Montreal Just for Laughs

From the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The Quartier des Spectacles, the arts and entertainment district in the heart of downtown Montreal, is in the throes of the 28th annual Just for Laughs Festival. In the past ten minutes I have been encircled by Les Androïdes, a hip-hop drill team of humanoid robots who look like they were designed by Peugeot or Studebaker; slandered (I think) by the French-speaking Mauvaises Langues, smart-aleck street performers garbed in elaborate tongue costumes; and hugged by Victor, the red-horned, roly-poly mascot of the festival. A large group of grade-schoolers sporting flashing red “Victor” horns trail him. “Where can I buy the horns?” I yell to them. They point in all directions, but before they can get out accompanying words, AC/DC’s raucous rock anthem “Thunderstruck” erupts from a bank of outdoor speakers. I’m swept up by a mob surging toward an enormous painted cannon that is about to fire “L’Homme Canon,” David “the Bullet” Smith, some 150 feet into a net that I now see is rimmed with exploding skyrockets. Finally I’ve found an entertainment district that actually lives up to its name!

MONTREAL CALLS ITSELF the “city of festivals” for its ambitious year-round calendar of events that proposes something for most every interest group, from music and dance to theater, cinema, and comedy. The latter is what I’m partial to—despite my own failed stand-up career, which began as a dream in Austin before turning into a nightmare one evening 20 years ago in front of a liquored-up crowd in Hollywood’s The Comedy Store. I haven’t been on a stage to “warm up” an audience since.

Happily, the only thing anywhere near nightmarish in Montreal thus far has been selecting which shows to attend. The original concept for the Just for Laughs Festival, launched in the summer of 1983 with a four-day affair featuring 16 artists performing 35 shows for some 5,000 spectators, was to bring laughter and fun to as many people as possible. This year the festival has signed up an estimated 2,000 artists to perform for more than 1.5 million attendees over 24 days, making it the largest happening of its kind in the world. Choosing from the near-stupefying selection of A-list comedians, concerts, plays, skits, street-theater productions, and parades has proved a challenge.

I kicked off my comedy-palooza by attending the Night of a Million Opinions Gala, hosted by acerbic American comedian Lewis Black and held at Théâtre St-Denis, a state-of-the-art performance hall in the heart of Montreal’s Latin Quarter. There is no dress code at Théâtre St-Denis, but with the gala being broadcast live on television, many of the 1,700 or so ticket holders wore something nice; the lady sitting next to me had poured herself into an iridescent dress that glowed in the dark and clanked like chain mail when she strolled to the bar to refresh her cocktail. Among my favorite Lewis Black lines: his portrayal of the Old Testament as “a wonderful story told to people in the desert in order to distract them from the fact that they didn’t have air-conditioning.”

Wit and an appreciation for the absurd can be found year-round in Montreal. To my mind, Canada has always shown the U.S. what it means to have a sense of humor. For starters, it was home to SCTV, a comedy show that helped launch the likes of Martin Short and John Candy. Then there is the general bonhomie, which I experience on the cab ride from the airport to my hotel. The cabbie, upon learning this is my first visit to Montreal, embarks on an ode to his hometown. “The most beautiful city in North America! Montreal actually is an island shaped like a croissant, bordered on the south by the Saint Lawrence River and on the north by the Rivière des Prairies. About 65 percent of Montrealers are French speakers, which makes this the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris, though Parisians pretend they can’t understand our French. Fine. We’re not French.” Here he wags a finger. “Yes, we have French blood, and we’ve taken the best of French culture—the food, the fashion, the joie de vivre­—but here,” he says, waving his arms, “we have a lot more room to enjoy these things.”

As we pull up to my hotel, he offers a final bit of advice. “It is customary to greet friends in Montreal by kissing them on both cheeks,” he says, “always starting with the right cheek.” Over the next few days I’ll forget to lead with the right and bump noses or kiss someone’s eyeball.

I chose the Auberge Bonaparte, on Rue St-François-Xavier, because it’s on a side street a stone’s throw from the banks of the Saint Lawrence River in Old Montreal, the birthplace of the city. Once I get the hang of jaywalking the steep, winding cobblestone streets here, I realize that I’ve checked into a pretty swanky neighborhood. Many of the restaurants, art galleries, and businesses in this popular tourist district occupy remarkably well-preserved classical revival- and Victorian-style buildings showboating some 350 years of architectural history. This includes souvenir shops brimming with French Canadiana: fleur-de-lis flags, T-shirts, snow globes, and hockey pucks, which are considered exotic paperweights back in my home state of Texas.

From my room window I can make out Notre-Dame Basilica, an imposing hunk of 19th-century neo-Gothic masonry. Branded a Catholic at birth, I’m drawn to incense, stained glass, and saints, the more the merrier. So I enter, light a four-day prayer candle, then weave through tour groups to admire the basilica’s dramatic lighting, towering stained glass windows, gilded statues of the saints, 7,000-pipe organ, and larger-than-life stations of the cross, each boasting a hand-crafted confessional. These should keep the line of sinners moving. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was when Richard Nixon was President.”

I’m intending to stay for the basilica’s son et lumière (sound and light) show, but there has been a Fred Willard sighting in the downtown Hyatt Regency. Willard has carved out a special place in the annals of comedy with his improvisational skills, his performance as the clueless announcer in the 1970s parody TV talk show Fernwood 2 Night, and his scene-stealing appearances in such films as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, This Is Spinal Tap, and Best In Show. I have to snag at least a glimpse of his eminence.

The crowds are bigger than ever this evening in the Quartier des Spectacles, so again I find myself a bit player in a Felliniesque parade. Les Grosses Têtes, tall caricatures of comedians marked by immense heads, are working the crowd. When I bump into one, it bends over and pats me on the noggin. “Find me some devil horns!” I implore it; I’ve just spotted red-horned festival mascot Victor, accompanied this evening by smoking-hot members of a Dixieland/rave band.

By the time I reach the downtown Hyatt Regency, the unofficial nerve center of the festival, there is no sign of Fred Willard—though a waitress (wearing red devil horns; where did she get them?) assures me the legend himself was sitting right there by the elevator minutes ago.

Bummed, I head back outside, fingers crossed that I’ll run into the man among the street festivities. Perhaps he would be intrigued by the quirky contemporary dance performance “Auto-Fiction: Human Trio and One Car,” by the Canadian group Human Playground. I certainly am as I watch three street dancers vault over, slide into, and pirouette around a station wagon. I’m guessing their moves are a comment on the central role the automobile plays in modern life.

Or maybe Willard is more of a surround-me-with-color guy, in which case he may be wandering the giant inflatable sculpture of tunnels and domes called “Architects of Air Luminarium.” I ditch my shoes and pad into what looks like a psychedelic romper room illuminated with liquid color. The mazelike interior reminds me of the capillaries and blood vessels in the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage. Other visitors crawl, sit, or just zone out. Because it’s made of vinyl, the luminarium poses almost no risk of bodily harm; the only way anybody possibly could get hurt is by knocking heads with someone bouncing off an adjacent tunnel. Oops!

“Pardon,” I mumble sheepishly.

Shuffling my shoes back on, I fall in with some devil-horned kids headed to a bubble booth. Request your favorite song then step into the booth. As lights flash, foaming bubbles appear from a dozen directions, encouraging you to sculpt yourself into an animal, or action hero—really anything the imagination dreams up. Seems like a perfect venue for Fred. Just when it’s my turn, though, those trouble-making tongues, the Mauvaises Langues, reappear. They find it really funny that I’m in line with children—and happily blab that to the surrounding crowd.

This playful tongue lashing and Willard’s no-show prompt me to revisit my plans, so I wander back toward my hotel. Somewhere along the way I realize I’ve entered an area I don’t recognize and, more surprising, someone has moved the sunset to the north. “Is that a Canadian thing?” I wonder. It turns out the original street grid of Montreal was organized relative to the Old Port on the Saint Lawrence waterfront. North is actually northwest, so the sun appears to rise in the south, not the east, and set in the north, not the west.

Between this geographical dislocation and the disorienting hubbub of the festival’s street events, I feel like I’m bumping along in the figurative dark. But there’s dark, and there’s Montreal dark. That’s what Mert, a student at nearby McGill University whom I’ve, well, bumped into in a café, is telling me. “You have to check out O.Noir,” he announces. “You eat in complete darkness, and the waitstaff is blind.” Noting the look of confusion on my face, he adds, “Trust me. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” I jot down the tip and wish Mert luck in his studies. Drum sounds from nearby Mount Royal Park are beckoning, so I head over—and find the Tam-Tam Jam, another performance, in full swing. Tam-tam is French for hand drum; Mount Royal Park is 470 acres of green space smack-dab in the middle of the city, with trails that wind 770 feet to the summit of the aforesaid Mount Royal, the mountain (really, hill) Montreal is named for.

Sixty or so drummers are laying down the rhythm on everything from bongos and African djembes to a plastic bucket. Frisbees are flying, tie-dye is everywhere, and free spirits of all ages and skill levels are dancing to the wall of drumbeats. Grandpa’s out there, shirtless, shoeless, and sunburned, grooving like back in the day when a Grateful Dead concert could last for weeks. “Pace yourself, man,” I mutter. If I could score a plastic bucket, I’d step up and play “Wipe Out.”

Instead, I hop a bus and ride to the summit of Mount Royal to scout out the Oratoire Saint-Joseph—Saint Joseph Oratory—a basilica that is one of the most visited Roman Catholic shrines in North America. Some of my best work before a live audience took place when I was an altar boy; those standing-room-only church crowds proved powerfully inspiring. I soon learned my limits, however: Getting caught doing vaudeville under the cross carried severe penalties (not to mention penances), so in my impromptu performances, less was more.

Too bad I didn’t have my own Saint Joseph Oratory to perform in. The renaissance-style basilica, finished in 1967 and topped by a dome 318 feet high—almost the height of Michelangelo’s dome for Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica—is vast enough to hold an entire dirigible. I try to square it with the original oratory, a wooden chapel the size of a storage shed founded in 1904 by humble Brother André, whose eventual reputation as a miraculous healer earned him sainthood by the Vatican in 2010.

I GRAB A CAB THAT IS IDLING in front of the pilgrims’ service center. Something about the oratory and my church memories of priests preaching deprivation are now prompting me to see what Mert’s O.Noir is all about. As we pull away, the driver informs me he is bipolar “and on my down mode at the moment, so bear with me.” I learn he just moved to Montreal from “that overgrown hog town, Toronto,” which brings up another Montreal tidbit. The city considers itself the cultural mecca of Canada and never tires of pointing out that Toronto, Canada’s financial capital, was once the pork-processing powerhouse of the British Empire.

“Toronto is all about making money and roaring around in fancy cars,” my driver says. “Torontonians can’t wait for Monday morning, to get back to the grind. Montrealers live for the weekend. They’ll never ask what you do for a living or what kind of car you drive; they’ll just enjoy the moment with you.” By the time we pull up to O.Noir, he seems to have shifted into his up mode. “Enjoy your meal—and try not to drop your fork,” he says, breaking into laughter.

O.Noir is wedged between the Salon Barbier and Fat’s Pub and Billiards on Rue Ste-Catherine. A sign in the window reads: “Canada’s first ever restaurant that invites you to experience food, drink, and conversation like never before—In The Dark! After a few hours in complete darkness you’ll gain a better understanding of what it’s like to be blind—just like our entire waitstaff.” Encouragingly, part of O.Noir’s profits go to local associations that serve the blind and visually impaired.

When I enter, one of the sighted girls working the front bar takes my order and introduces me to Philip, a college student wearing Elvis-like shades. “I’ll be your server this evening,” he says, then has me place my hand on his shoulder and leads me through heavy black curtains, which drag across my face. We’re entering the pitch-black dining area. I hear dinner conversations and the clatter of flatware. Philip guides me to my table and helps me into my chair. “I’m going to place your beer on your left, next to the wall,” he says.

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“Good thinking,” I answer.

The absence of sight does seem to cue my ears to pay more attention, an interesting, even entertaining, sensation—until a barrage of squeals and shrieks erupts somewhere behind me. It sounds like a busload of excited sorority girls. As I dig into my marinated shrimp with herbs, the din increases to the point where I find myself grumbling loudly into the darkness, “Stuff a sock in it.” This seems to only incite them to kick it up a few hundred decibels—and it dawns on me that they would make the perfect audience for the comedy acts playing in town. Heck, if they’d been in the audience for my stand-up act, maybe I would have been on stage right now instead of blindly calling out for my handler.

“Philip! Please, a little help over here. Yo, Phil...”

“I’m right here,” Philip coos, appearing from nowhere.

“Let’s skip the surprise dessert, amigo. It’s too noisy in here.” I leave a big tip, latch on to him with both hands, and bolt out to Rue Ste-Catherine with a full stomach and a renewed appreciation for the precious gift of sight.

Which gets me thinking: That gift of sight is integral to any appreciation of the comedy playing out on Montreal’s stages. Comedy, after all, is both about what we see and what we hear. As if to punctuate that, I spot a bevy of long-legged cancan girls wearing enormous see-through hoop skirts and maneuvering around on stilts. The sight transfixes me—until my old friends, the Mauvaises Langues, show up. Now they find my shoes (sensible black brogues) worthy of ridicule. The crowd agrees. I’m reliving my Hollywood moment. I indignantly muster my minimal French (mostly cribbed from the breakfast menu) for a double-barreled riposte. “Monsieur, oeufs plus faciles, s’il vous plaît!” I can see them quake in their shoes. I feel redeemed. It takes me a few minutes to realize that what I shouted was, “Sir, eggs over easy, please!” Their quaking isn’t from fear.

Intended or not, comedy and laughter seem to be in Montreal’s very atmosphere. My final day I make my way to yet another performance, where I’m gripped by a strange sensation. “I belong here,” I say to myself. “This is a city where the creative joy of humor is revered. I’ll apply for dual citizenship and start working the open-mike nights at the dozens of comedy clubs. Then maybe, in a year or ten, I’ll find my name listed next to ‘Fred Willard.’” As confirmation—or is it repudiation?—a garbage truck rumbles up, and I note that the driver is wearing the red devil horns. My red devil horns.

Contributing editor Patrick J. Kelly and photographer Will van Overbeek last teamed up for our story “A Thousand Islands of Summer” (May/June 2010).

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