MONTREAL — At the Just for Laughs festival ticket office, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, the windows are dirty, the walls covered with graffiti and the doors are decidely closed. An old poster announces the shows "from July, 10 to 28, 2019." Only a few red lanterns remain lit. The heart of humor in Quebec seems to have stopped beating.

For nearly a year, the coronavirus has frozen laughter. The curfew, in effect in the province since Jan 9, has once again forced local stars of the comedy scene — like Katherine Levac, François Bellefeuille and Rachid Badouri — to postpone their shows.

"I miss the audience's infectious laughter in the venue," says Mehdi Bousaidan, a young comedian in his prime. Last summer, due to the lack of open venues, he hosted several evenings under the title Festival au volant (FAUV) in Montreal, Quebec City and Drummondville. The concept: sketches performed in front of a few hundred motorists confined to their cars, and honking the horn to replace the bursts of laughter.

Other comedy professionals, especially younger ones, have taken advantage of their agility on social media to get active on digital stages. Mathieu Dufour, whose favorite platform was Instagram even before the pandemic, broadcast his hilarious "Show-rona Virus" live from his small apartment in the spring. Even though it was a hit, this digital native said he was still in mourning for "that genuine laugh I can't hear, the laugh of my spectators watching me while sitting on their toilets."

"At this forced distance, I console myself by telling myself that I have reached a much larger audience than I ever did in theaters," says Mehdi Bousaidan, whose Facebook account has exploded, with 100,000 additional followers.

But COVID-19 is not the only hurdle the Montreal scene has had to face recently. The fall of Gilbert Rozon, 66 years old, a key figure in this comedy world and founder of the Just for Laughs festival, has contributed to its fragility. On December 15, 2020, a "Just pour rire" sign was waiting for him as he left the Montreal courtroom. He had just been acquitted of charges of "rape" and "indecent assault" based on a case dating back nearly 40 years. He was acquitted on grounds of "reasonable doubt", but although this may have saved him from prison, it will not save his empire. "Justice can be achieved," he wrote to a relative, "but I still lost everything. I can no longer do the job I love."

For decades, this "little guy from Quebec" brought renowned international comedians to Montreal and helped change the city's image forever. For him, it all began in 1983, when he was still a penniless producer, barely 30 years old. That year, he organized the first edition of his festival, with guest star Charles Trenet, who had just come out of retirement in France.

In the eyes of the world, Quebec was no longer the land of cold and snow: it was the land of laughter.

Over time, the festival's mascot — a funny little green devil with red horns — has become the summer emblem of the city. Rozon had dreamt of him become as famous as the Michelin Man.

"Just for Laughs in Montreal every July was the Woodstock of laughter," says Belgian comedian Alex Vizorek, who came in 2016 and 2017 to present his show "Alex Vizorek est une oeuvre d'art" ("Alex Vizorek is a work of art"). "With one foot in America with its great stand-up tradition, another in Europe with our more poetic culture, it was a great creative mix," says Vizorek.

The festival was quick to attract foreign celebrities like the French comedians Anne Roumanoff, Elie Semoun and Blanche Gardin. The launch of the English-language version of Just for Laughs in 1985 brought Americans including Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg. They rubbed shoulders with established Quebec stars and up-and-comers: Anthony Kavanagh, Michel Courtemanche, Stéphane Rousseau, Louis-José Houde and so many others.

In the city, the festival took place everywhere: in theaters and cabarets like the mythical Club Soda or the Bordel Comédie Club, as well as outdoors on the dozens of stages set up in the streets. Montreal became consecrated as the "capital of humor." In the eyes of the world, Quebec was no longer the land of cold and snow: it was the land of laughter. The "cool comedy festival" label has done more for the attractiveness of the city and the province than any other advertising.

Gilbert Rozon was a mover and shaker. He invented concepts, launched careers and professionalized Quebecois humor by instilling the art of the punchline and asserting its power. His festival spread to Toronto, Nantes and Chicago. The Just for Laughs group expanded its activities to 135 countries. Some 20 separate companies employed about 100 employees and more than 4,000 contract workers, for an estimated turnover of about 100 million dollars.

From "Rockefeller of Humor" to "Quebec's Weinstein."

In the process, the group acquired two Parisian venues, the Théâtre de Dix Heures and the Théâtre 13e Art. It also produced Florence Foresti, Franck Dubosc and Laurent Ruquier in France and sold its hidden camera prank shows to dozens of airlines. Rozon was creative, a geek, friendly; his interpersonal skills allowed him to attract public subsidies — $41 million since 1995, according to the digital daily La Presse. Having been a judge on the M6 show "La France a un incroyable talent," he showed off his success in Montreal as well as in Paris, where he drives Charles Trenet's Jaguar.

This "Rockefeller of Humor" was at the height of its power when, in October 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he was accused of being "Quebec's Weinstein." One, two and then dozens of women publicly accused him of harassment and sexual assault in cases that occurred over nearly four decades. In a few hours, he relinquished all of his businesses. Months later, he sold his multinational company to a group of Canadian-American investors, ICM Partners, Evenko and Bell Canada, for $65 million. And, even though he was acquitted at the end of 2020, dozens of women in the collective called Les Courageuses still hope to one day see him held accountable.

Does his fall mean the death of Quebec humor? The new president and CEO of the Just for Laughs group, Charles Décarie, vigorously contests this. For Décarie, the Rozon era is over, and he prefers to highlight, with magic numbers, the resilience that the company has shown in recent months.

"The festival, held online this summer, still attracted 800,000 spectators; we sold 20 comedy galas to Canadian and American television channels; we multiplied our comedy content on all social networks, with 35 million people following us today," says Décarie.

The crisis? What crisis? Despite the shock of the pandemic, the group hired nearly 500 artists in 2020. Better yet, the festival will be back in Montreal from July 15 to 31, in a form that COVID-19 and its variants will help determine. ComediHa!, which produces a comedy festival in Quebec City, used much the same formula to reinvent itself and survive. While waiting for the return to the theaters, shows featuring the best artists of the moment liven up the televised evenings of a Quebec City under curfew.

However, it is probably a little early for a victory cry. There are other, deeper threats looming. For example, on Feb. 15, the Supreme Court of Canada will rule on whether or not comedian Mike Ward's mocking of a young disabled singer is permissible in the name of humor. In unfunny terms, this is called the "judicialization of laughter." Challenged by the Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, Ward was ordered on appeal to pay $35,000 in damages to the young man in question.

Although he is aware of the risks involved, the comedian is pleased to see the Supreme Court, the country's highest court, take up the case. "Some people suggested I pay, but that would have set an unfortunate precedent," says Ward. "After that, how much would a joke against gays, Blacks or diabetics have cost?"

At the Just for Laughs festival — Photo: Facebook page

For him, there's no doubt that social media networks, the online sphere where the audience's susceptibility is growing inordinately, functioned as an "echo chamber." "It's up to the Supreme Court to take its responsibilities," he says.

The entire profession is mobilizing to support his judicial fight. And yet, corrosive, subversive, even outrageous humor is not very popular in Quebec these days. "Today, most acts revolve around the private life, with comedians telling stories about their everyday life, their car, their wife or their boyfriend [husband or partner], but few dare to take on social or political satire, much less transgression," says Marc Laurendeau, an ex-comedian turned journalist.

How can we talk about all this while remaining funny?

In the 1960s, Laurendeau belonged to the Cyniques, a popular quartet that would broach without restriction subjects such as the priests, politicians and institutions of the day. He says that Quebecois humor has become quite innocuous: "We have gone from respecting minorities to the cult of minorities, and in a way, it muzzles us." According to Laurendeau, multiculturalism, this "sacralization of differences," and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is very protective of minorities, is the reason for "this sanitization of laughter, anxious to avoid any offense."

Louise Richer is the founder of the Ecole nationale de l'humour in Montreal, a unique institution and an important catalyst for the Quebec comedy ecosystem. Richer recognizes movements such as #MeToo, Black Live Matters and the emergence of diversity and gender issues for making people think about a crucial question: "How can we talk about all this while remaining funny?"

But she also describes a world of humor in full transition: "Like tectonic plates, two movements clash: On the one hand, political correctness tends to make a joke fall flat, but on the other, I see our students' desire to renew their spirit of provocation."

"It's disrespectful to pick on the weakest, but it's bad judgment to pick on the strongest," jokes Ward in one of his sketches about the thin line of humor. In a few days, this Quebecois humor will be summoned to the unusual and austere setting of the Supreme Court, which will perhaps say who, what and how it is now permissible to mock.


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