How to binge Just For Laughs on a budget (updated for 2022)

Just For Laughs time is back with a regular festival for the first time since 2019, the last time I published this guide. By popular demand (well, one person anyway) here’s an update for the 2022 version.

The Zoofest/OFF-JFL pass

Start by getting one of these. The Zoofest passes (ZOOF, 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 $32.25 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 Kevin Hart at the Bell Centre.

The Ultra pass is the highest level of this pass. It costs $130 (or the equivalent of four 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, by combining free tickets with pre-booked shows.)

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. (When you go through the show selection process online, you’ll see two identical options for free daily shows on your passport. It’s not clearly indicated, but one is for French Zoofest shows and the other is for English OFF-JFL 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. Or a show could seem sold out but then a new batch of passholder tickets is released. 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 $50. It’ll let you in one free show a night (booked 24 hours in advance), plus two reserved shows during the festival. (It used to be three reserved shows on this pass, but they’ve trimmed it down a bit and lowered the price.)

If you’re looking at buying one for next year, keep an eye out around Boxing Day for a discount sale. (I bought my pass for this year in 2019, and in exchange for holding on to it for so long, my regular ZOOF pass was upgraded to an Ultra pass.)

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 (only until July 26). 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 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. (New this year, JFL has upgraded the last few nights of the Midnight Surprise from OFF-JFL to JFL, so you can only get the earlier dates on the Zoofest pass, and need to use the JFL pass to get the later dates from July 27 onward.)
  • The Alternative Show, midnights. The name might put you off, but this is actually pretty mainstream. Hosted by Andy Kindler the Sklar Brothers this year, 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 (Mainline Theatre) 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.

How the pass works is simple: for each show you book, 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 pass holders, free daily tickets become available 48 hours before the show. For the other passes, it’s 24 hours.

You book shows by going to a website that’s emailed to you (and is linked to from the Zoofest app), logging in, punching in a pass number, and selecting shows one at a time.

One word of warning: There’s no way to automatically cancel bookings if you change your mind (or suddenly realize you won’t have time to get from one venue to another). This is another change from last year where you could cancel up to two hours before a show. If you book something in error, you can contact Zoofest and get them to cancel it, but this requires human interaction. So double-check that you don’t have time conflicts before booking.

The JFL pass

Just For Laughs also has passes, that work in a kind of similar way. The cheapest pass is two shows for $109 plus tax, 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, Just For the Culture and Brit(ish), 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

A last-minute ticket booth that used to be available in the festival area isn’t coming back this year. Honestly I found the deals not that enticing there (unless you really like French musical comedy), so it’s not a big loss.

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.

Be flexible

The passes 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.

Other tips

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
  • Théâtre La Chapelle: 116
  • Mainline Theatre: 102
  • Café Cléopâtre: ~100
  • Cabaret du 4e (Monument National): ~100
  • Théâtre Ste-Catherine: ~100
  • Pub L’Île-Noire: ~50
  • 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.

2 thoughts on “How to binge Just For Laughs on a budget (updated for 2022)

  1. Steve M.

    EXCELLENT update and post! Glad to see JFL back again. (I was worried it wouldn’t come back with all the Coof nonsense the past two years) Great tips and tricks to enjoying the festival. While I probably won’t make it to this one, I shall keep this in mind for next year’s (hopefully!)

    Reply
  2. Michael Black

    Andy Kindler started with the “Alternative Comedy Lab”. Early on, I won a ticket. I still can’t figure out the meaning. It was at midnght, and it was a mix of rapid fire and slow story telling with a punch line. But it seemed like an after hours show. The audience wss primed to laugh, like they’d been at shows all day. I went back a few times, so I.must have paid.

    Celebrities appeared. Alan Rachins from LA Law appeared. So did Fred Willard, but I can’t remember if he performed, or just bowed from the audience.

    But there never seemed anything “alternative”. Another excuse for a show. And I saw nothing cohesive that connected the shows. I was more imoressed with the slow story telling with a punchline.

    As for sitting in the front row, I once saw Martha Chavez at the Comedy Nest. There was someone it was safe to sit up front for. She interacted with the audience, but didn’t attack them. She organized some nights of women’s comedy there, but when the comedy fest started “an Evening at Eve’s Tavern”, Martha was missing.

    Reply

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