RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Dave Chappelle, Mike Myers, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes - they're among the dozens of comedians in Montreal right now for the annual Just For Laughs Festival. Writers, agents and network executives are there, too, hoping to find the next big thing. Just For Laughs is the biggest and oldest comedy festival in the world. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, it's transformed from a nice, local festival to something much, much bigger.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Are you here for Just For Laughs?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No (speaking French).
BLAIR: Here's one reason Montreal is home to such a colossal comedy festival. It's really two festivals - a French one and an English one. Since stand-up comedy is so language specific, there's not a lot of audience crossover, but there are exceptions. When I asked Montrealer Mathieu Forge who he was most excited about seeing, he said...
MATHIEU FORGE: Weird Al.
BLAIR: Weird Al - does he speak French?
FORGE: No (laughter) I don't think so.
BLAIR: And even though it rained last night, Weird Al Yankovic did his thing for thousands of fans. Wearing an outrageous blonde wig, a purple octopus-like dress and fluffy pink leg warmers, Yankovic parodied Lady Gaga.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFORM THIS WAY")
AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) I perform this way, hey. I perform this way, hey. I'm always deviating from the norm this way, hey. I perform this way, hey. I perform this way, hey. I'm really not insane. I just perform this way, hey.
BLAIR: Just For Laughs was founded in 1983 by Gilbert Rozon, a man whose Twitter profile says he's an ex-lawyer, ex-salesman and ex-gravedigger. He had the idea for a small street festival for French-speaking comedians from Quebec. It was so popular a few years later he added some Anglophones. Today, hundreds of comedians pretty much take over the city's venues. Small clubs, big theaters and out on the streets - every style of comedy imaginable, from stand-up to slapstick.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking French).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking French).
BLAIR: That diversity attracts a lot of industry types making deals or looking for the next big thing. Comedians like Jimmy Fallon, Norm Macdonald and Tim Allen credit the festival with helping launch their careers. Robbie Praw, vice president for programming for Just For Laughs, says Dave Chappelle is festival royalty.
ROBBIE PRAW: He is just an unbelievable story of, you know, a guy that came here when he was 19 years old and asked if he could busk outside of one of our venues to make additional money, you know, because I'm sure we were paying horribly back in those days.
BLAIR: This is Chappelle from his indoor performance that year - 1993.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PERFORMANCE)
DAVE CHAPPELLE: Man, I love Montreal.
CHAPPELLE: I do, man. Yeah, man, I was hanging out in the black community today. Both of those guys are great.
CHAPPELLE: We got along.
WANDA SYKES: It's like a big reunion for comedians.
BLAIR: I reached Wanda Sykes by phone before she headed to Montreal. She's hosting an evening of stand-up performances by five comedians. She says she comes to Just For Laughs for the same reason fans do - she wants to be around a lot of funny people. With Sykes, a sense of humor is a requirement.
SYKES: It's hard being friends with people who aren't funny. They just make you uncomfortable, and you feel like you might catch it.
BLAIR: No chance of catching anything like that here. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.