We can always use a good laugh, but in an era that resembles Orwell's 1984, who's providing the new comic voices to help nudge us back towards sanity? Just For Laughs, the world's biggest comedy festival, is an immense bilingual celebration of everything silly, diverting and sometimes politically pertinent, and it's occurring right now in the capital of Canada's contradictions, Montreal. And in the province where a sign in English can get you hauled into court, U.S. culture determines who's going to be a star and who's more likely to remain a never-was.
"U.S. culture?" Pretty much. Despite the hundreds of events in French and competition among Canadian comics, it's the U.S. network and film executives, agents, managers, club owners and other industry bigwigs who turn Just For Laughs into a celebrity trade show. At 1992's festival, Jon Stewart, Ray Romano and Drew Carey all hit the big time simultaneously. With this kind of track record, everyone in the biz wants a taste.
Now in its 21st year, the festival takes over the city with more than 2400 events at clubs and theaters throughout town, plus on the streets around Rue St-Denis.
This year's headliners are excellent. Bill Cosby, the king of storytelling, will fill Place des Arts July 19. Dom Irrera, probably the most consistently hilarious stand-up working today, hosts the "Really Late Show" Thursday at midnight, while Friday's RLS features Comedy Central's Colin Quinn. Gala shows -- nightly events at the huge Theatre St-Denis -- feature a major talent topping a 12-act bill. Top bananas this time around include Carl Reiner and "Saturday Night Live" cast member Tina Fey.
Colin Mochrie and Greg Proops of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" rule the Improv All-Stars through the 20th. Andy Kindler -- who plays Andy on "Every-body Loves Raymond" -- is the favorite comic of many other comics here; his "Alternative Comedy Show" plays Friday and Saturday at midnight and is often the best of the fest.
Playwright and monologist Eric Bogosian heads the bill for "Reading It!" a literary humor show that also features Sarah Vowell of National Public Radio's "This American Life." Most of these performers also turn up at each other's shows.
Even the film festival -- the very smallest part of Just For Laughs -- is worth the trip: The short films are usually the highlight. Seven years ago, The Spirit of Christmas, made with paper cut-out characters, made quite an impression. The animated greeting card inspired a funny little TV show called "South Park."
The Street Arts portion of the festival is enormous. Most of it is free, though some performers depend on passing the hat. Master Lee, who boasts "black belts in karate and comedy," is one such busker. His act includes such high-brow stunts as smashing three flaming boards with his fist and resting a cucumber on an audience member's bare belly, then, while blindfolded, slicing the cuke with a sword. "There's so much free entertainment on the street that sometimes people feel they don't have to give," Lee comments. "But on the other side, the energy is really, really, really high."
The hip-hop category of the Street Arts festival takes over plein air locations with a DJ competition, rappers and dance companies. Still other acts roam through the crowds in exotic costumes or perform on dozens of outdoor stages.
For entertainers-in-training, Just For Kids offers workshops in sock puppets, swords and robes, and circus acts. Open competitions in chess, checkers, darts, croquet, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and other games are ongoing, as are boomerang and horseshoe demos. On the closed-off portions of Rue St-Denis, automobiles are parked as art exhibits. My favorite: a driveable high-heeled shoe known as the Red Stiletto.
Comedy at its best is cultural correction. So where's the fest's most biting commentary? In the extravaganza's opening days, the Queer Comics lineup provided some of the most pointed political lines. This category is particularly timely, what with Canada's legalization of gay marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court giving thumbs up to, well, thumbs anywhere. Best bet: The Topp Twins -- household names in New Zealand who deserve to be so everywhere. They're yodeling country singers, a lounge act in male drag, a bit of everything.
Not that the Queer Comics' acts focus only on "gay issues." Host Jim David said, "President Bush outlined his plan for post-war Iraq last week. Then he colored it." The audience cheered.
Who else is likely to wax political? Colin Quinn, for better or worse. Quinn, host of the "Friday Really Late Show," is on the bill at the "personal humor" event "Confessing It!" and will surely drop in wherever else he feels like it.
He was an equal-opportunity jiber as the "Weekend Update" anchor on SNL, but since the start of Comedy Central's nightly "Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn," this Irish-Catholic Brooklynite too often sounds like a liberal with a racist streak. He baits his regular guest Patrice O'Neal, a very large African-American comic, with the term "you people." What seemed funny the first few times now sounds like a bigot's cliche. In fact, as a Montreal weekly points out, Quinn has become a big favorite on Aryan Nation bulletin boards.
I'm putting my money on the Topp Twins: The world simply needs more funny yodeling kiwi lesbian sister acts.