This post first was first published in 2018, based on a 2016 guide. I’ve updated it for the 2019 edition of Just For Laughs/OFF-JFL/Zoofest, which is mostly the same as last year.
Just For Laughs time is upon us. Or as I like to call it: Summer Christmas. (I’m lying. I would never give this such a lame name.) The English shows start tonight, but I’ve been going to French shows in the companion Zoofest festival for two weeks now, and I’ve already seen more than a dozen shows and booked three more for tonight and three for tomorrow for a grand total of $90 plus tax.
Two years ago I explained how to maximize the quantity (if not always the quality) of the JFL/JPR experience with the use of passes. But things have changed a bit since then so it’s time for an update. Here’s how things work in 2019:
“Ultra Zoøff” Zoofest pass
The Zoofest/OFF-JFL pass
Start by getting one of these. The Zoofest passes (ZOØFF, as they call them) 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 $23-$30 apiece. They feature up-and-coming comedians, some right out of Quebec’s comedy school, those testing out materials for bigger one-man/woman shows (en rodage, as they say in French) and more experimental shows like theatre and improv, so going to these involves taking more of a risk than going to a gala at Place des Arts or seeing Trevor Noah at the Bell Centre.
The Ultra pass is the highest level of this pass. It costs $140 (or the equivalent of five or six Zoofest/OFF-JFL shows) and will let you book six shows during the festival. But its real power is that for many Zoofest/OFF-JFL shows, you can get a ticket for free 48 hours in advance. And you can do this for three 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. If you don’t care what language it’s in, that’s up to three and a half weeks of shows.
Not every show will be available this way. Some shows are popular and seats available for pass holders can be gobbled up in minutes, if they’re made available at all. And because seats are opened for different categories, a show can be out of free daily pass tickets but still have tickets available for the retail price. Most of the English OFF-JFL shows during the peak week of the festival featuring well-known visiting comedians 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.) But there are almost always shows available every night if you’re willing to be flexible on what they are and what language they’re in.
If you don’t have time for three shows a night, you can get the lowest-level pass for $55. It’ll let you in one free show a night (booked 24 hours in advance), plus three reserved shows during the festival.
If you’re looking at buying one for next year, keep an eye out around Boxing Day for a discount sale.
You can’t use these passes to get tickets to Just For Laughs galas or the big solo shows, 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. Usually it’s a series of the same people doing short sets at the galas and one-hour shows at OFF-JFL. 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 (Théâtre Ste-Catherine) 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 Best of the Fest show used to be at Comedyworks, but with that venue still closed because of a fire, it has moved to Newspeak for this year.)
As of last year, the Zoofest pass isn’t actually a physical pass unless you pay extra. Instead, you’re emailed a QR code that you can print or keep on your phone. It’s scanned by a volunteer holding a smartphone at the entrance to the venue. For Ultra Zoøff pass holders, tickets become available at 6pm ET two nights before the show. For the other passes, it’s 6pm the night before. (Ultra pass holders, in theory at least, also get to skip to the front of the line, and let in before the others.)
You book shows by going to a website that’s emailed to you (and is linked to from the Zoofest app), punching in a pass number and PIN, and selecting shows one at a time.
Also new in 2018 is a punishment system for ticket hoarders who book shows using the pass but don’t show up to them. The 2019 procedure isn’t clear, but in 2018, after three no-shows using the free tickets, your pass is suspended for 72 hours (the three or six booked tickets still work). After another three no-shows, the privilege is revoked. (Keep an eye on the website: if your ticket doesn’t scan properly — and almost every time it takes a couple of tries — you could end up listed as a no-show even if you were there. If that happens, email JFL’s ticket office and they’ll fix it for you.)
You have two hours before a show to cancel a free ticket without penalty. If you do, you can use that pick for another available show. And you have until the actual showtime to select a ticket, if you want to go really last-minute. But show up on time, because your free ticket isn’t guaranteed after the show starts, and could be given to someone else.
(When you’ve selected your third free show on the Ultra pass, the other possible selections disappear, so you can’t see if other, better shows are made available later. My strategy is to pick two shows I really want to see, and will likely fill up quick, and leave the third selection open until the day of if I’m not too excited about it and hoping for something better.)
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 at the height of the festival (Wednesday to Saturday), 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.
OFF-JFL shows are available on the JFL pass, but unless you only plan to see a couple of shows during the whole festival, or there’s really nothing else that works for you on a particular day, it’s a bit of a waste. Either pay $25 separately to see the OFF-JFL show or get both passes if you can afford it and want to really binge.
Use the last-minute ticket booth
At the corner of Jeanne-Mance and Ste-Catherine Sts., inside a tent that sells merch, 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.
So head here and find out what kind of deals can be had for shows where the supply is exceeding the demand. (In my experience the deals here the past few years aren’t nearly as enticing as they’ve been in previous ones, but you may get lucky.)
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.
In 2015, 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. The 2019 festival had a bunch of surprise Kevin Hart shows, but they sold out within minutes of announcement.
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 (or confirmed by email). 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 to it. (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 like this 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 popular 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 free 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. Outdoor shows are also a good way to kill time if you have a long break between shows on any particular night.
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.
- Be on time. If you arrive late, 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.
- 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. Most Zoofest and OFF-JFL shows are about an hour long (gala-type shows and some midnight shows are exceptions and can go longer). 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, Montreal Improv or the Comedy Nest. For JFL shows, 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. (If you’re not sure how long a show is, you can click on a show just before you select it, or look at the schedule for when the next show at that venue begins. If it’s an hour and a half later, then expect an hour-long show. If the first show is at 7 and the next one at 9:45, then expect a show a bit longer than two hours.)
- 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.
- Expect repetition. If you go to a lot of shows, particularly those with multiple comedians, you’re going to see several comedians more than once, doing the same jokes. You might even hear the exact same 10-minute set multiple times. You’re just going to have to deal with that possibility. Similarly, the pre-show videos (at least at the French-language Zoofest shows) are pretty repetitive.
- 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 using a pass or 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 or Netflix 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 the lesser-known comedians who are putting them on. If you liked something, write about it on Twitter or Facebook and spread the word. Use the hashtag #JPRMTL or #Zoofest (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 $30 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.
Bigger is better
Not sure which show to go to? Too lazy to check out comedians’ videos on YouTube or look for reviews? One way to gauge how big/popular a show is going to be is to look at what venue it’s in. Here’s a list of venues being used for the festival and their capacity in a theatre setup:
- Bell Centre: 15,000
- Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (Place des Arts): 2,996
- MTelus (formerly Metropolis): 2,300
- Maison symphonique (Place des Arts): 2,100
- Théâtre Maisonneuve (Place des Arts): 1,453
- Olympia: 1,282
- Théâtre Berri: 1,160
- Salle Ludger Duvernay (Monument National): 804
- Hyatt Grand Salon Opera: 800
- Théâtre Jean-Duceppe (Place des Arts): 765
- Club Soda: 530
- Usine C: 472
- Gesù: 425
- Cinquième salle: 421
- Maison Théâtre: 400
- Phi Centre: 376
- Hyatt Inspiration: 350
- L’Astral: 320
- Hyatt Ovation: 225
- Comedy Nest: 160
- Diving Bell Social Club: 150
- Studio Hydro-Québec (Monument National): 150
- Salle Claude-Léveillée (Place des Arts): 128
- Katacombes: 120
- Théâtre La Chapelle: 116
- Mainline Theatre: 102
- Café Cléopâtre: ~100
- Cabaret du 4e (Monument National): ~100
- Théâtre Ste-Catherine: ~100
- Montreal Improv: ~75
- Balustrade (Monument National): ~50
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.