How in the World Did the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival Find Itself $22.5 Million in the Hole?

The largest international comedy festival in the world faces a mind-bogglingly massive bankruptcy
How in the World Did the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival Find Itself $22.5 Million in the Hole?

Canadian comedy hasn’t faced this much debt since Mike Myers made The Love Guru.

For the last 40 years, the up-and-coming stars of the comedy industry have convened in Quebec every summer for the largest international comedy festival in the entire world. Originally founded as a two-day, French-language event, Just for Laughs grew into a veritable humor institution that took over Montreal for two weeks each July and attracted top-level stand-up talent from around the world. In past years, promising young comedians such as Kevin HartKumail NanjianiJimmy FallonAmy SchumerMike BirbigliaAli WongTom SeguraIliza Shlesinger and many, many more had their coming out parties with successful sets in the festival’s prestigious New Faces showcase. 

So, when JFL organizers announced earlier this week that they must begrudgingly cancel this year’s festival, the comedy middle-class that relies on institutions like the French-Canadian conference to make their break into possible superstardom mourned the loss of a foundational piece of the international comedy community. Then, when Just for Laughs laid off dozens of staffers and filed for bankruptcy protection amidst a combined $22.5 million CAD debt, incredulous comics wondered, “What the fuck? How???”

Beyond being an important stepping stone for rising comedians in North America and elsewhere to expand their brand and elevate their careers, within the last two decades, Just for Laughs branched out into television production, creating original sitcoms, variety shows and stand-up specials that have been hosted on platforms such as HBO, FOX, ABC, Comedy Central, Showtime and Hulu. Still, the high overhead of the TV industry doesn’t fully account for the massive shortfall in the JFL coffers, and its organizers point to the usual suspects for the unusually large debt they accrued.

Press releases from JFL’s parent organization, Juste pour rire Inc., point to the pandemic and global inflation as the main drivers of their debt. “We plan to maintain JPR’s operations, albeit in a scaled-down format, throughout the restructuring process,” the company claimed as an estimated 70 percent of their workforce exits the organization.

Canadian news outlet CP24 poured through Juste pour rire Inc.’s court documents to break down the debt, revealing that the amount owed is largely split between two banks and one government agency for cultural development. Additionally, CP24 found that, just last week, a bailiff seized $800,000 in Juste pour rire assets after the company missed a court-ordered payment to a former employee — this employee is not among the debtors listed in the original court filings.

Juste pour rire also owes six-figure sums to event organizers and to the Canadian telecommunications company Bell Canada, which owns a 51 percent stake in Juste pour rire. Though I’m no expert in Canadian bankruptcy law, I imagine that things have to get pretty bad if a company has to go to court to settle a debt they owe to their own boss.

As the financial collapse of JFL continues in the courts, more information on the mismanagement of its funds will hopefully come to light. Right now, it’s not immediately clear how the same pandemic and inflation problems that every other company in the world faced could cause a comedy festival to lose over $22 million. Then again, it isn't called “Just for Profits.”


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