ComedyPRO - Just For Laughs 2023

Interview: Just For Laughs' Christine Walters Talks ComedyPRO 2023

Interviewed by Matt Kleinschmidt

Just For Laughs is one of the premiere comedy festivals in the world. Occurring every July in Montreal, Canada. It’s a multi-week celebration of the art of comedy in all forms. At the end of July they host gathering within the festival called ComedyPRO, which is an industry-leaning event chock full of more comedy including panels, showcases, live table reads, keynotes, mixers, podcasts, awards shows, and more.

We caught up with JFL’s new Creative Director, Christine Walters, to talk about what it’s like working for this festival, its long history, how her team helps put ComedyPRO together, and what we can expect from this annual celebration of all things comedy.

The festival has been around for a long, long time, but you're like fairly new to it.

I'm literally just a little over one year. I started in May of 2022.

That’s right! You took on this role weeks before the 2022 JFL festival kicked off. So it's a trial by fire I'm assuming.

Oh yeah, building the plane while you're flying it for sure.

You mentioned to me before we began this interview that you were at UCB early on in your career, is that where your origin story begins?

Before this interview I was thinking, “when was the first time I went to JFL as a attendee?” Because anybody who’s in the comedy world goes to JFL at some point. So I was there for the first time almost 20 years ago. First time I went was in 2004. At the time I was working on a show for Comedy Central, an animated stand-up series and I was one of the producers for it. The production company I was working for was like, “you have to go to JFL and scout talent and talk to comedians, and get them to let us animate their jokes.” So that was my first time.

Was the show Shorties Watching Shorties by any chance?

It was, yeah.

I remember that show.

I was one of the voices on that show. I played the babysitter. I played the mother. I played all sorts of characters they needed.

That’s so cool!

That was my former career. I did voices for Beavis and Butthead. I did voices for a Cartoon Network show called Sheep In The Big City with Mo Willems. I did a lot of voiceover work back in the day, so that led me to JFL early on. Then I was a development executive for truTV for a while. So, I'd come to the festival and speak on panels and go to scout the New Faces like every other network executive does. I always knew of the festival and always enjoyed going. Then in 2022, I got a call from a friend, who's the head of TV development for the festival and he told me about the gig. He said, “look, they're trying to find somebody. I think you'd be great for it.”

I'd never done live events programming before, but I had live TV experience and I think it just translates well. So yeah, that's how I got here.

Because of the prestige, was it intimidating jumping right in? Because if it were me, I'd be like, “Don't f*ck this up, don’t f*ck this up.” There’s a legacy, and you just want to keep the car on track, add your flair onto it. Did you ever have any of those moments?

Oh, you're asking me if I ever sleep at night? No. You are correct [laughs].

It’s both daunting and exciting. There's that feeling of when you first start, it's a clean slate and you're starting to put the puzzle together. Then, as you get closer to the end of filling out your schedule. That’s when it gets tough because you're like, “Oh I only have this slot left, but I have two or three things that I still want to do. So it becomes a little stressful. But in terms of the legacy, it's kind of nice that JFL is a worldwide brand. It's recognized to anybody who's in the comedy industry, so there's not a heavy lift explaining, right? I don’t have to walk into a room and be like, “let me tell you about Just For Laughs.”

Yeah, yeah.

You kind of come in and they know what the feel and the vibe is already. There’s a smile on their face because they already know.

To use a sports analogy, it must be like telling someone you work for the Yankees, there’s no need for a backstory, we all know The Yankees.

Right, exactly. If I was working on, “Joe Blow’s comedy tour” it would take some convincing people.

Your official title is Creative Director, what is that role like for a festival of this magnitude? Do you just walk in pointing fingers and tell people what to do, or is it more hands on?

I wish. I wish I could.

[laughs] So it’s not just firing off a couple emails, send a Tweet, then go home?

[laughs] Yeah, a couple of cappuccinos and I’m out of here…. No, no, it's a lot, for ComedyPro. It's booking panels, we do entire podcast series – we have over 15 podcasts this year, it’s making sure the Midnight Party is a success.

It's making sure our festival app that was introduced for the first-time last year actually is working properly. It’s producing a full blown 2-hour red carpet and award show event. It's a little bit of everything. In a way it’s liberating and fun that you're not just in one siloed corner, but it's a lot.

As you said the Midnight Show, every time I think of ComedyPRO I think of these tentpole events. New Faces, the Awards Show, Podcasts, The Variety event, and they’ve been going on forever. How do you find the balance of paying homage to the past yet pushing these things forward, is there some sort of special sauce to that?

A wing and a prayer [laughs]… and some hope.

I mean, I definitely give tribute to our scouting teams. They make sure that we are combing every corner to find new voices, right? I think that is part of what keeps JFL vibrant and I think there's a lot of programs within – like the Eat My Shorts Film Festival - in between award shows and panels. Yeah, we have a full-blown film festival.

It’s wild.

We have one of the jury members this year who came back to be a judge because he said, “I discovered Talia Osteen through Eat My Shorts and now she's directing features for my company.” It’s those success stories that are so golden to us and I think that is what keeps the festival vibrant. You have somebody who's more established in their career and they see someone else and then that person becomes the next big thing. They put their hand down and pull somebody else up. I love that reciprocity the festival can provide. I think that's what keeps it fresh and alive and moving forward year after year.

It’s what I've always liked about ComedyPRO, the industry in general always seems to look for the next thing, the next whatever. “You don't know this person's name, but in six months you're going to.” That forward motion of ComedyPRO and JFL - you can’t be around for decades without being able to constantly reinvent yourself.


What does the ComedyPRO programming look like for 2023? I know there’s a lot.

Yeah, there is a lot - over 40 events happening in a 3 ½ day window and New Faces is part of that bubble. Variety’s Top 10 is part of that bubble. It’s a lot of moving parts, but I feel really blessed to have an amazing staff and generationally speaking, it's a staff of people who have different tastes than I do. People who have different backgrounds, different cultures, and I think that also helps us not become a monolith. That’s how I keep track of it.

If I were to ask a loaded question like, “What are your top five can’t-miss events this year?” What would those moments be for ComedyPRO 2023?

Well, I don’t want to play favorites. [laughs]

I know, it’s like picking your favorite kid… you can't do it…. but I'm asking anyway.

I guess you can, but then you'll have years of therapy to pay for the other ones. [laughs]

I mean obviously I think one of the tentpoles of the festival is the Award Show. And every year we’re looking for the most deserving in the comedy landscape. This year I honestly feel like we nailed the awardees in terms of that and I'm very, very excited. It's the first time we are doing a Comedy Impact Award for someone who is actually using their comedy platform to move forward social cause with Rainn Wilson being our honoree. To me that's really exciting. Because when you discuss how do we keep the festival fresh and alive I think with the comedy community discussing mental health issues and things related to that we understand how important it is to recognize the challenges of being a comic, and being on the road, and I think that in particular, I'm really happy we have someone who's such an amazing advocate in that way and who's going to participate this year and to deliver a keynote address too. Rainn’s also doing our one of our keynote addresses.

Oh yeah, you just announced another keynote as well. So, there are multiple keynotes. I don’t remember there being this many in past festivals.

We always do at least two. Last year we had three - Neal Brennan, Amanda Seals, and Sophie Buddle.

This year we have Rainn doing… I don’t want to call it the American Keynote, but he’s just doing the keynote. Steph Tolev is doing one, she’s calling hers “Canadian Pie,” so I guess we’ll call that the Canadian Keynote.

There you go.

I'd say that's obviously a highlight every year.

I know I'm asking a question within the question, but how do you determine who is worthy of these awards. How does that all come together? Because you really have a diverse set of winners this year – [Bert] Kreischer who is a touring monster at this point. Then you also have Ronny Chieng and Quinta Brunson, who's the darling of Hollywood right now with Abbott Elementary.

I mean we definitely have a smart room of comedy lovers. We come together and a lot of decisions are made together. Comedy is subjective, everything's subjective. But I think sometimes it's just so obvious who the honorees should be. But I can't tell you all the secrets.

OK, alright so I didn't mean to make you really pick your top 5 and get you in trouble with all your favorites, but what are some other programs that we can look forward to?

No, that's OK. All right, so the Airplane! live read. If someone had told me as a kid that I'd be getting on the phone with David Zucker and talking about the most quoted, most revered comedy film of all time, and putting this together I would have told you to get out of town.

Oh for sure!

So that's like a dream come true. And the fun of that going back and forth and talking about the stunt casting for that panel. That’s been a joy, and I think that is going to be another one of the big highlights this year, hopefully. We have Jack Whitehall, Brad Williams, Shasheer Zamata, and Craig Robinson on board. It’s just a really great cast that's participating along with a few surprises.

We’re hosting a conversation with Rami Youssef about faith in comedy. He's going to be talking with a Canadian comedian named Jus Rein. Who has a show coming out on Crave TV and he also very much delves into his faith and his culture in his upcoming show. To me that conversation is going to be really interesting. I'm really looking forward to that.

Also, Jessica Kerson is going to do the State of The Industry Address!

Oh, instead of Andy Kindler this year?

Andy wants to pass the torch.

Jessica's a good one to pass it to.

It’s a new era. I mean, that’s a stalwart, a mainstay of the festival.

What way for Andy to go out because last year was “Hologram” Andy Kindler.

It was, yeah, yeah.

So he had his Tupac Coachella moment and then he went out on top.

I mean, it's bittersweet, right? Because there’s nobody more wonderful and silly and hilarious than Andy. But I'm glad that it's on his terms.

You mentioned Airplane! being a dream booking. Do you have any more dream bookings? What is your White Whale that before your time at JFL is over you’d like to make happen?

That's hard to say because so much of it is about what is happening in the moment, what is the conversation of the moment. What is going on in comedy, so it’s hard to plan.

But there are a couple of things that would be a dream. One for me, would be the reunite every one of the Saturday Night Live Shorts directors. I would love to do a panel from Al Franken, to Adam McKay, to Paul Briganti. Just get all of those guys in a room and talk about the Shorts. I mean, The Lonely Island guys too - just put them all on the stage together, I think would be would be amazing.

That would be really cool and what I love about a festival like this. Where else could something like that make sense to do?

There’s not really any place else. We always hear from other comedians and industry that coming to JFL fells a lot like Comedy Summer Camp. It’s a feeling. It’s the only time where everybody is in a foreign city together.

Yes, indeed.

I think that’s the special sauce. There’s an equality here, from the biggest comedian in the world down to the person who's still doing open mics. They are all in the same space together having these moments. I think that’s really what makes it so special. And for both sides! Not just the up-and-comer who just got to speak with Amy Schumer. But the Amy Schumer or Allie Wong who are always like, “I just saw this person” and makes a mental note that they might want to work with them down the road. It’s a really special thing about the festival.

It’s funny you mention that, because every year I end up on an elevator from the hotel lobby with some mega star comic. No other festival would I have ended up on an elevator with this person, just sharing a ride.

For sure. I love those moments.

I would go to see New Faces and see people that definitely popped up on Saturday Night Live a year or two later. You’re like, “Seth Meyers was definitely in the audience that night scouting talent” and now this guy's or gal is on the show. Really cool.

I remember the first time I saw Natalie Palamides and she just blew me away. What other platforms just allow that chance to see someone that has that kind of brain? I just don’t’ know of one. Pretty amazing.

It's really awesome to see that stuff or someone at JFL with something small and then next they’re invited back to sell out a gala. That’s something I’ve always appreciated about a festival such as this, Talent can progress and they are provided a space to do so.

Yeah, there's nothing better than somebody who is a New Face one year then being honored at an award show next.

Look at last year alone. Half the people that were awarded had been a New Face at some point in their career. Quinta Brunson was a New Faces Creator not that long ago. Again, that’s the joy, right? To say we were even a small part of their history, or their ladder, we obviously don't take credit for their success but we definitely like being a stop on their journey toward it.

Like their first Late Night set, getting asked to do JFL very much a milestone in a comic’s career. There’s a couple of those milestones whether people them outside of this industry understand or not, it's important to comics. I can't think of many other institutions outside of JFL that allow that growth where a comedian can return year over year and do more.

It’s a wonderful situation to be in.

You can check out all the ComedyPRO programming Just For Laughs has to offer by visiting the festival’s website.

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