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Montreal in July just one big laughing matter

Email|Print| Text size + By Glenn Rifkin
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2005

MONTREAL -- In midsummer here, everyone is a comedian. At least, that's how it feels when you come upon the city's annual yuk-fest known as Juste pour rire (Just for Laughs ). The 10-day festival has become a staple of the season, drawing 1.7 million visitors who love good comedy and lots of it.

On July 14, Just for Laughs will convene for the 23d year, drawing the famous and funny from around the globe. Since 1983, the festival has drawn millions of visitors to see the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Lily Tomlin, Denis Leary, Jimmy Tingle, Adam Sandler, Bob Newhart, Ray Romano, and many more. Deals get made and careers get born as the comedy world descends on Montreal to see and be seen. This year's lineup includes Jim Belushi, Dame Edna, Eddie Izzard, and Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood from TV's ''Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

Last summer, as my wife and I wandered past the sparkling downtown skyscrapers on Rue Ste. Catherine into the city's Latin Quarter along the famed Rue St. Denis, we discovered that we had inadvertently come to town while the world-renowned comedy festival was in full swing.

Considering that we had had no idea the festival was taking place, we were thrilled to get tickets to one of the 32 venues where the stand-ups hardly sat down. In one evening, we saw 16 comedians including Caroline Rhea, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, and Sinbad. While the familiar names were very funny, the comics who made us roar were those we had never heard of. The stylings of Irishman Ed Byrne, Australian Carl Baron, and a Canadian named Stewart Francis had us trying to catch our breath from laughing so hard.

During the festival, audiences were able to choose from an almost overwhelming variety of shows that included stand-ups like Jackie Mason, Tim Allen, Tom Arnold, John Pinette, Dom Irrera, Pauly Shore, and the Improv All-Stars with Drew Carey. The headliners were hardly the only attractions. The schedule featured an international comedy smorgasbord: Wiseguys: The Italian Stand-up Comedy Show; The Irish Comedy Show; Britcom; Late Nite Down Under; ; Queer Comics; and the Bar Mitzvah Show. A special Comedy For Kids lineup drew 42,000 children to five sold-out shows.

The festival transforms 10 summer nights into a continuous, magical Montreal street carnival. One need not buy a single ticket to enjoy the scene. The Latin Quarter is closed to traffic and opened to a captivating mix of street performers, food, and artists' wares. An outdoor stage, with from dance to country music, draws thousands for the free shows.

As we walked past two giraffes in business suits holding pink umbrellas, we spotted mimes and jugglers and performance artists who make a living striking and holding odd poses, like a businessman apparently frozen in place while striding to an important meeting. We came upon two street musicians from Australia, James Maguire and Melissa McCarthy, who call themselves Laliya. Maguire created a haunting sound on the electrified Appalachian dulcimer and the didgeridoo, and his original compositions drew hundreds of listeners.

Though the festival was the highlight of our visit, we didn't stop there. Because Montreal is eminently walkable, we strolled everywhere. Along the Rue de la Commune near the river, we discovered the Bonsecours Market, a Quincy Market-like scene with shops, restaurants, ice cream carts, and street performers entertaining tourists each afternoon and evening. Wednesdays and Saturdays along the esplanade, there is an annual international fireworks competition on the river. Each evening, a different country sets off a dazzling display of fireworks coordinated with a piece of music to the delight of tens of thousands of Montrealers and tourists.

Among our great finds were St. Viateur's Bagels, home of the thin and crusty Montreal-style bagels, and Schwartz's, a Montreal institution with the best smoked meats north of Brooklyn. Just a few blocks north of the Latin Quarter is Square Saint-Louis, a Beacon Hill-like neighborhood highlighted by a string of sidewalk cafes and inexpensive restaurants where you bring your own wine. The fare, like the city, is international, with a choice of Greek, Afghan, Turkish, Chinese, and Mexican. We ate at a sidewalk table at La Cabane Grecque and watched the summertime strollers while a flamenco dancer demonstrated her prowess nearby.

We spent the rest of the evening at the comedy festival and then made our way, exhausted, back to L'auberge de la Place Royale, a charming bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the Old Port of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. As it has been renovated over the years, Old Montreal has seen a spate of great restaurants and attractive inns.

As with every short vacation, this one ended far too quickly. Heading south from Montreal through rural southern Quebec, we marveled at how we had waited so long to sample this tantalizing city, so close and yet so far from our travel plans. We promised each other we would return soon, just for laughs.

Glenn Rifkin is a freelance writer in Acton. He is the author of ''Thoreau's Backyard: Musings From a Small Town" (Windingwood Press).

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