"When I tell comics in the States I'm from Canada, they're like, ‘Where's that?' But they know Montreal because of Just For Laughs," says comedian Debra DiGiovanni on the phone from L.A., where she's wrapping up auditions for a TV pilot.
Three years ago, a performance at the renowned comedy festival gave DiGiovanni the break she needed to make a living full time in comedy. This year, as host of the festival's Best Of Homegrown comic competition showcase Friday (July 25) at Absolute Comedy (2335 Yonge Street, 416-486-7700), the Toronto-based stand-up is coming full-circle.
"It's nice to do the original festival first and then your home territory," says DiGiovanni, "but I don't think the Toronto version is a lesser festival by any stretch."
Currently in its second year, Just For Laughs Toronto may still be a dwarf compared to its behemoth 25-year-old parent in la belle province.
Audiences here will have to do without a film festival and twin parade, for example. But organizers are hoping to slowly expand the festival by introducting the Homegrown showcase, The Sketch Show at the Second City July 24 and 25 (51 Mercer St., 416-343-0011) and the intimate Headliners series at Yuk Yuk's Downtown July 23 to 26 (224 Richmond West, 416-967-6425), where gala performers like Kevin Hart and Robert Schimmel get to do longer sets.
"Last year we felt we did a small event very successfully, but it was very compact, with just the galas, ethnic and street shows," says Just For Laughs COO Bruce Hills. "Certain people said, ‘I want to see something in the clubs,' certain clubs said, ‘Why didn't you include me?' and some people said, ‘There's no young talent being given the chance.'"
With the new series, the organizers are hoping to not only address these issues, but also promote more Canadian talent. Case in point, the Toronto Sketch Show. "If there's a city that has a sketch background, it's Toronto," says Hills. "For us, it's a luxury of riches."
Unlike the Montreal festival sketch show, which features just one Canadian troupe (Dance Party of Newfoundland), the Second City show, hosted by The Office's Craig Robinson, showcases almost exclusively local troupes.
One of those, the Sketchersons, has tried to get the attention of Just For Laughs through performances at the Montreal Fringe Festival for years. The troupe is just as thrilled to perform in Toronto.
"It's nice now to get that recognition," says the troupe's producer, Gary Rideout Jr., adding he's glad to see the festival taking a local angle. "If you have the brand name to attract an audience, you should also expose the people who are aware of the brand name to what they have going on in their own city."
Industry players who scout Just For Laughs for talent can also benefit from this exposure. Fewer shows than the Montreal slate could mean more up-and-coming comics like Homegrown participants Pat Thornton and Perry Perlmutar get more attention.
"Let's be clear - the English TV industry is in Toronto," says Hills. "No matter how well we do, we're still going to miss industry [in Montreal]."
As DiGiovanni says, "You're getting in on the ground floor. You're getting in when the getting's good."