Born and raised in Montréal, Andy Nulman, president of Just for Laughs, was a self-proclaimed pain in the butt to his teachers and a cut-up to his classmates. Comedy, from the very start, seemed to be ingrained in his character and guided him in his vocation. When he became old enough, it wasn’t long before he decided to take a number of jobs in the comedy industry.
“I was a journalist at 16, really into rock ’n’ roll, but comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll—Seinfeld, Steven Wright, and Bob Saget—and it was an exciting time,” Nulman says.
At one point, he tried to bring his penchant for humour to the stage, giving stand-up comedy a shot. But by his own report, Nulman was “terrible,” and he chose to shine behind the scenes instead. “I got into marketing and PR,” he says, “and did PR for all these comedy concerts.”
Nulman soon spent time working for comedian Howie Mandel, assisting with Mandel’s road tour and HBO special. And then, just two years after Just for Laughs was formed by Nulman’s friend Gilbert Rozon in 1983, Nulman came on board to oversee the English-speaking component (the festival was solely in French for its first two years). Nulman’s new career also coincided with the rise in popularity of stand-up comedy heavyweights like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Tim Allen, who paved the way for newer stand-up comedians like Louis C.K., Craig Ferguson, and Jeff Dunham, among others.
The 2010 Festival
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Since its founding, Just for Laughs has gone international, with offices in Montréal, Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and Paris, and has presented comedy festivals and shows in Montréal, Toronto, Sidney, London, and Chicago. The company focuses its efforts on bringing various festivals, live shows, and taped programs to the masses. In fact, the Montréal Just For Laughs Festival is the world’s largest and most prestigious comedy event, hosting two million people annually.
Today, the company is best known throughout the world as a producer and distributor of live- and taped-comedy programs. Its distribution catalogue features more than 500 hours of specials, variety shows, sitcoms, and 200 half-hour episodes of its comedy hit, Gags. A series of comedy shorts that pay homage to Candid Camera, Gags has found an audience in more than 140 countries, and popular clips have been viewed by millions on YouTube.
Just for Laughs pulls out all the stops to make its audiences and headliners happy. The company has high standards when it comes to production values and a respect for stand-up comics, many of whom have had their share of telling jokes in gin joints for the sake of succeeding in the funny business.
“What makes Just for Laughs unique is that there are very few who do it as a big as we do and with the same style and grace,” Nulman says. “We pay attention to visuals, lighting, sound, and set design. We push the envelope and do things differently.”
And pushing the envelope means that Nulman does the brunt of the work to ensure a top-quality outcome for customers. “I get to see a lot of the shows, but from a different perspective,” he says. “When I see shows, I think I have to fix that stage light, and my phone is ringing, and I’m sending e-mails. We make ourselves miserable so you can be happy.”
And the audience members aren’t the only ones who appreciate all that goes into Just For Laughs’ top-notch festivals and comedy shows—the comedians do as well. Many comic performers’ lives are club-oriented, performing on bare stages in front of brick walls or for corporate gigs in basement auditoriums. Nulman has overheard comics talk about the other gigs on their schedules, saying things like, “Now I have to get back to this crummy gig in Vegas,” or, “Chucklebones in Cleveland.”
“It’s important to pay respect to comedy and not cheapen it,” Nulman says. “Back in the day, people would put comedy clubs in bowling alleys and Chinese restaurants, and it cheapened the brand of humour. Comedy is a necessity. It’s serious business to make people understand the necessity of humour, which I think is as important as water. [Just for Laughs] redefines comedy so that people understand and appreciate the necessity of a comedy show.”
“People come here to be discovered,” Nulman says. “Tim Allen came out of here in 1980. We had Chris Rock doing stand-up when he was just 18 years old. All the big names in the industry flock here to find the next big thing. We’ve helped a lot of careers take off.”Comedy trends change as quickly as the headliners on the marquee. These days, comedy superstars are a mix of old and new faces. Comedy greats like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld always sell out at Just for Laughs festivals and shows, while newer faces like ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, Louis C.K., and Saturday Night Live’s Seth Myers also attract big audiences. Some things never change, though, and just like the 1970s and 1980s, when Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy rocketed to stardom performing stand-up at Just for Laughs comedy festivals, today’s new faces are given the same chance—thanks to Nulman’s appreciation for making the experience the very best it can be.
For those stand-up newbies, Just For Laughs teaches the comedy ropes at Just for Laughs Comedy Academy in Montréal, where many comedians have gone on to be megastars in Canada. Nulman’s advice, however, is free to anyone who thinks they’d like to try their hand in the solo spot behind the mic.
“The advice is simple,” he says. “You’re going to suck the first few times you do this. Stand-up is not easy. But if you can get through it—if you understand that you will not be great your first time out—then appreciate that, keep doing it, and you’ll be okay. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It depends on how committed you are and how tough you are and how you can deal with the rejection. Comedy is a very serious business.”