“Just for Laughs” festival celebrates its 30th edition anniversary this year. Over the life of the festival, it has featured a raft of new and established Jewish talent.
MONTREAL – It’s Wednesday night at Club Soda on Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard when comedian Bobby Slayton takes the stage to rapturous applause. The silver-haired, fast-talking New Yorker and much-loved host of “The Nasty Show” is the raunchy, rude, foul-mouthed enfant terrible of “Just For Laughs,” which has been called the world’s biggest comedy festival.
Final attendance figures were not available for the French-and-English festival, which closed on July 29 after a run of almost three weeks. But on the English side alone there were 89 shows by 200 comedians at 32 venues, ranging from small cabarets to the 900-seat Club Soda to the Place de Artes, which seats 3,000.
In the best tradition of insult comedy, the 57-year-old Slayton – sometimes known as Yid Vicious and the Pitbull of Comedy – starts taking a swipe at his wife. Wives are favorite target for many a male comedian, but Slayton is especially biting.
His wife, he tells his audience, has recently been a victim of identity theft. “It’s a nightmare,” he wails. ”Your bank account, credit card, your Social Security number, they fuck with your credits for a long time.”
But when the thief found out what a “c—” his wife was, “he gave it [the identity] right back!” The audience roars with laughter.
Without taking a breath, Slayton – a familiar figure on the comedy circuit who played Joey Bishop in the 1998 remake of “The Rat Pack” – moves onto the next gag, quickly earning the audience’s sympathy when he announces that his dog just died. “When you get a dog,” he says philosophically, “you know it’s gonna die” after 5, 10 or15 years.
“When you get a wife,” he laments “the damn thing can live for…”. His voice trails off as the crowd again erupts with laughter. They know where he is going with the gag.
Nothing is sacred for Slayton, who appeared 17 times at the 2012 festival. But his most controversial gag of the night may come when he take aim at his fellow Jews.
“They’re so cheap,” he says. “So many Jews who wanted free tickets, I had to put them on ‘Schindler’s Guest List.’” More laughter.
Slayton is a fixture at “Just for Laughs.” He’s appeared in the festival for 21 or its 25 years. And he makes no apologies for the brand of humor on his “The Nasty Show.” “I look at it as refreshingly, brutally honest,” he tells Ha’aretz, adding that the Schindler joke has nothing to do with the Holocaust. If the audience doesn’t like it, he says, they can always go see the Muppets, who hosted their own all-star gala at the festival. “So bring your children and your mentally impaired grandfather and go and see that crap!” says Slayton mischievously.
French-Canadian festival promoter Gilbert Rozon founded the festival in 1983 when he was still in his 20s. Originally conceived as a two-day French-speaking event, he branched out into English-language comedy and extended the length of the festival to over two weeks, drawing the biggest names in the business.
Over the years, “Just for Laughs” has turned the microphone over to young talents like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock at the start of their careers. Roseanne Barr was honored for her contribution to comedy in 1997 and Borscht Belt veterans Jackie Mason, Don Rickles and Carl Reiner have also made memorable appearances.
“Just for Laughs” has spawned similar events in Toronto, Chicago and Sydney, Australia, and popular TV shows based on pranks played on the audience and recorded by hidden cameras. But Montreal remains the biggest by far, involving gala shows, street theater and comedy seminars.
In a special 30th edition anniversary booklet, Rozon recalls how he came to join forces with his partner, Montreal entrepreneur Andy Nulman. In 1985, recalls Rozon, “we needed an English-speaker to expand. Why not a Jew? After all, they have a great sense of humor!”
Nulman’s philosophy on comedy is written in the walls – literally – at “Just for Laughs” headquarters, also on St. Laurent Boulevard, one of Montreal’s most important streets. “Comedy is a necessity which I think is as important as water,” says a caption on a poster featuring Nulman’s face – in which he is seen wearing a clown’s red nose.
“There is nothing which has got me through tough times and the basic trivialities and bestialities of life better than humor has,” Nulman says. “Someone without a sense of humor withers and dies.”
According to Nulman, it’s not just a comedy festival; it’s therapy. “Someone told me ‘Just for Laughs’ saved his life after his wife died and he became almost a hermit. I have tons of stories like that.”
Comedy, says Nulman, is part of Jewish heritage. “Jews invented vaudeville. Vaudeville begat comedy. It’s like saying ‘Why do most hockey players come from Canada?’”
Robbie Praw, the festival’s program director, says that Montreal’s large, deep-rooted Jewish community means Jewish comedians can expect a warm welcome to the city.
“Montreal has always been a city of so many different cultures – French, English – and given there have been different waves [of Jewish immigrants] moving to Montreal, people want to hear about the Jewish experience in this city. When comedians come to the city and speak to that community, magic happens,” enthuses Praw.
This year sees the triumphant return of Jewish-Canadian actor, comedian and “America’s Got Talent” judge Howie Mandel, who hosted his own gala show at the Place des Arts, the festival’s largest venue. Another top comedy talent who appeared this year is Tel Aviv-born Wall Street banker-turned-comedian-and-sometimes-cantor Modi Rosenfeld, a regular fixture on NBC’s “Comedy Central” and America’s comedy circuit. Known professionally as Modi, he performs on stage in Israel at least once a year.
As usual, the 2012 festival featured emerging talents. Among them is Ari Shaffir, 37, of the “The Amazing Racist” (the pranks-video TV series’ title is a play on “The Amazing Race” TV reality show). Shaffir, who got six shows to dazzle his fans, provided a hint of what audiences were in for on his website www.arishaffir.com: “If you can’t see the irony or comedic value of a Jew in a Klan outfit who yells at a Latino man to ‘Go back to Africa,’ then I can’t help you on your life journey. You are already lost.”
Amy Schumer, voted class clown in school and popular on the U.S. late-night show circult (she was a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing finalist, appeared in “Comedy Central Presents,” HBO’s popular “Curb your Enthusiasm” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”) also relishes in making her audiences blush.
The no-holds-barred approach is typically Jewish, as Modi suggested in a recent interview with Aish.com, a website affiliated with the Aish Hatora yeshiva for newly Orthodox in Jerusalem and its overseas organization: “If you are Jewish, you have a different view of life – it’s just part of you.
“And comedy has to be an honest reflection of that or else it’s not funny. Besides, you can’t be embarrassed to be Jewish – it’s a zchus [Yiddish for the Hebrew zkhut,or prerogative] to be Jewish!”