Bruce Hills with Jimmy Fallon. Taken with Bruce’s phone.
The 2013 UK edition of GQ magazine hailed Just For Laughs Chief Operating Officer Bruce Hills “the most powerful man in international comedy”. I sat down with him last week to find out what he thinks makes a great comedian, and to find out what it’s like behind the scenes!
Bruce’s office walls are covered in autographed posters of past JFL gala hosts like Seth Rogen. On his desk rests this framed photo taken with Jimmy Fallon. As a huge fan of comedy, I was a little intimidated/excited to chat with someone who has access to this caliber of entertainer on a daily basis. He offered me some colorful candy and sat relaxed, no doubt much less intimidated by me. Luckily Bruce has a huge friendly smile and is very approachable.
The office was buzzing. The logistics it must take to organize this 20 day festival is mindblowing, not to mention the ongoing festivals in Toronto and Sydney. The acts were all announced that day and Bruce was thrilled to see all the comedians posting on their twitter feed that they would be part of the Galas like the ones hosted by Jane Lynch (Glee), and Neil Patrick Harris (How I met your Mother). The list of reknowned stars that will be performing in Montreal over the next few weeks is astounding and speaks to the festival’s allure that Bruce has cultivated since the 1980’s.
How does he lead the most prestigious international comedy festival in the world? With an amazing team and a huge respect for the comedians. I had a tearful moment when we discussed the late Joan Rivers, and I was very happy to see his respect for female comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
Angelique: How did you make Just For Laughs the most prestigious comedy festival in the world?
Bruce: I started years ago in the 80’s with a gentleman by the name of Andy Nulman and we built this event together with of course the founder Gilbert Rozon. About 15 years ago Andy left and I took over. I added some great people to the team including Robbie Praw who oversees all of the programming in Montreal and Toronto. He does a fantastic job. Not only in terms of the programming, but in terms of what Just For Laughs stands for, how it’s marketed, and the business approach. We have a very smart and energetic team.
What do you do as Chief Operating Officer?
Everything from leading the focus of our business in Montreal, to the launch in Toronto, and the 5th season in Sydney. No question Just For Laughs Montreal is the heart and soul of what we do. It’s about growing, strengthening, and diversifying our business. That can be everything from senior tasks like negotiating business deals, to signing off on someone’s expense account. You also have to keep your team motivated.
Is it a 24 hour a day job?
It can be. I like to put my phone away. I would never check my e-mail every 15 minutes if I’m out to dinner with someone. Most of the year I am able to put my phone away when I am with my kids. If we are in the heat of the battle during the lead up to the festivals, I might have to answer the phone. But I don’t think it’s productive to be available 24 hours a day.
You are collaborating with the Tourism of Montreal President, what are you both trying to achieve?
Yves Lalumière is the new President. We have two fantastic products that when they come together have a heck of an offering. I believe that tourism in Montreal can be stronger. We think JFL should be drawing American comedy fans in numbers like Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo attract music fans. When you think that we have a combined 70 million twitter followers with artists like Neil Patrick Harris, Weird Al, and Kevin Hart; we have an army of good will. We also need to take advantage of the fact that the exchange rate is so great for Americans right now.
What do you love most about Montreal?
I am always proud when I bring the artists, friends or family around Montreal. Especially to our great restaurants like Joe Beef, Nora Gray, or L’Express. I’m proud of the chefs in our city. We sell out a lot of the city every year. Every foodie wants to come to Montreal. Jimmy Fallon loves Joe Beef. Seth Rogen couldn’t believe what he was eating at Au Pied de Cochon.
Caffè San Simeon. (39 Rue Dante)
How does Robbie Praw court the talent?
We really take care of them. Montreal is a good place to start a relationship. Artists want to perform here. From giving a young comedian their first 7 minutes in front of the industry, to their first 7 minutes of television, to their first tour, to their first Gala hosting job. We worked with Kevin Hart and now we are 1000 tickets away from selling out the Bell Centre.
What does it take for a comedian to host a Gala?
They have to be able to fill a big room, and they have to be signed off on by one of the networks that broadcast us. In Canada we work with the CBC, the Comedy Network, and HBO. We want them to be ready on a performance level. We want the Galas to be first class.
How does a comedian stay relevant?
You have to stay fresh. That’s why a lot of comedians don’t want to leave New York or London. You can do 5 sets a night. I ran into Bill Burr the other night and he said he had just done 4 sets that night. He wants to because he believes that to be one of the best in the industry, and he is, that you have to take the art very seriously. It’s like a muscle, you have to train. You have to be sharp. Not only is it important for them as stand-ups, but it’s important for them as artists. You never know where the next best idea is going to come from. It might be an idea that comes up on stage that launches a movie, or launches a tv series. It’s about being creative. It’s about getting up on stage and challenging yourself. Not only just doing the easy gigs. Go ahead and do a show at the Comedy Store at midnight in London when the audience is drunk and a little abusive. See if you can handle that. Certain artists can’t. It doesn’t mean they aren’t funny, but if you can handle it, it’s nice to know you have that in your back pocket.
Do you think comedians get better with age?
Sometimes, sometimes not. Some get lazy. They just want to go out and perform for casinos, or private gigs. They don’t want the challenge of selling tickets or being compared to others. They want to make a nice living without really pushing it too hard. I find the new generation is very interested in keeping up their game.
Who are you excited to see step-up in late night television right now?
I think Trevor Noah is going to be great. He’ll be here hosting a JFL Gala. It’s an interesting situation; I just had a great conversation with Bill Carter, the New York Times writer for over 30 years, in Banff at the TV festival. We talked about his new book, which is “The War for Late Night”, and it was very interesting to hear his view. There was a generation of talk show hosts who decided to walk away. In the case of Jon Stewart, he basically said “I’ve done it, I’m tired, I want to do something else”. He’s smart; he’s won more Emmy’s in the last 10 years than anyone else. “The tide is changing; my ex-partner is taking over Letterman. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, are getting as much audience from their twitter clips as they are watching the show, and that’s maybe not the space I want to be competing in.” I think he walked away at the perfect time. I think Letterman walked away at the perfect time, maybe a year or two after he should have. Jimmy and Jimmy are doing a lot of great things for late night. I think Stephen Colbert will be great replacing Letterman. I just met with the executive producer of Colbert, he is an ex-Montrealer, and he is very excited about the new show.
Have you met Stephen Colbert?
I have. He has a fantastic reputation with his staff. He is just insanely smart. Never underestimate what he is going to do in that little battle with the two Jimmy’s. I think it’s going to be good for the two Jimmy’s because they are going to be on the top of their game. I think James Corden is trying to do something different. I think he’s going to be great. We are going through a great period.
What do you think made Joan Rivers such a tough act to follow?
She loved her craft. It pained her when she didn’t do well. She was edgy, dirty, funny, writing all the time, irreverent. She never backed down from anyone, or any subject. I thought she was fantastic. She actually had made a Canadian flag outfit, and said “I didn’t even charge you”. She showed it to me and it was great, and it obviously killed when she walked out onstage. She went out and did a performance with a lot more energy than a lot of young comedians, and she was sharp as heck. Killed! Absolutely killed! I said to her, “I just have to tell you, this is going to be uncomfortable because I know you don’t like compliments, but you are what every comedian wants to be, you set the bar.” She said “Stop it. Shut up.” I know I made her very uncomfortable, but I meant it. I told her “I’ve been doing this a long time”; I didn’t want to insult her by referencing her age, but I had to say “I don’t want to try to come off as some authority, but I’ve worked with a lot of comedians through the years, from all over the world, with the biggest stars of comedy. Where you are at, at your age, how much you care about the art of stand-up, is just impressive. I am just so impressed, and I want to thank you again for doing this festival.”
Thank you for sharing that story. It was very moving.
Do you have any advice for young comedians?
Keep getting out there and practising your craft. Be original.
Do you have a favorite joke?
Yes, I do have something that I just adore. It’s very silly. You can look it up on YouTube. It’s called “The balloon dance, the greatest show on legs.”
I came into comedy by accident. Luckily, at the early stages. In the 80’s, there were maybe 5 stars selling out a a big theatre, let alone an arena. Now with social media it’s grown so substantially that my 15 year old kids share as much comedy as they do music. That was never the case when I was 15. Now comedy is such a big part of pop culture. It’s fantastic for our business. I’m so excited for this era of comedy.
What is it like backstage?
It can be anything from deathly boring to very exciting. It can be really fun. A few years ago Kathy Griffin came backstage, she really wanted to see Kristin Chenoweth and Joan Rivers host their Galas. It was a year with a great line-up of women, and they were all really supportive of each other. It was also great to see Chevy Chase last year wanting to sit backstage and watch all the other Galas hosts like Don Rickles and Seth Rogen. Seth Rogen created a big celebrity scene, everyone from PK Subban to Joseph Gordon Levitt wanted to see him perform.
Can we expect to see Amy Poehler and Tina Fey at JFL in the future?
Tina hosted 10 years ago and she was out of this world. Amy came here once with Colbert in a sketch troop. She was here two years ago to receive an award. It’s tough because they are not gigging acts. They are so busy and they get so many lucrative offers. It’s really hard to get their attention for something like this. I would love to have them both back.
What is it that makes Tina out of this world?
She is so smart. She writes her own stuff. She knew exactly what she was going to do. She was really funny. She killed it.
Does Jerry Seinfeld get nervous? He makes it look so easy.
I don’t think so. He is really the platinum category standard. He sells a lot of tickets. We promote him in Canada. He comes to Montreal often. He doesn’t love doing festivals. He prefers to be on the road. He is a very nice guy, very professional. No nonsense.
Dream line up at JFL ?
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would be on the top of my list. I’d love to get Chris Rock back. He’s been here twice. He’s going back on tour, so hopefully we’ll get him to do something someday.
Is there anything about the festival that people may not know?
I think people underestimate the level and breathe of the talent available. Yes, you can see a big Gala of amazing talent for about 100$, but you can also see 5-6 shows for 100$. There is something for everyone.
Explore the festival and buy tickets here: Just for Laughs
See you at the Fest!
All the onstage picture were taken by Eric Myre.
The shot of Amy Poehler was taken by Dan Dion.