Montréal is so serious about laughs you can get a degree in ‘em. Seriously! The École nationale de l’humour (translated as the national comedy school) is a private higher-education institution that was founded over 30 years ago and is recognized by the Ministry of Education. It has harnessed the talents of some of the country’s most famous comedians, including Martin Matte, Claudine Mercier and Louis-José Houde. If you’re fluent in French, try signing up for one of the highly sought 300 places per year.
In fact, Montréal is SO nerdy about comedy that we have a research group dedicated to it: the Observatoire de l’humour, a post-graduate institute that studies laughs. It unites professionals from the comedy scene with brainiacks from disciplines including sociology, history, communications and philosophy.
© Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal
Laughs live here
One thing that makes Montréal ha-ha-happy is its comedy scene. It’s more than a scene, in fact—it’s a hub.
Much has been written about how Montréal made itself a comedy destination. It all started in the 1980s, when the Just For Laughs festival was founded. Sure, Montreal already had great venues and an established entertainment scene—but the comedy scene was mostly only in French, and it wasn’t recognized worldwide.
The creation of this international festival, following the model of the already-successful Montréal International Jazz Festival, is what propelled Montréal comedy into the world’s spotlight. After launching the French version, Juste pour rire, in 1983, the English branch of Just For Laughs kicked off in 1985. Some of the first guests were a young Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Rowan Atkinson—today, Just for Laughs is the world’s biggest comedy festival, attracting nearly 2 million visitors each year.
© Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal
Festivals of fun
2023 marks the 40th anniversary of Juste pour rire, the original French version of the Just For Laughs Festival. It’ll be a game-changing edition, so book early! With live performances by over 1,700 world-famous humour pros in both French and English, it turns Montréal’s Place des Festivals into a bona fide carnival for 10 days every July.
And it isn’t the only fun(ny) festival: ZooFest is a bilingual comedy, theatre, music and performance art festival that’s been on the scene since 2009. It’s a playground for new faces, offering a freedom of creation to the artists and brand new, edgy, original content by some 250 performers every July.
Even more experimental is the annual St-Ambroise Montréal Fringe Festival, where comedy and circus mix with music, theatre, improv, dance, performance art and more. Consider it the city’s summer block party, featuring over 500 artists performing in 20-plus venues on the Plateau. And don’t miss Fringe Park, at the corner of Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Rachel Street, where patrons and artists gather for free live shows.
Lovers of circus can also get an eyeful and the annual Montréal Complètement Cirque, a festival every July featuring colourful, high-flying performances from here and around the world. The programing happens both indoors and outdoors—the streets, parks, even sidewalks become a stage. They’ve even been known to perform on ginormous scaffolding giants. (Read on.)
© Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal
Speaking of circus
Montréal is renowned as the Circus Capital of the World, not least because it’s the founding place of the world’s most famous circus, bar none: Cirque du Soleil.
But it was already a breeding ground for the performance arts: proof is that the National Circus School was founded in 1981, BEFORE Cirque du Soleil, which came in 1984. Cirque du Soleil’s first shows began touring the province of Quebec, and over the decades it grew from one show at a time to 19 shows in over 300 cities on six continents. Today it stands as the largest contemporary circus producer in the world.
Montréal’s circus scene also boasts a crowd-drawing circus summer festival (see above), an incredible specialized circus performance centre, along with some world-renowned circus troupes that entertain all year round. From Les 7 doigts to Cirque Éloize to Machine à Cirque and so many more, independent circus troupes flourish in Montréal and are always working to awe and amaze in new ways.
This summer, circus lovers have got a larger-than-life experience to take in with 3 Giants: not one, not two, but THREE ginormous, 52-foot steel structures in the shape of giants in Downtown Montreal that act as living stages for FREE circus performances. Don’t miss it.
© Eva Blue
Look over there!
Drag dovetails nicely in this performance haven, with countless drag shows to see any time you visit. And the scene has deeeeep roots: professional drag in Montréal dates back to at least 1928, when renowned drag queen Dick Montgomery performed at famed Montréal Black jazz nightclub Rockhead’s Paradise in Little Burgundy.
Today, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Rita Baga is probably Montréal most famous drag export (check her site for show dates!) and Cabaret Mado stands among the most popular hot spots for drag in the city, with nightly performances. Named after its founder, local drag icon Mado Lamotte, it’s one of the busiest nightclubs in the Village. Madame Simone, renowned for her outrageous headgear, often works as the club’s “door bitch” in summertime.
Other drag venues are Bar Le Cocktail, Sky and the famous Café Cléopâtre, as well as the theme nights Crystal Palace and Les Jeudis 3D. For burlesque, check out The Wiggle Room: the club hosts live comedy, music, improv and the hugely popular ManSpread, Montréal’s only monthly drag king sow.
© Grand Montréal Comique
The last piece of what makes Montréal such a gosh-darned jovial city has got to be the stand-up scene.
On any given week you could have 30 comedy shows, open-mic nights or improv show going on in Montréal’s underground comedy clubs, where you can go to and discover unknown artists. Don’t be surprised if famous comedians pop in too, to test their new shows in these smaller clubs. Some local comedians to look out for are Sugar Sammy, Tranna Wintour, Les Pic-Bois, Ben Cardilli and Mike Ward.
Among the English venues to explore, start with Comedy Nest, the Montréal Comedy Club, the Artloft, Montréal Improv, Grumpy’s and Théâtre Sainte-Catherine. For mostly-French shows, check out Le Bordel, Le Jockey, Abreuvoir and Le Terminal. And get ready to rire aux larmes!