RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Montreal is consumed with comedy this week in nightclubs, outdoor stages and the streets - including the eclectic 12-piece band that goes by the name Fanfarniente Della Strada.
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MARTIN: But the Just For Laughs Festival is best known for helping launch the careers of stand-up comedians, and the list is long and impressive. We're talking about Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon and Dave Chappelle. They are among the many comedians who've been performing at the festival since before they were famous. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Just for Laughs is the largest and oldest international comedy festival in the world. Comedians, both French and English-speaking, come from all over. The big names performing this year include Rachel Bloom, Trevor Noah, Wanda Sykes and Kevin Hart.
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KEVIN HART: I grab my daughter hand. I start walking towards the kitchen to get a cookie. Out of nowhere, all I heard was this - don't give her no cookie.
BLAIR: Hordes of comedians, dozens of venues, comedy agents, network programmers, club owners - they're here to laugh and hunt for the next Kevin Hart. Bruce Hills, the president of Just for Laughs, has been with the festival for 33 years. He started out as a driver, as in driving comedians to and from the airport and to their shows.
BRUCE HILLS: And the first summer, I drove Jerry Lewis and his manager's dog, his manager, a publicist, I think, as well as Sandra Bernhard.
BLAIR: Eventually he was promoted. He says what the festival really takes pride in is discovering new talent.
HILLS: Find them early, support them, launch them and stay in their lives in a meaningful way.
BLAIR: In the early 1990s, Hills was going through a stack of VHS tapes scouting for talent. He came across one with a name he didn't recognize, Dave Chappelle.
HILLS: Started off funny, smart, original. And it didn't stop.
BLAIR: Hills booked Chappelle immediately.
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DAVE CHAPPELLE: I got lost today in Montreal. The police helped me find my way.
CHAPPELLE: The police helped me.
BLAIR: The comedy industry has exploded in recent years, and that's meant more opportunities for both comedians and their representatives.
CONAN SMITH: Agents need new talent, and this is where we go to find them.
BLAIR: Conan Smith develops comedy and TV projects for the talent agency Don Buchwald and Company. He's been coming to Just for Laughs for years, both to find new clients and promote the ones he's working with now, like comedian Erin Foley. This is Foley from her recent album talking about going to Victoria's Secret.
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ERIN FOLEY: So I go to the retail section, and what's being sold is what's on the models. It's just lace and string, lace and string, lace and string. And I was like excuse me, do you have any underwear for women that are employed?
FOLEY: Like, during the day?
BLAIR: Smith believes if Foley gets in front of the right people, she'll have a lot more work. Not only does she do stand-up, but she hosts her own podcast, writes for TV. And he says she has a ton of ideas.
SMITH: Comedians in general, I always found, were, you know, these diamonds in the rough. They act as usual in TV and film and commercials and whatnot, but they also - they write books. And they go on the road, and they host.
BLAIR: In fact, many of today's top comedians who were unknown when they first performed at Just for Laughs come back to host galas that showcase some of their favorite comedians.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Montreal.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "UP FROM THE SOUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.