Although Montreal may not stir vivid associations with laugh out loud humor or direct connections to comedy’s finest, it is home to Just For Laughs, the city’s very own international comedy festival.

The comedy extravaganza comes complete with stand-up performances, panel discussions and (most importantly to us here at MM) a film festival that screens shorts and features from directors both renowned and unknown. This year’s headliner? None other than Funny People, the latest from comedy mastermind Judd Apatow.

Chief operating officer of the festival Bruce Hills took some time to talk to MM about the 13th edition of the film festival, which runs July 23-26.

Elissa Suh (MM): How has the festival changed from when it started years ago?

Bruce Hills (BH): It’s a very different proposition now. We’ve got a much bigger event than when we started. In the early ’80s, comedy was not the business it is today. It was just a much smaller industry, from television to live performances to movies. As time has gone on, we’ve just evolved with the industry and obviously grown substantially since our early days of two shows in one theater.

A big part of that is our film component; not only do we do big Hollywood features, but we do the best of the French world. We bring all of the blockbusters from France and Quebec, as well as big Hollywood films like last year’s Pineapple Express and this year’s Funny People. We have a nice little indie block of features as well, and the heart and soul of it is the shorts. Our festival has more comedy shorts than any festival in the world.

Early films of Etan Cohen, Jason Reitman, “South Park,” you name it—they all had films in here before they were household names.

MM: Why do you guys place such an emphasis on short films?

BH: If you’re creative, you don’t have to spend an enormous amount of money to make a short, so it doesn’t restrict. We’ve had [films screened with] budgets that were $500, we’ve had others, Pixar shorts, that cost millions. I don’t think budget dictates how funny a film is, and I think filmmakers are out there making films with everything from their phones to borrowed video equipment. [The short program] gives people from not only North America a chance to showcase their films, but it also gives the world a chance to showcase their films here. I think short films are much more accessible for people’s budgets, so I think it’s crucial.

MM: Has the festival always had a mix of big-budget and independent movies? Do you distinguish between comedies made by independent producers and major companies?

BH: It’s a good question. It’s quality of the work that matters, but we’re also trying to make sure that within the film approach, just like the stand-up portion, there’s an opportunity for people to be discovered. I’d love to have 10 huge releases but if I did, I would like to have 20 independent films. It’s always balance. We need young filmmakers coming up, hopefully getting some exposure that will benefit their careers.

We also want to help the comedians out there that have films. This year, Jim Breuer, who’s been a regular Just for Laughs guy for a very long time, has got a movie out [William Philbin’s More Than Me]; as does Bobcat Goldthwait [with World’s Greatest Dad]. We’re going to be additionally sensitive to their films because we want to support the guys who have been good to us over the years.

MM: What lead to the creation of the film festival portion of Just For Laughs?
BH: First off, we thought it was a perfect complement to the stand-up portion. [A comedian like] Bobcat can do one of our big shows and also screen his film. Same thing for Jim Breuer and handful of others. I think Judd Apatow did nine performances last year.

We by no means expect to ever be the biggest film festival in the world, but what we would like to be is, in time, the best comedic film festival, and there’s a variety reasons for that. Again as I said, it’s a perfect complement. The other thing is that most often in film festivals, comedies don’t get their due. They’re discarded as not worthy of a spot that maybe that the latest Coen brothers movie deserves. I absolutely agree that the Coen brothers film should be seen, but why not a funny broad comedy if it’s great? Have a look at the top five film festivals in the world and see where the comedies rate in terms of prestige. They don’t exist, unless it’s by Woody Allen or a select few others. Our view is that instead of hiding them, we will put them on the pedestal and give them that huge amount of exposure.

Even with a film like Funny People they don’t need all our help, but we’re a nice complement; we’re gonna get the film out to all the comedy fans in Canada and promote the heck out of it. So it’s a nice extra little push for their film, whereas for other filmmakers it could be the difference maker

MM: Comedy is very subjective. How hard is it to put the program together and know that it’ll appeal to a broad audience? How do you know that you’ve chosen funny films?

BH: We have very good programmers, and you’re right, comedy is very subjective, but I think the way we market it puts a good audience in the room. When we promote Pineapple Express or Funny People, that’s going to be promoted to a broad audience. When it gets to some of the smaller films, smaller screening rooms, we do a lot more of [the marketing] online and through weekly type advertising. We’re trying to match the type of fare that’s on screen with the appropriate audience, and that’s always been a balancing act that we’ve been pretty good at.

MM: There are dark comedies, and romantic comedies and mockumentaries… and like you said, it’s all very subjective. Is there a certain type of humor or a specific subgenre that appeals to you personally?

BH: I like the subtler, smarter type comedies. At the same time, I’m a sucker for a big broad comedy when it’s done well.

What I usually do is focus especially on the films made by ex-comics. To have Judd Apatow play such an important part in last year’s festival, and again this year with another big premiere is especially great for me, and for the festival because we’re so proud of what Judd has become. We want Just For Laughs to be a home for you at the beginning of your career and at the height of your career.

MM: What screening or event are you most looking forward to this year?

BH: I’m very curious to see Funny People. I followed the progress of the film from when Judd told me about it in Montreal, to the reports I’ve been hearing from publicists. It sounds like Judd’s got a fantastic film on his hands, and I cant wait to see it.

MM: Finally, there are the two big awards for the Comedy Director of the Year and Comedy Writer of the Year, for Todd Phillips and Etan Cohen, respectively.
What went in to these choices?

BH: First, with Mr. Phillips: Could you think of someone else? Last year Judd got it, and this year right away was The Hangover. That film is not only hilarious, but it’s been a substantial hit and it’s a hit that is showing some strength outside of North America, which is not always the case with comedies. So for us it was a no-brainer for him to get Director of the Year.

Then, Etan Cohen for Writer: What script was funnier than Tropic Thunder in the last year? He deserves it, and he’s on his way to writing Sherlock Holmes [the version set to star Sacha Baron Cohen as Sherlock Holmes and Will Ferrell as Watson] as we speak. I think Tropic Thunder was one of those films that made me laugh a lot, and our gang that comes up with the awards all thought he was one of the guys we should focus on.