The world's most serious comedy festival

Craig Platt finds that Montreal's residents love laughter, summer, fireworks - and Australians.

Adam Hills is sledging Canadians ... and they're loving every minute of it. Hills, the affable star of music quiz Spick and Specks, is on stage at Late Nite Down Under, an all-Australasian showcase at Montreal's Just For Laughs festival.

Despite the foreign line-up and the Monday night timeslot, the locals have turned out in droves to see the likes of Hills, Tripod, Paul McDermott and last year's Edinburgh Fringe winner Brendon Burns.

Hills has come prepared, ribbing the Canadians on their famed politeness and modesty. After all, this is Adam Hills - he make take the piss out of you, but he does it in a nice way. He does a bit on Toronto's CN Tower, which until late 2007 was the tallest building in the world.

"But you don't say that!" he shouts, admonishingly, "You just suggest I go and see it. If I ask why, you just say mysteriously `Oh, I just I think you might like it'."

Montreal claims to be the world's biggest comedy festival, though this really depends on how you define "big". There's nowhere near the number of shows seen in Edinburgh or Melbourne, but there are plenty of free events drawing huge crowds which could explain higher attendance numbers. Last year's festival notched up figures of 230,000 for the indoor events, about half what the Melbourne festival claims as its attendance, but Montreal doesn't include the thousands who turn out every night for free outdoor performances.

One reason Montreal has fewer acts is because it's an invites-only festival. You can't just pay a registration fee, book your own venue and become part of the event.

As a result, just getting invited to Montreal is a big deal - and it also means you're not likely to come across many dud shows.

Perhaps because of this reputation, it can be difficult to get tickets. It also means that attendance is high. Unlike Melbourne and Edinburgh, where plenty of performers play to virtually empty houses, queues stretch around the block at many venues in Montreal - even when the punters have no idea who's on the bill.

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Much of the time, however, the locals know exactly who is performing. With its close proximity to New York, Montreal is a short trip for some of the biggest American names in comedy. Joan Rivers is here, as are South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Entourage's Jeremy Piven, sitcom stalwart Kathy Griffin, plus Hollywood's hottest comedy producer Judd Apatow and his entourage of comedians including Seth Rogen, Craig Robinson and Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader.

The big names are here because Montreal, more than any other comedy festival, is where careers can be made. As Hills explains, Montreal's Just for Laughs is where the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Tim Allen and, most recently, New Zealand's Flight of the Conchords first got the attention of TV producers.

"Whether it's legend or truth, there was a time apparently when contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars would be signed here on a bar" says Hills. "It doesn't happen so much any more, but you will be spotted." Hills himself had a sitcom in development with US broadcasting giant NBC, although it didn't come off in the end.

Unlike Quebec City, which maintains a distinctly French flavour, Montreal is a melting pot of three of the great Western cultures. It is influenced, in equal parts, by France, Britain and the US. The majority of the population speak French and English fluently, and many more have a third language.

And while some of the locals speak with heavy French accents, plenty of others sound like they've just come across the border from the US for the day. And where the French influence is clearly visible in the architecture and love of the arts, there's also plenty of Anglo culture here. Montreal's prominent statue of Horatio Nelson - that great enemy of the French - predates the one in London's Trafalgar Square.

And in further testament to the city's Anglo-Franco roots, the Just for Laughs festival is dedicated to French-language acts in its first week - it's not until week two, where most of the shows are in English, that the big names from the US arrive.

Because of the festival's invites-only policy, there's a level of quality control gives audiences confidence when buying a ticket. And unlike Melbourne or Edinburgh, the standard show in Montreal is not a solo performance but a showcase of several comedians each doing a ten or 15-minute set. It means more bang for your buck and little likelihood you'll awkwardly discover only two other people have shown up - and one of them is the performer.

As a result, getting tickets to shows can be difficult. One couple I met begged the concierge of their high-class hotel to find tickets to hot British comedian Russell Brand's show, which had sold out every night. (The concierge came through for them).

Even on a Monday or Tuesday night, queues for shows stretch around the block - including for the Late Nite Down Under showcase. Hill says this is partly because the show has built up a good reputation over the years, despite few of the locals being familiar with the performers.

Another reason is that Montreal is simply buzzing in summer. As soon as one festival finishes, another begins (the famed Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is on immediately before Just for Laughs) and the locals can't seem to get enough.

It's all to do with the winter, a couple explain at Club Soda, one of the many central comedy venues. Montreal is covered in snow in the colder months, so when summer is here, the locals don't want to waste a single night of it.

And why would you? Aside from the many comedy shows happening in clubs and theatres throughout the city, a big part of the Just for Laughs festival is the free outdoor events.

Boulevard St Denis is taken over by the festival every night. Traffic is blocked, street performers set up and giant puppets roam the pavement. The street is packed with people enjoying the performances or, in some cases, joining in and contributing to the giant sticky tape structure built in an empty block, or performing their own jokes via a video booth that is screened to audiences out on the street.

At this festival, a highlight is the explosive Toro, a work combining dance, floats, music and pyrotechnics by French art collective Oposito. Without barriers, the crowd becomes part of the parade, following the performers around the town.

It strikes me that this sort of inclusive arts event would be hard to pull off in Australia with such minimal security. At the very least, there would likely be several drunks who would interfere with the performance. There's nothing of the sort here, although the fact that the mechanical bull made from bicycle parts spews hot sparks and the performers carry very large sticks may be a factor in the crowd's good behaviour.

Before leaving the city, I'm told by a local that I must head down to the Old Port to see the fireworks. "What are you celebrating?" I ask. I receive a blank look, then something of an explanation: "It's summer, we always have fireworks."

It turns out it's yet another festival. Every week from late June to early August, Montreal hosts the International des Feux Loto-Quebec - an international competition to see which country can put on the best fireworks display. (Australia's own Howard and Sons ranked second last year, behind the US).

Meanwhile, as Toro climaxes with a giant skeletal horse and rider moving through the streets, the crowds dissipate and head off to the next entertainment, whether back to St Denis or to one of the comedy clubs. After all, it's summer, and the night is just beginning.

Craig Platt is online travel editor. He travelled to Montreal as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourisme Montreal.

Getting there

Air Canada flies from Sydney to Montreal via Vancouver. Call 1300 655 767 or visit www.aircanada.com

Staying there

Intercontinental Montreal is a brief walk from several of the festival's main venues and on the edge of the city's historic centre. Rooms start from Candian $221 per night adult twin share. Phone: +1-514-9879900 or visit montreal.intercontinental.com

The festival

This year's Montreal Just for Laughs festival is on from July 7 to 26, with the English-language program starting on July 16. For details, visit www.hahaha.com

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