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Just for Laughs

Just for Laughs -- An on the scene report at the world's biggest comedy festival

A young woman whose name tag reads ”Veronique” looks and sounds like a Parisian art student. She also looks as if she has just eaten too many Hostess Twinkies. Her apparent nausea is understandable: After long days behind the information desk at the eighthhannual Just for Laughs Montreal International Comedy Festival, she is suffering from Comedian Overload. ”Zey comedians just don’t know,” she says with a sigh, ”how to stop zhticking.”

The shtick was as thick as a Montreal phone book at the festival, billed as the ”Cannes of Comedy.” Just for Laughs may not have had all of the best comics in the business, but it certainly had the most: 250 this year, from the United States, Canada, Britain, West Germany, Belgium, and a half-dozen other countries.

The 1990 edition of the world’s largest comedy conclave — which ran from July 12 to 22 — also attracted half-a-million spectators, including television producers and agents. In addition, parts of the festival were seen by millions of viewers on the Showtime and MTV cable networks.

The comedic spectrum stretched from mimes in whiteface pretending to be butterflies to ventriloquists who seemed right out of 1920s vaudeville. British comedian Chris Lynam demonstrated his specialty, putting a lit firecracker in his rear end (and yes, it explodes).

Klaus Meyers, a West German comic, tried to prove that his authority- obsessed countrymen do have a sense of humor. ”Take my wife,” Meyers told his audience. ”I command you.” For cutting-edge political satire, there was South Africa’s Pieter-Dirk Uys and Britain’s Jeremy Hardy. There were also plenty of old-fashioned setup-punch-line comics like the Los Angeles-based John Mendoza , who asked, ”Have you ever heard the expression ‘I’m glad I’m not him’? Well, I’m him.”

”It’s a coming together,” said Weird Al Yankovic, who sang ”Lasagna” to the tune of ”La Bamba” (”La-la-la-la-lasagna…Would you like some-a zucchini? Or-a my homemade linguine, eet’s hard-a to beat”). ”To comedians, the Montreal festival is the gathering of the tribes.”

To comic headhunters, the event is a chance to scout out new prospects while they’re still performing cheap. The festival has earned a reputation for springing new talent like John Candy, Jay Leno, Sandra Bernhard, and Marsha Warfield. The trade paper Variety declared last year that ”the festival has firmly established itself in the yuk-yuk trade as the world’s premier comedy showcase.”

While comic routines cooked all night in Montreal clubs, the action was often just as entertaining on the city’s streets, where an additional 285 free performances were put on for the citizenry. ”We want Montreal to become the funniest city in the world,” says Gilbert Rozon, Just for Laughs’ 35-year-old founder and president. He is not alone: The festival, a nonprofit group, is supported by government grants and sponsors such as Labatt Brewery, Bell Canada, Pepsi, and Air Canada.

Though the festival is known as a place where comedians are discovered, some of the best moments this year were provided by two familiar faces: Bob Newhart and Dave Thomas.

Almost 30 years have passed since Newhart’s Button-Down Mind comedy albums made him one of the country’s hippest stand-up guys. He’s still cool. His opening line during one of the festival’s showcase nights — ”Welcome to the first annual Donald Trump telethon” — went over well. He also took some of his most famous routines out of mothballs, including a shaggy-dog story about a cut-rate airline known as ”The Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Company).” The bit was corny (”So we boarded the DC-1”), sweet, and funny.

Thomas was a leading force in the early ’80s on SCTV (the seminal comedy sketch show from Toronto that launched such performers as Rick Moranis and John Candy), impersonating the likes of Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, and the oafish Bob ”Take off, you hoser” McKenzie. His new character at Just for Laughs: Bob ”Dice” Hope, a leather-jacketed vulgarian carrying a golf club and spouting a mile of references to Bing Crosby and USO shows. ”I didn’t want to do Bob Hope anymore, but the people here really wanted me to,” Thomas said. ”So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, but I’ll do something different.’ So I just kind of made this up on the spot.”

Clay himself wasn’t around. For those in the mood for misogynistic shock comedy, Sam Kinison was. Headlining the festival’s ”R-rated Gala,” Kinison came off as strictly yesterday’s news. He didn’t even generate the biggest laugh on raunch night; that distinction went to L.A.-based comic Hugh Fink, speaking of the late porn star John Holmes. ”This is a man who claimed to have had sex with 14,000 women,” said Fink. ”I haven’t urinated that many times.”

Things got cleaned up — a bit — for the next night’s Showtime special. Though it wasn’t exactly the brotherhood of man being touted onstage, there were hints that, at times, comedy can actually bridge East and West.

West German comic Meyers joked that he’s not happy that the Berlin Wall has finally come down. ”There goes my excuse,” he told his festival audience, ”not to visit my mother-in-law.”