Montreal's annual Just For Laughs festival is best-known as a showcase for current and future stars of stand-up comedy. Not as well known to people who've never been here is that laughs of all kinds can be found outdoors, for free, throughout Montreal's cultural district, the Quartiere des Spectacles. Professional musicians, magicians, acrobats, jugglers, puppeteers — the outdoor performers' punch lines don't need words. That helps, since Just For Laughs/Juste Pour Rire is a bilingual festival for both French and English speaking performers and fans. The outdoor side is also family friendly so the streets — closed off to cars, not clowns — are crawling with kids.
"This year I told my team that I want people to laugh at every 15 feet," says Patrick Rozon, Vice President for all content — indoors and out — for Juste Pour Rire, the Francophone side of the festival. He says what happens outdoors is just as highly programmed as what happens inside the comedy clubs.
Welcoming visitors to Rue Sainte-Catherine is Madame Simone. Perched on her pink high chair, Simone is known for taking selfies with anyone who asks, and sharing festival secrets and other good gossip — hence the megaphone.
Montreal has a long history of embracing innovative circus arts, most famously with Cirque du Soleil. "We know them well," Rozon says of the famed company. But to help create a unique identity centered around making people laugh, Rozon prefers to work with smaller companies. To find artists they hope will dazzle visitors, he and his team travel mostly to Europe and other international festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
This year, Atharina and Pablo the Great Puppet come from Jimyprod, a company based in France. Two four-meter-high figures dance together, a ballerina balancing atop a giant ball, and an equally giant marionette. Rozon thinks they're gorgeous, and he understands the power of social media to spread the word. "We need to have beauty so visitors are taking pictures."
Atharina and her puppet are dressed in striking shades of red and green. With some 100,000 visitors attending each day, Rozon says costumes need to pop. "We need to have vivid colors so the artists will stand out."
Rozon says that most of the visitors to Just For Laughs aren't necessarily buying tickets to see the shows, so his team tries to make sure that what happens outside captures the energy of what's happening inside. For that reason, the festival has introduced a number of participatory activities this year like La Cabane à blagues ("The Joke Shack"), a tiny stage with a tiny show for a tiny audience, and Le Petite Ecole du Rire ("The Little School of Laughter") where kids can try stand-up.
Pierre Langevin, director of the 12-piece street band Farfaniente Della Strada, says one of the perks of performing at Just For Laughs is the possibility of getting free tickets to one of the stand-up comedy shows. But, he says ruefully, he can't really take advantage: "We always play while the shows are going on."
Just For Laughs has long been a festival that brings together every aspect of humor, from the silliest gags to improvisation to the edgiest political comedy. For Rozon, there's something poetic about the street artists who make people laugh without words. Whether it's physical humor, outlandish wigs, or the batted lashes of a fantastic drag queen, Rozon says his goal is to show people this festival is not just about stand-up, but about the art of being funny.