at the Hyatt.
Walking there calms me down; the route goes through the Quartier des Spectacles, where the outdoor element of the festival takes place. People are eating at cool pop-up food places, hanging out with friends, there’s music and dancing and even a huge outdoor comedy show going on. It’s the first time I’ve felt like I’m at a festival rather than a series of gigs, and I’m cursing myself for not coming down before. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival dozens of times, as spectator, writer and performer, and this is much more like that sort of fun vibe. Feeling much more cheerful and confident, I stride into the Hyatt and head for the bar.
This isn’t like the unpretentious ratty drinking warrens of Edinburgh. There’s a sexy band, for a start. There’s a roped-off VIP area where I instantly spot Jim O’Heir (Jerry in Parks and Recreation) chatting to Jerry Seinfeld and I go weak at the knees. Everyone eyes up my pass to see if I’m worth talking to (I’m not), and there’s a lot of business card exchanging and serious networking. I head for the bar, buy a whisky, down the whisky, buy another, and go in search of Heidi.
I find her and we talk about the differences between our Edinburgh and Montreal experiences. “It’s such a different festival,” she agrees. “I had no idea in advance; all I had to go on was that it might be like Edinburgh. But you can’t even really tell there’s a comedy festival going on when you walk the streets, no flyers, no signs.” We talk about shows we’ve seen, and I’m relieved to find I’m not alone in feeling the differences between the performers here and back home. “Generally, the north American sets are so joke-heavy and tight, a gag every line almost, whereas our sets have a different pace,” she observes.
Culture-shocked and nervous, I wake up the next morning needing a boost. Today, I decide, I’m going to try and channel those confident comics I’ve seen. I’ve got tickets for the Jane Krakowski gala show tonight. She’s one of my comedy heroes. So, I ask myself… what would Jane do?
That’s how I find myself in Bota Bota, a spa on a boat permanently moored on the St Lawrence river, bobbing around in a Jacuzzi on the top deck. Jane would definitely be in a spa on a boat. I swim in the gorgeous warm pools and wander the pretty gardens. I do feel more relaxed. Jane was right. After a few hours of wallowing in water I’m refreshed, and after a stroll through perennially pretty Old Montreal, it’s time to stop channelling Jane and to actually go and see her.
The gala shows are the big events of the festival — hosted by a famous name (the starry likes of Steve Martin and Tina Fey), they take place in the swanky Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in the Place des Arts cultural complex. I take my seat and we’re given a speech on how it’s all being filmed and we need to stay in our seats, and be very enthusiastic.
The warm-up guy runs around, getting everyone cheering, clapping, standing up and dancing. I look around, trying to catch someone’s eye to share a moment at how staged and ridiculous this all is. Except every time I catch anyone’s eye, they whoop and holler, and in one horrifying instance, high five me. My British reserve is brutalised. I push down the voice inside screaming: “What is this?”
What this is, is the most showbizzy event I’ve ever attended — and I once saw a midnight performance of Cats for people working in London’s West End. Jane Krakowski is fabulous: she looks stunning, she’s funny, and she mentions all the awards she’s ever been nominated for. “I’m not just known for being Jenna in 30 Rock,” she trills — everyone cheers. “I won a Tony Award on Broadway, too!” The audience whoops with delight as she launches into a bizarre but slick song-and-dance number packed with references to Canada that make me think the crowd will see right through this cheesy trick, but no: each mention of Mounties and maple syrup just ramps up the love. She then introduces a series of top-flight comedians, such as Jen Kirkman, Chris D’Elia and the inexplicably popular puppet comic Randy, before getting on to her ‘surprise guest’ Tituss Burgess (her co-star in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). They sing a duet: a mash-up of Get Happy and Happy Days Are Here Again. And then, just like that, it’s over. The lights come up, and we’re funnelled out into the street. I go back to the Quartier des Spectacles for a drink.
Bin there, done that
The next day, I wake up early again, hungover again. My performance is tonight, but not until 10.30. I ride the Metro out to Atwater Market, and take a lengthy walk along the Lachine Canal to the Old Port. Walking this route, heavy with the ghosts of Montreal’s industrial past, built on fur, wood and steel, something seems to click. The city begins to make sense to me in a way that it hasn’t, quite, until now. Along paths through green spaces, past old factories now turned into luxury apartments, under the shadows of abandoned silos, my nerves get the better of me and I throw up into the bin.
It’s time. I turn up at ComedyWorks, a raucous pub-style venue, and a smiling woman with a clipboard takes me up to the green room. The other comedians are all very friendly; I get chatting to Eliza Skinner, from Los Angeles. “I write for James Cordon on the Late Late Show,” she says. “What do you do back in London?” This and that, I mutter. I get to select my entrance music; I go for London’s Calling by The Clash in the hope that I’ll seem all British and cool.
I’m on late in the bill: one by one the acts go downstairs to go on, and I spend most of my time pacing in a storeroom. I mutter my set to a giant jar of pickles over and over again. And then it’s my time. I’m shaking so much it’s hard to hold on to the bannister as I head down to the stage; I wait outside a door as the super-confident, super-American MC Sherrod Small whips the crowd into a frenzy and then he says my name and I’m on. Often the lights in your eyes mean you can’t see the audience at all, but not here: I can see everyone. I start my set. I get some laughs. Then I get some more and I realise: I’m not going to die up here. I can just enjoy this.
A few minutes in and it’s time for my killer blow: I’m talking about how tough my fellow Glaswegians are. I’ve watched and learned. I’ve seen how references to Canada go down. I can’t do a song-and-dance number about moose like Jane Krakowski but I can play that game. “You Canadians must be tough, too, though,” I say. “You’ve got proper cold weather here.” A bigger laugh than that really deserves. “And bears.”
The crowd literally goes wild. “Bears!” I hear one guy shout. They scream with laughter. They clap. I have to wait for what feels like several minutes (it was probably about 15 seconds) for them to stop so I can get on with my set. I don’t really know what I’ve done. But they sure love bears. They’re on my side now. I’m a superstar comedian. I’m the confident, consummate professional up on stage, batting it out of the park. I have them. I finish my set, I walk out to ringing applause and I’m back on the stairs. The lovely woman with the clipboard smiles: “Great job! There are cars for the performers to go downtown for the closing party. Shall I get the driver to come round and pick you up?” This is it, I think. I’m a big deal now. And then I remember who I actually am.
“No, thanks, I’ll walk,” I say, and step out into the night. Straight past the bin.
Good for a laugh
From jazz to comedy, contemporary circus to avant-garde dance, Montreal is renowned for its festivals, which run year-round, even in the icy dead of winter. Founded in 1983, Just For Laughs is the largest international comedy festival in the world. In 2018, it runs 11-29 July.
Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)