Picture this: it’s about 10:30 on a Wednesday night in July and a huge crowd is cheering and waving its arms in time with a philharmonic orchestra as it belts out rousing numbers in a downtown outdoor amphitheatre. People crowd in from the street beyond, where drinkers, diners and entertainers rub shoulders in a carnival atmosphere. And as the music hits a crescendo, fireworks light up the sky. It’s summer in Montreal — and in summer, Montreal is Just for Laughs.
It’s no secret that summer is the time to visit French Canada’s most famous city; once the Quebec winter sets in, it takes a brave soul to venture outside. But when the warm weather arrives, Montrealers make use of every minute, with a frenzy of high-octane outdoor events. One of the best-known — and the one that created the scene above — is the Just for Laughs festival, or as the Québécois call it, Juste pour rire.
You may have seen the TV show or the little practical-jokes video clips that made Just for Laughs famous, as well as its devilish little mascot, pictured at top (if you’re reading this by e-mail, click the headline to see it). But those practical jokes blossomed into a major comedy festival that runs for about three weeks each summer and takes up a whole district in the city’s centre. This year’s dates are July 8-28, so you’ve still got time to make it.
As for the city district, it’s a wonder in itself. Called the Quartier des spectacles, it occupies a square kilometre right next to the downtown core, centred on a stretch of Montreal’s main drag, Ste-Catherine Street. And when it’s Just for Laughs in Montreal, all the roads in the quartier are closed off and it becomes one big fairground.
Most of the big acts — which include people like Dave Chappelle and Norm MacDonald – begin appearing toward the last week of the festival. But until then, there’s plenty of time for all kinds of assorted fun, from kids’ shows to buskers, strolling musicians, giant walking character heads, dance shows and crazy street comedy, like women dressed up as Marie Antoinette giving people hairdos.
That’s not to mention nightly headline performances that run the gamut from high culture to lowbrow. A lot of these are in French, so if you’re anglais, you lose a lot in translation. But some of the entertainment is so broad that it works in any language.
The night before the philharmonic show, the spotlight was on an outrageous drag queen called Mado who entered in a float carried by a giant moving arm. He proceeded to emcee an off-kilter talent show with judges that included Miss Piggy, Marge Simpson and a statue of Marilyn Monroe.
Just for Laughs could call itself a food festival, too, with close to 30 food trucks on site, as well as permanent restaurants, stalls selling everything from poutine and beaver tails to duck breast on a bun, and wine tasting kiosks.
It’s OK to stroll the grounds with your wine, too – as long as you don’t throw the glass away. The festival has a strict no-disposable-cup rule. You can buy a special festival glass and just refill it at different drink stands, or rent one from the drink seller and bring it back later to get your deposit.
There’s a lot to see in Montreal in July, but when the sun goes down, there’s no trouble deciding how you want to end your evening. Just follow the crowds to where the music and applause are coming from, and join in the fun. This festival may be Just for Laughs, but when summer comes to Montreal, what could be more important?