In March, it was announced that Howie Mandel was among the group that purchased the Just for Laughs comedy festival which produces and hosts the world’s biggest and most important comedy festival every year in Montreal. The company also runs festivals in Toronto, Vancouver and Australia.
On Friday at the festival, Mandel sat down with radio host Ron Bennington in front of a live audience for an episode of Bennington’s critically acclaimed Unmasked series, and for the first time publically detailed his plans for the future of the massive comedy fest which has helped to break young comedians and spotlight the best comedy performers for nearly four decades.
Mandel revealed that he plans to make Just for Laughs a world-famous brand and a household name. “I just wanna be like a brand ambassador and scream it.”
Howie told Bennington and a room full of fans and industry that performing at the Just for Laughs festival has been one of the most pivotal experiences in his life, and that while everyone in comedy and most hardcore comedy fans are very familiar with the festival and how influential it is, the average person who doesn’t follow the business has never heard of it. And that’s something he wants to change. “This is a really important place,” he said. “I would imagine everybody that listens to your show understands the importance of Just for Laughs, but that’s the thing. The world does not know what this is.”
Mandel described the responsibility he feels to comedy, and to his country. The world-famous comedian, tv and film star who grew up in Toronto recalled growing up feeling like an outsider, but all that changed when he discovered stand-up at Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s comedy club. He started performing in Canada, but said he had to travel to Los Angeles to find financial opportunities in the business, and that has always bothered him. Just for Laughs has helped to change that for young comedians from Canada and all over the world. Since Just for Laughs started, he said “this has become the mecca. This has become the place where anybody that you know in comedy, anybody from anywhere that you know in comedy, if they didn’t get launched out of here, then they have come here and become a big part of it.” And as famous and influential as JFL is, it’s always bothered him that the general public is unaware of it.
He drew comparisons to how Coachella and National Lampoon. “You know what Coachella is. Even if you’ve never been to Coachella, you go, okay that’s the concert in the desert and I love it.” And when he was growing up, National Lampoon was a great comedy magazine that later became the banner for great comedy writers, movies, records and more. “It became the banner for anything comedy. JFL doesn’t have that, and that’s my goal.” When the opportunity arose for people to buy the festival, he was intrigued. “I was chasing this and I wanted to be part of it and my goal was to say, “This is a brand.”
He promises that he doesn’t want to change the festival, only help to broaden its reach. “I want this to be exactly what it is. I just wanna be like a brand ambassador and scream it. I want it to live more digitally.” He pointed to Beyonce streaming one of the biggest YouTube concerts in history from Coachella, but finds it amazing that JFL- despite being the mecca for comedy- has almost no digital footprint. And he plans to help bring more recognition to Canadian contributions to comedy through that footprint. “I know what British comedy is. I know what Australian comedy is. I know that they’re from there. You don’t know what Canada is. People don’t know that Lorne Michaels … SNL would not be around if Lorne Michaels did not start in Canada,” he said. “So much of what people watch all over the world came out Canada, so I’m the new brand ambassador for Just for Laughs.”
In the clip below you can hear Howie explain what he plans to add to the mix. “You talk on your show and I’ve heard you last year and I heard you this year talk about what this is, what this experience is,” he told Bennington. “You’re talking ultimately to comedy fans, but people who weren’t specifically comedy fans knew what Lampoon was. Everybody knew, even if you weren’t subscribing to that magazine, you knew that Lampoon was the funny magazine. Even if you don’t watch SNL, you know that’s a New York institution for sketch comedy. Even if you don’t go home Saturday night and you watch it. If you walk up to somebody in the streets of Oklahoma and you say, “What’s Just for Laughs in Montreal?” I doubt anybody would know what that is. They don’t even know what that title is. They don’t know what that is.”
“And now this [festival] is 36 years old, now with the technology, with social media, we’re living in a whole new world. We can expand that. This doesn’t just live here. Montreal is the mecca for it. We have a satellite festival in Toronto, Vancouver, in Australia. That’s gonna just grow from there.”
Mandel also told hilarious stories during the hour including how he got to appear on Carson’s Tonight Show for an amazing 22 guest spots after initially being told by show’s booker that he would “never” get on the show, and he shared the story behind his infamous final appearance that ended his relationship with Johnny.
The hour will air in its entirety on SiriusXM after the festival with a date yet to be announced.
The Unmasked series documents the careers of the very best comedy writers, directors, filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, satirists, political comedians, comedic musicians and of course, stand up comedians in the business. With over 125 episodes so far, Unmasked is a veritable archive of the greatest comedy of our time. Past Unmasked guests have included Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, Amy Schumer, Dan Aykroyd, Simon Pegg, Tracy Morgan, Paul Feig, Jim Jefferies, Gilbert Gottfried, Bobcat Goldthwait, Louis C.K., David Brenner, Brian Regan, Patrice O’Neal and over 100 more comedy greats. This is Howie’s second time appearing on the series; the first was recorded in 2009.
In addition to hosting “Unmasked”, Ron Bennington hosts a daily comedy talk show, “Bennington” with his co-host Gail Bennington on SiriusXM’s Faction Channel from 2pm to 5pm et.