UPDATE: I have a 2018 edition of this guide here.
When I decided for the first time to book my vacation in advance this year, there wasn’t much soul-searching over which weeks I would take off. I like my comedy, and Just For Laughs is my favourite festival, and I wanted to get in as much of that as I could. So I took the last two weeks of July.
Just For Laughs is a pretty big festival. Most people are familiar with the big celebrity-hosted galas at Place des Arts, which later make it on TV. But there are dozens of solo shows, comedy club events, outdoor activities and lesser-known comics performing over three weeks in both languages. Even seeing as many as four shows a night, you won’t be able to catch everything.
More importantly for me, I’m kind of a frugal fellow, and those gala tickets can add up quickly when they’re $50 or $100 a pop.
So how do you keep the enjoyment up and the cost down?
The Zoofest pass
Start by getting one of these. The Zoofest passes cover shows that are part of the Zoofest and OFF-JFL series at Just For Laughs. These shows are mostly an hour long, and normally go for $20 to $25 apiece. They feature up-and-coming comics and more experimental shows, so going to these involves taking more of a risk than going to a gala or an established comedian’s one-man show, but it’s well worth the money when you take advantage of the passes.
The Ultra pass is the highest level of this pass. It costs $120 (or the equivalent of about six Zoofest/OFF-JFL shows) and will let you book six shows during the festival. But its real power is that Zoofest/OFF-JFL shows that aren’t already sold out 48 hours in advance, you can get a ticket to for free. And you can do this for three one-hour shows a night. (The first shows generally begin at 7pm and the last ones at midnight. So it’s easy to do three in a night. I’ve done four in the past — 7, 8:30, 10 and midnight.)
The pass applies to both English-language OFF-JFL shows and French-language Zoofest shows. The latter start in the second week of July, giving you up to three weeks of spectacle if you don’t care which language it’s in.
When I originally wrote this post, it appeared that this applied to any show that wasn’t sold out. But now it’s clear that in fact there are blocks of tickets reserved for different uses. So a show can be out of free daily pass tickets or out of pass selection tickets (those six shows you can choose in advance) but still have tickets available for the retail price. Most of the English OFF-JFL shows during the peak week of the festival have this issue, making the value of the pass diminished slightly (and turning you into a paranoid junkie constantly refreshing the free tickets page hoping to get it just after a new block is opened.) On the other hand, there are sometimes special offers, like tickets to a gala made available to Zoofest pass holders, so that compensates quite a bit.
If you don’t have time for three shows a night, you can get the lowest-level pass for $50. It’ll let you in one free show a night (booked less than 24 hours in advance), plus three reserved shows during the festival.
You can’t use these passes to get tickets to galas or the big solo shows (except for special one-time offers), but they’re good for a lot of shows that have big-name comics. You can see a full list of the OFF-JFL shows here. Some worth noting:
- Midnight Surprise, midnights. The ultimate risk-taking show, you won’t know who’s in it until they perform. This could mean a comic you’ve never heard of, but some big-name comedians have shown up here and done surprise sets, including Dave Chappelle, Louis CK and Kevin Hart. At worst, you get a mediocre one-hour show. At best, you get to tell everyone you saw an A-list comedian do a secret show in a 100-seat venue.
- The Alternative Show, midnights. The name might put you off, but this is actually pretty mainstream. Hosted by Andy Kindler, this show features a lineup of comedians doing 10-minute sets. Because a lot of the travelling comedians want to get in as much on-stage time as possible during the festival, you’ll often see them doing a solo show, a gala appearance and a set here all in the same night.
- Best of the Fest (Comedyworks) and Fest at the Nest (Comedy Nest). It shouldn’t surprise you that actual comedy clubs are also busy during the festival. Often, big-name comics will stop by the comedy clubs before one of their big shows and test out material on a smaller audience. Maybe some jokes will flop, but you might have more fun here than at a gala, and for a much lower price.
- The Goddamn Comedy Jam, midnights. If you’ve sat through enough low-energy standup shows, you can get your party on as comedians perform hit rock songs with a live band. More about that here.
If you do your banking with Desjardins, the company offers a 15% discount code on the Zoofest/OFF-JFL passes. So instead of paying about $120 plus taxes, you’ll pay about $120 tax included.
The JFL pass
Just For Laughs also has passes, that work in a kind of similar way. The cheapest pass is two shows for $100, but with that you also get a free ticket every night Tuesday through Saturday at the height of the festival, which can be used on the big shows — galas, club shows like the Nasty Show and Ethnic Show, or solo shows by big comedians.
But the free tickets are subject to availability. If there’s a must-see show in town with only one or two showings, there might not be tickets available on the pass. Like with the Zoofest pass, you have to be pretty flexible in what you’re willing to see.
Predict the next big hit
A few years ago, I paid about $15 to take in a small show during the festival at the Katacombes bar. A young comedian I had seen on the NBC reality show Last Comic Standing was in town and used the occasion to test out some material for an upcoming Comedy Central roast she was participating in. (Some of the jokes bombed, and didn’t get used in that roast.)
That comedian’s name: Amy Schumer.
She came back and did a show at Metropolis that cost quite a bit more. In 2014 she was set to host a gala, but cancelled at the last minute because of scheduling conflicts. When she came back in 2016 it was at the Bell Centre, and tickets started at $60.
Just For Laughs is notorious for being a launching pad for previously unknown comedians (it even has several series, like New Faces, devoted to that). Many of them are doing low-budget one-hour general-admission solo shows during the festival. And this is your chance to say you saw them before they hit it big.
So if you see a comedian listed who you’re not familiar with, look them up on YouTube. And if you like what you see, book a ticket to their show.
Use the last-minute ticket booth
At the corner of Jeanne-Mance and Ste-Catherine Sts. is the festival’s last-minute ticket booth. Shows that aren’t selling well get deeply discounted here in the hours before they start, and you can find some sweet deals if you’re flexible with your plans. I got a ticket to a French gala for $10 once. Even the $25 Zoofest shows are sometimes discounted to $15 or $10.
So head here and find out what kind of deals can be had for shows where the supply is exceeding the demand.
Follow the action on social media
So much of what happens at the festival happens at the last minute. A comedian might be in town completely unannounced and decide to perform a show. Maybe something that’s selling well gets dates added. Or maybe for some entirely different reason things are added or special deals announced during the festival itself.
Last year, Just For Laughs announced on Twitter with less than three hours of notice that Aziz Ansari was doing a show, and tickets would be $20 at the door. People who didn’t follow JFL on Twitter might have missed a great chance there.
So add these to your follows and likes:
Also, download the Zoofest and JFL apps. Each has push notifications that will alert you to last-minute changes.
The passes, the last-minute ticket booth and special deals announced on social media have one thing in common: They mean you’re not going to know more than a day or two in advance where you’re spending your evening. That might work for some people more than others. If you’re with a group of friends, it might not be practical. But if you’re like me and have no friends and no life, you can surf this wave of improbability for savings.
Always have a backup plan until you have tickets in your hand. Better yet, have two. If a Zoofest/OFF-JFL show you planned to use your pass for gets sold out quickly, you won’t get any free tickets. (In fact, the show doesn’t even need to be completely sold out for your pass to not work this way.) The risk inherent in operating this way is you might not get to see the show everyone’s talking about.
Remember some times are more popular than others
Friday and Saturday night shows are actually slightly more expensive than shows on other nights, because of how much more popular those nights are for people casually heading out. Despite the price difference, and the large number of available shows, the last Friday and Saturday of the festival are the busiest and that means you’re less likely to be able to get access to shows using your pass.
So how do you deal with this? Well, if a show is playing throughout the week, go to a weeknight show instead. And if there’s a Friday or Saturday night show you want to go to, use one of your included tickets to book it well in advance rather than waiting and trying to use the pass. Otherwise, keep in mind that your ability to be flexible on these nights will be tested more than other days.
Take in the outdoor shows
Though much of the outdoor action during the JFL festival is more fun than funny, there are a few outdoor shows worth taking in, in both languages. The biggest ones begin around 9pm and end by 11. You certainly can’t beat the price: It’s free.
You can see the full lineup of outdoor shows here. And wander around the festival grounds during the day to see all the other stuff going on, from the labyrinth to the board games to the circus acts.
Some other things to keep in mind about shows at Just For Laughs, OFF-JFL and Zoofest that don’t pertain specifically to saving money. (Some of these are echoed by Gazette columnist Basem Boshra):
- Be on time. If you arrive late to a show with assigned seating (like a gala), you end up disrupting a lot of people during the show and opening yourself up to ridicule. Don’t be that person. Some shows might even refuse you entry (it happened to me once when I was 10 minutes late, but fortunately I had a backup plan.)
- Get there early. Aside from the galas and other shows at the Place des Arts theatre venues, most shows are general admission, so where you sit depends on how many people get in the venue before you. If you want to sit up front and risk being the victim of a crowd-working comedian, get there first.
- Schedule travel time. Zoofest and OFF-JFL shows are about an hour long. But that doesn’t mean you can schedule a show at 7pm and another at 8. Give about 15 minutes of leeway in terms of the actual length of the show, and consider that you have to get from one venue to another between them. 75 minutes between show starts can work if the shows are in the same building (Monument National has four venues), 90 minutes if both shows are in the same neighbourhood, and give yourself more time if you have to get to a farther-away venue like Mainline Theatre or Comedyworks. For galas, the Ethnic/Nasty Shows or big solo shows, the show length can be longer, as much as two hours. Err on the side of giving yourself an extra 20 minutes.
- Don’t heckle. You’re not funnier than the people on stage, who have been working on material for a while in preparation for their shows. If a comedian asks a question to the audience, feel free to respond, but otherwise keep your mouth shut and avoid embarrassing yourself. Hold your solo performance for open mic nights if you don’t want to get thrown out of the venue.
- Don’t take pictures or video. Each show will begin with this reminder (though there are some shows that actually allow taking pictures discreetly — they’ll make this clear in the pre-show announcement). You’re here to enjoy yourself, not film the show for later broadcast using your crappy cellphone camera. Getting caught filming a standup act is grounds for a quick ejection, aside from being distracting to the performer and the audience. Instead, take a picture of the venue before the show, or of your ticket (don’t show the bar code if you’re posting to social media before the show begins). You’ll be able to see the gala performances and some other shows broadcast on CBC or Comedy Network in a few months, recorded and edited by professionals.
- Don’t use your cellphones at all. These venues are dark, and the bright light of a cellphone screen is very distracting. Wait until after the show to text your friends. And make sure the ringer is turned off. If you want to make note of a particularly great joke to tweet about it later, use a pen and paper (and be sure to credit the joke to the right comedian).
- Spread the word about what you see. Help out those people looking for a good show, and those who are putting them on. If you liked something, write about it on Twitter or Facebook and spread the word. Use the hashtag #JPRMTL (French) or #JFLMTL (English). A lot of these smaller shows don’t have big marketing budgets and rely on word of mouth more than anything else.
- Respect your comedians. It doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to conclude that a comedian doing a one-hour show in a 100-seat venue where most people paid between $25 and $0 to attend isn’t making that much money from it. Keep that in mind when you check out a show. They’re there for the love of the craft, one they spend a lot of time and effort honing. They might also be on their third show of the night. So show them some appreciation, even if it’s just telling them they did a great show, but make it brief because they’re probably way busier than you are.
I probably forgot a few things. Hit me with questions in the comments. But don’t expect responses between 7pm and midnight, because I’ll be busy for the next week and a half.
– 36 shows (21 French, 15 English)
– 17 venues
~ 125 performers
– $384.73 spent on tickets
– 3 weeks of well-spent vacation
— Steve Faguy (@fagstein) August 2, 2016
I thought I saw you in the audience during at least one of last year’s Alternative Shows. For me, the midnight Alternative Show, hosted by Andy Kindler, is my standing nightly JFL appointment. As notes, it’s a great venue to see just about everybody (including plenty of the gala- and solo-show headliners), up-close and casual, and in the company of sincere comedy fans. Seven or eight comics in each show for about $20.
Very complete guide! Even myself, being a Zoofest expert, discovered something new. I totally overlooked that Desjardins 15% discount. Thanks for the tip!
It took me forever of going through Zoofest’s Facebook page to find it. I’m glad I took the time.
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