“People ask why I decided to do this in Chicago,” Ellen DeGeneres said last Wednesday night, during her “Bigger, Longer, and Wider” variety show at the Chicago Theatre. “It’s because I finally got tickets to Oprah.” All jokes aside, Ellen’s show—which, in addition to quips from the comedian, offered a Kanye West performance and stunts from contortionist Elayne Kramer—served to kick off the five-day Just for Laughs Chicago festival. Presented by TBS, the event marked the first U.S. iteration of a 27-year-old Montreal tradition.
According to Christine Melko Ross, vice president of operations and business affairs for Just for Laughs, “we're trying to expand the brand [from its presence in Montreal]. We started the festival in Toronto three years ago, then brought it to Nantes [France] two years ago, and our next goal was to bring it to [the U.S.]. Chicago is one of the best comedy markets in North America.”
TBS agreed to back the event with a similar objective in mind. According to Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president and general manager of comedy festivals for the television station, “what festivals do for TBS is allow us to extend our brand off the network and let people experience what we're all about [in a live-theater format]. And we're taping four specials out of this. We're getting great comedy content from the festival, and that's very important to us.” TBS will broadcast festival performances from Martin Short, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Alan Grier this weekend; a Tim Meadows special will air in November.
Along with headline talent such as DeGeneres, Lisa Lampanelli, and Jimmy Fallon, the Just for Laughs lineup included local comedians. To accommodate the different types of entertainment and the variety of crowd sizes that the acts were likely to draw, Melko Ross and her fellow festival reps spent two years scouting local venues. “In comedy, you're always looking for the right room,” she said. “We wanted a traditional big-time theater, like the Chicago Theatre, for some of our headlining talent, but we also wanted more club-like venues.“ After “a lot of site visits and back-and-forth trips [between Chicago and Montreal]," Melko Ross said that the Just for Laughs team settled on 12 venues that range in capacity from 300 to 1,500 seats.
Although the Montreal festival overtakes a theater-heavy section of the city that occupies about two blocks, Chicago's version took place in theaters located everywhere from Rosemont to Wrigleyville. But the diffuse nature of the venues “hasn't presented any logistical challenges,” Melko Ross said on Friday. “It's actually been great; it gets our brand awareness out throughout the city, instead of keeping it contained in one small area. I've been overhearing people on the El talking about the festival."
Both Melko Ross and Adamovich said that they plan to bring the event back to Chicago next year. “Our goal is to be here year after year,“ said Melko Ross. “We just had a meeting this morning about next year's festival. We're scheduled to expand. Ticket sales have been great. Right now, people just want to step back, get away from all the issues, and experience some first-rate entertainment."
The happening's main sponsors—Twix, Miller Light, and Kia Motors—were integrated into shows with signage and sampling. (Guests leaving DeGeneres's show received Twix bars at the door, for example.) When TBS airs scenes from the festival this week, the brands will be highlighted in tune-in spots that precede the specials; they also appeared in ads for Just for Laughs tickets, which aired on TBS in the weeks leading up to the event.