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Laugh Riot 

Just For Laughs: Montreal

Quebec's official motto, emblazoned on every license plate, is Je me souviens -- "I remember." And the memories seem particularly priceless for everyone involved in Just for Laughs, a 10-day comedy festival that starts Thursday in Montreal. The annual event attracts numerous show-biz scouts and, consequently, plenty of emerging comics hoping to be discovered.

"It's comedy camp and all the counselors are agents," says Caroline Rhea, a Montreal native who'll be returning to her birthplace as a JFL headliner.

Rhea also has fond recollections of the Green Mountain State. "I love, love, love Vermont," she gushes. "We'd always shop in Burlington and smuggle 18 pairs of underwear back across the border. And I went to summer camp in Craftsbury Common."

Her soft spot for bucolic splendor even prompted Rhea to briefly think about settling here, but instead she gravitated to the bright lights, and comedy clubs, of Manhat-tan. "You get one bedroom in New York City for the cost of 350,000 acres in Vermont," she quips.

Rhea notes that 2004 marks the 15th anniversary of a career in stand-up that began when she hit the Big Apple. She later relocated to Los Angeles to pursue opportunities in film and TV, including a six-year stint on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and a much more brief role as host of the TV talk show started by Rosie O'Donnell.

The comedienne is presenting a July 20 one-woman show -- Hello, Can You Help Me? -- at the Centaur Theater, where Rhea worked as a receptionist in her first job after college. She eagerly anticipates this first festival homecoming since 1996, because Montreal audiences are, in her words, "connoisseurs of comedy."

But Canadians are not alone. Plenty of JFL enthusiasts trek north from the United States. The sheer size of the festival is staggering. Almost 2000 eclectic live shows -- plus, funny films in segments such as "Eat My Shorts!" -- take place at virtually every venue the city has to offer, indoors and out. Last year, about 1.7 million people enjoyed performers from some 19 countries.

"We're primarily for the fans," contends Hills. "The artists know that they're performing for a demographic that's typical of the North American audience and they're comforted by that. It's regular folks."

The 22-year-old extravaganza invariably recruits major stars, and the 2004 lineup includes Tim Allen, Tom Arnold and Wayne Brady. Along with Rhea, they're each hosting a Gala, the televised festival fixture.

On a slightly smaller scale, JFL is introducing "Late Nite Down Under." This nod to Australia and New Zealand joins "The Bar Mitzvah Show," "O'Comics," "Best of the Urban Comics," "Queer Comics" and other thematic programs. The French-language Juste Pour Rire remains a concurrent event, drawing about 250,000 Franco-phones.

"We like to connect with every community," explains festival operations officer Bruce Hills. "So we scour the globe for the best of the best, taking the pulse of comedy worldwide."

A key 2004 goal is to attract more youngsters. The Gen-X thirst for horror might be quenched by a live play from Toronto, Evil Dead 1 & 2: The Musical, based on the 1980s cult-film classics by director Sam Raimi, currently the wizard behind Spider-Man 2.

Evil Dead is the tale of five college students at a cabin in the woods who accidentally unleash an ancient sinister spirit. Tunes such as "It Won't Let Us Leave" and "All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons" pump up the campiness.

With the elementary-school set in mind, Glaswegian stand-up comic and storyteller James Campbell will perform "Comedy 4 Kids."

That might appeal to Ingrid Peritz and her son Daniel, 8. "It's a great festival for families," notes the Montreal journalist. "Every day, they have really terrific free street stuff going on. We always choose one ticketed event and the rest we do for free."

Rick Messina, whose California-based Messina Baker Entertainment manages Tim Allen, is a regular at JFL. "I'm always amazed at the way the city embraces it," he says. "This is really the leading stand-up comedy event in the world."

The festival is invariably a showcase for fresh talent, particularly at the nightly "New Faces" club dates for fledgling comics. Rick Greenstein, senior vice-president for comedy at the Gersh Agency in Los Angeles, has been attending JFL for more than a decade. "We try to get a sense of who may be the next discovery, but we also like to see veterans who have fine-tuned or reinvented themselves," he says, adding that Montreal has "a lot of venues well-suited to the spoken word."

The array of entertainment can be dazzling. "We see a show, jump into a cab, fly to another venue, and we're doing that all night long," says Bob Huber, Fox Broadcasting's senior vice-president for casting and a 10-year veteran of the festival.

"We keep an eye on what's hot and what's not hot," he explains. "In terms of casting, we're looking for new artists or comedians who are reinvigorating themselves, honing their chops. We want to find people who can center a network show."

The Montreal crowds are a bonus. "Audiences there are the most responsive I've ever seen," Huber points out. "All the houses are packed. It's a blast."

And, perhaps, a refuge. "The reason I'm going to the festival?" Orlando Jones asks rhetorically. "I need a break from the madness of the world."

A JFL newbie hosting a "Best of the Uptown Comics" club show, Jones is a sketch comedian who acts in movies such as Time Machine (2002). He garnered particular renown for his sassy 7-Up television commercials.

Another funnyman, John Pinette, is giving eight performances of I Say Nay, Nay. This solo show reflects the "spurts of anger and frustration" implicit in the title of his upcoming third comedy album, Losing My Cherubic Demeanor.

Although anger and frustration are second nature to Lewis Black, a three-time offender at JFL this month, he has only kind words about the festival: "It's a very smart crowd that really gets comedy," observes Black, whose 2004 responsibilities include hosting "The World Stupidity Awards." With typical glee, he warns: "Oooh, I could go on forever about that subject."

Greg Fitzsimmons, who'll help instigate the raw-edged humor in a JFL staple called "The Nasty Show," sees Montreal as a great environment for comics. "I was not on anyone's radar before I went to the festival," he acknowledges, recalling his 1995 debut there.

Things have changed. Fitzsim-mons now balances touring as a stand-up with writing for ABC's Daytime Emmy-winning "Ellen DeGeneres Show."

After earning his own recent Daytime Emmy, Wayne Brady heads to JFL for a second go-round to host two Galas with an improv partner and a three-piece band. "We'll do impersonations, like a Johnny Cash-Eminem duet," he says, conjuring an improbable image of the Man in Black harmonizing with the white-rap bad boy also known as Slim Shady.

No matter how nutty, virtually everything goes at the Montreal festival. "Improv and sketch are deeply rooted in Canada," Brady theorizes. "They take their comedy very seriously there."

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