BlogJuly 28, 2020

Claude Le Sauteur — 12 Universes of Humour

It almost seems laughable that a populist comedy festival would have not just one, but two, iconic artists twirling in the strands of its DNA, but such is indeed the case with the Montreal-based, worldwide-influential Just For Laughs.


One was the late Vittorio Fiorucci, a mischievous, rabble-rousing goblin of a man who created the festival’s enduring symbol of mirth--the little green devil named Victor--in his own unbridled image.


The other is Vittorio’s polar opposite, perhaps lesser-known in Just For Laughs lore but equally as important to the event’s heritage--a pipe-smoking, country-dwelling gentleman named Claude Le Sauteur.  While his association with Just For Laughs was not as “in your face” as that of Vittorio, his deep dive into the spirit of humour itself resulted in a fine art collection of oil paintings that helped elevate the event’s status from a streetwise “laff-fest” into the lofty realms of “arts and culture.”


Some perspective, please.


As an “art form,” sadly, comedy is perhaps the most disrespected of them all (I’d say “second only to mime,” but most people consider mime as a form of comedy, which sinks the respect level even further).  Comedy is the arts world’s goofy next door neighbor; the one that’s good for a few laughs, the one you’ll take to the movies or ask to walk your dog, but not the one you’d marry...and definitely NOT the one you’d ever have kids with. 


Despite this positioning--or perhaps because of it--Just For Laughs fought its way to become a global powerhouse on multiple levels. Blessed with two mother tongues due to its Montreal birthplace, this serendipitous geographical break automatically doubled JFL’s potential reach from the get-go in 1982, when it was the world’s first comedy event.  But first-mover advantage only remains advantageous to those who keep moving, especially in a world where every town and its suburb seems to host a comedy festival these days.  So a concerted effort to expand the boundaries of humour beyond traditional stand-up--diving into improv, theatre, big-budget Broadway musicals, dance, literature, cinema, classical and pop music, modern art, industry conferences, non-verbal variety, and most notably non-verbal practical joke Gags--made Just For Laughs the biggest comedy festival on earth, and keeps it there until this day. 


Hold on.  Semantics check, please.  Its size so massive (two million visitors alone to its home turf per annum), and its scope so broad (satellite events in Toronto and Australia, tours, TV shows and online presence everywhere), Just For Laughs has broken through the confining handcuffs of “comedy festival.”   Today, it is mentioned in the same regal breathiness of arts and culture events the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe, Burning Man, South By Southwest, Art Basel, Donauinselfest and Coachella in terms of importance, influence and prestige.


Ahhh, prestige.  Great way to segue back to Le Sauteur.


The year 1988 was a pivotal one for Just For Laughs.  The festival had signed a breakthrough TV deal with HBO, and the one-hour, John Candy-led special it created for the cable giant was the first ever non-sports live entertainment event ever broadcast into the USA.  On the other side of this rah-rah hoopla, at approximately the same time, Le Sauteur started to have quiet conversations with festival founder Gilbert Rozon, about ways to work together on an entirely different, subtler cultural level. 


First baby steps saw Le Sauteur developing Victor-based imagery for the event’s annual promotional poster, but as their dialogue progressed, particularly over Rozon’s book “Le Rire” (which outlined 12 aspects, or “universes,” of humour), Le Sauteur found himself on a path towards a magnum opus.


An art aficionado with an impressive collection that overflowed his home into the company headquarters, Gilbert gave Le Sauteur carte blanche to create a series of 91 x 61 cm oil paintings based on the book’s 12 “universes.”  Le Sauteur took said blank slate and created his own unique comedic universe; a family of a dozen pieces, immediately recognizable in the artist’s neo-collage, shape-stacking, explosive-coloured style...but warped by the liberty of a comedic gut-check and an infusion of fearlessness.


The end result(s) hung for years in the third-floor meeting space-cum-office of Gilbert, where Le Sauter’s eye-candy tints and bold, twisted imagery performed double duty to those of us who would gather there--lifting our spirits when enduring tough times, and leading our cheers when things went wonderfully well.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the chicken in the cop’s uniform (“La Satire”), the jester thumbing his nose at society (“Le cynisme”) and the oversized red-lipsticked mouth of a woman I always thought looked like Queen Elizabeth (“Le ridicule”).


My favorites, however, were the ones that truly embodied the “outsider” elements of humour--the blown-up balloon boob in “Le scabreux,” the smiling suicide victim of “L’humour noir,” and the yelping loser who just sat on a tack in “La farce.”  Some people said that these were a tad risqué and in poor taste (particularly the poor guy in the noose)...which made me like them even more.  Like all humour of importance, great art has to provoke; without provocation, art is a series of abstract splish-splashes, bucolic babbling brooks and stultifying still life fruit...about as stimulating as lame and lazy “observational” jokes about the difference between cats and dogs. 


And provoke, these pieces indeed did.


More than outrage though, the emotion that Le Sauteur’s 12 universes primarily provoked was that of appreciation, as his originals were soon published by Just For Laughs as a series of limited edition signed serigraphs, distributed for years as much-valued gifts to sponsors, festival performers, government dignitaries and industry VIPs. I say “much-valued,” as upon receipt, many recipients would contact us to ask about availability of others to complete their collection, as to not break up the family. (P.S. If you were a recipient and yours was framed rather than simply wrapped in kraft paper and protective cardboard, you were held in particularly high esteem by the JFL brass.)


A little anecdote to close this off. Every year at Just For Laughs, we held a multiple-day, all-hands strategic meeting to plan the next stages of our future.  At one such gathering, we spent a day labouring over the creation of a new company mission statement.  After countless hours of frustration, where thousands of random words filled dozens of giant-sized “flip chart” sheets (example: “We are a multi-national company engaged in numerous, broad business activities devised to promote a better understanding of mankind and brotherhood through diverse, multiple styles of humour”), one of the wiser participants stood up and said:


“This is all wrong.  It’s all too long.  Too convoluted.  Nobody will ever remember it.  Our mission is simple.  Three words:  Make. People. Happy.”


We thought about it...and smiled.  “Make people happy.”  It fit everyone, and everything we did.  Whether you were a ticket-buyer, sponsor, government grantor, artist, media partner, employee, whomever; if we made you happy, we did our job...and fulfilled our mission.


Now take a look at Le Sauteur’s 12 Universes.  They exemplify art that’s inspired, vibrant and sophisticated...even at their naughtiest.  A proud legacy of an artistic giant, they are the apex of two great Quebec cultural institutions intertwining. 


But most importantly, they make people happy.




From 1985 until 2015, Andy Nulman was responsible for one or two critical creative and management functions in the forming, growth and development of Just For Laughs.  To this day, people still ask him for show recommendations and tickets.  Some even offer to pay.  P.S.  This is “Self-Deprecation,” a.k.a. “the 13th Universe of Humour.”

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