Diversity the big winner at Just for Laughs 2018

Just for Laughs award winners and presenters (l-r): Lil Rel Howery, Jo Koy, awards show host Alonzo Bodden, Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Deon Cole and Howie Mandel. Photo: Felicia Michaels

MONTREAL — Want to make a comedian cry? Give him an award.

That seemed to be the case over the weekend at the 36th annual Just for Laughs comedy festival.

The industries top comedians were celebrated by their peers in an event that isn’t streamed or televised and — as with the TCA Awards coming up next weekend in Los Angeles — that seems to add to the intimacy and the genuine gratitude that is evident in the room.

Tiffinay Haddish, singled out as “Comedy Person of the Year,” was weepy as all get out. The Last O.G. star was presented with the tacky JFK trophy — it looks like JFL mascot Victor glued on top of a dildo — by Kevin Hart. The busy comedian flew in via private jet just to do the honours. When Haddish took the stage in her sparkly crimson dress, she gave Hart a present too. The token gift was stuffed with money — her way of paying him back for monies loaned over the years. Haddish, who once was homeless, had tried to pay Hart back before and this was her way of doing it in a room full of their peers where Hart had to accept it.

In the crowd (l-r): Dave Chappell, Fest boss Bruce Hills and John Mayer

Well, that’s when the water works really started to flow. Haddish — who hosted SNL this year and just signed a deal with HBO — started “Waaaaa!”-ing like Lucille Ball in her prime.

Lil Rel Howrey, who won as “Breakout Comedy Star of the Year,” also got chocked up near the end of his acceptance speech. He dedicated the trophy to his mother who always supported his dream to become a comedian. Lil Rel, who broke out on The Carmichael Show and stars in his own Fox series this coming season, says his mom would drive miles so her son could watch comedy headliners such as Eddie Murphy — even though this meant she had to drive circles around the stadium until the concert was over.

Also getting verklempt was Australian comedian Hannah Gatzby, winner of the Comedy Special  of the Year for her clever format-changer now streaming on Netflix. The 40-year-old saluted what she saw as a room full of outsiders.

Indeed, the most striking thing about this year’s JFL comedy awards was the sweeping diversity among the recipients. Howie Mandel — the face of the new JFL ownership group, which includes Bell Media — noted he was on stage only to represent white people this year.

That wasn’t entirely true. The co-creators of the Netflix wrestling comedy GLOW — Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch — won as the Comedy Writers of the Year. (Marc Maron, superb in Season Two as GLOW‘s grumpy film director, joined the show’s writers on the stage).

Howie, wearing a Beatles White album T-shirt (fab!) flanked by Maron and Haddish

Perhaps no one represented the new face of comedy than Jo Koy, saluted as the Stand-Up Comedian of the Year. The 47-year-old Filipino-American says he had a hard time finding people that looked like him on television when he was growing up in Washington and Las Vegas. He hopes that his success — he made over 100 appearances on Chelsea Lately and also has a comedy special streaming on Netflix — will inspire others to stand-up and brave an open mike night.

Jo Koy

Koy didn’t have to look far for more mixed race inspiration. The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah rocked Montreal’s Place des Arts Saturday night with a sold out gala. Noah talked about how Canada has the dullest political controversies, goofing on how Justin Trudeau got tsk-tsk-ed from dressing up in traditional native dress on a trip to India earlier this year.

Noah then demonstrated how Trudeau even had that Indian way of wagging their heads side to side in a no-yes gesture. Huge laffs in Montreal.

Noah then said he wished America had a leader who tried too much to embrace foreign cultures instead of a president who works hard to keep out foreigners.

Not Bullock & Brioux,, but Brioux and Letterkenny stand out K. Trevor Wilson

Finally, the great diversity at this year’s JFL fest was evident even at the Homegrown comedy showcase hosted by K. Trevor Wilson later that same Saturday night. Wilson, who had to rush back up to Sudbury, Ont., to resume work as “Squirrely Dan” on new Letterkenny episodes, introduced a Canadian lineup where faiths, ethnic origins, sexual identities and genders were all thrown into a giant Tim Horton’s blender. The group was perhaps best represented by Hoodo Hersi, a Toronto-based comedian who wears a hijab, and not–as she noted — for comic effect.

Her comedy is well written and makes you think well beyond any punchlines — another theme that kept emerging from various stages this year at the fest.

One other observation regarding JFL 2018. The festival is becoming more and more about what is happening on the streets of Montreal. The whole neighbourhood surrounding the Place des Arts now reminds me of the crowded midway I remember growing up in Toronto during the Canadian National Exhibition. Besides the annual walkabouts by the “Big Heads,” there are parades with towering martians, blaring martian music and colourful planet floats. Then there is the many food trucks and the main outdoor food park featuring jambalaya as well as poutine. It is all a universe away from when the festival began in the early ’80s — with Howie Mandel perhaps the one surviving common denominator.

A panoramic view of the area outside the Hyatt hotel where JFL pens the comedians

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