William Shatner
William Shatner
For the 18th year, Montreal hosts the World's Fair of Comedy as the international Just For Laughs Festival sets the French Canadian city on its ear, July 13-July 23. The 11-day humor marathon will include 1,500 performers from 20 countries in 800 shows; participants run the gamut from wide-eyed street performers to bleary-eyed celebrities who fly into the city for one-night-only performances in a packed, 2,300-seat theater.

This year's gala stand-up comedy shows will be hosted by Tim Allen, King Of Queens sitcom star Kevin James, Louie Anderson, and Eric Idle (who'll bring his Monty Python's Greatest Hits tour across the border if he's allowed into the country). William "Priceline" Shatner will also beam down to his old hometown to play host.

Tim Allen
Tim Allen
While stand-up comedy is the backbone of the festival--and has played a part in launching the TV careers of Allen, James, Ray Romano, and numerous others--the festival has a much wider scope. An annual, one-person theatrical show provides a forum for greater comic expression than the multi-comic events; last year Rich Jeni won rave reviews with One Funny Bastard, which displayed Jeni's skewed perspective on life, love, relationships, etc.

This year's solo venture showcases Christopher Titus, who secured his Fox TV sitcom deal based on his theater piece Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding. According to Titus, "The show is based on my dysfunctional family and my upbringing. I've incorporated it into a performance that is very real, and from that reality comes the humor." Titus first perofmred the show in Los Angeles, where it was well received by critics and audiences. "I used to try to be the quintessential stand up comic," he says, "but people didn't respond very well when I'd say something like 'So, who else has a mother who was in a mental institution?' I've discovered who I am on stage, and people really like that. This show is the result of that discovery."

Another highlight of the festival is sure to be Late Night Catechism. Still enjoying successful runs of four years in New York City and eight years in Chicago, this interactive, Catholic classroom comedy features Maripat Donovan, the show's star and creator, as the irrepressible Sister. She'll be imparting her own version of theology to an unsuspecting crowd at Montreal's Centaur Theater.

Improvisation will once again leave its mark on the festival as Just For Laughs hosts the second annual World Improv Championships, with teams from New York City, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Halifax competing. These no-holds-barred wrestling matches for intellectuals are performed Canadian-style in a modified hockey rink, complete with rules, referees and penalties. It's probably the only "sporting event" wherein someone can be penalized for unnecessary use of cliches.

"The presentation owes itself more to sports than to theater arts," says Claude Ranger, programmer of this year's Improv Championship. "But the goal is still to be funny." Scheduled daily match-ups throughout the festival lead to a championship final...and, yes, they take improvisation very seriously in Montreal. Those masters of improv, Second City, will also participate.

Gumboots
Gumboots
"We try to bring a cross-section of entertainment from around the world," says Bruce Hills, the new CEO of Just For Laughs. "It's a comedy festival, but we're also looking for shows that translate to all audiences and make people smile," adds Hills, who booked the dance shows Tap Dogs and Stomp into the festival prior to their American engagements. "This year, we have a marvelous show from South Africa called Gumboots." (The show, which had a successful run in London's West End, is billed as a celebration of the art of rhythm and dance.)

The wide array of entertainment offered under the Just For Laughs umbrella requires some tough decisions by festivalgoers (of whom there were over one million last year), since many performances are scheduled at similar times in venues throughout the city. The programmers do, however, make a conscious effort to tickle the funny bones of every demographic group by putting together theme shows at local comedy clubs, including The Nasty Show (a font of political incorrectness), Queer Comics, Laughrodisiacs: The Relationship Show, The Uptown Show, The Bar Mitzvah Show, An Evening At Eve's Tavern (featuring comedy divas), The Montreal Show (presenting homegrown talent), Britcom (showcasing Britain's up-and-comers), and Globecom (the best of the rest of the world). Industry bigwigs attend The New Faces Show in hopes of finding the next big sitcom star, while the Alternative Comedy Show has a self-explanatory title.

Just for Laughs is the largest and most prestigious festival of its kind, offering a broad spectrum of comedy designed to appeal to the public and intrigue the industry. There's something here to suit almost every sense of humor. Heck, even Pauley Shore will be on hand!