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Just For Laughs Comedy Festival Offers A Look At Up-And-Coming Talent


This week, comedian Jerry Seinfeld performed to a packed stadium in Montreal. He was in Canada as part of the annual comedy festival called Just For Laughs. Now, at the same time at the same festival about 10 minutes away, a group of much less famous comedians were performing their best stuff to a much smaller crowd. They are known as the New Faces, and they're hoping to make it big. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: A New Faces showcase is a lot like any other comedy show. It's in a small theater. There's a host, a bar. Comedians get on stage and do their thing and so on and so forth. What makes it different is the audience. Sure, there are folks just looking to have a good time and get some laughs in, but there are others who are technically on the clock with badges around their necks that say industry. These are people with job titles like talent coordinator and director of programming.

SAM JAY: It matters because this is your career. People talk. This is water-cooler talk.

LIMBONG: That's Sam Jay, a comedian who just a few hours prior crushed her set at the New Faces of Comedy showcase which focuses on stand-ups. Big names did New Faces - Hannibal Burress, Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon. But most of the comics I spoke to weren't thinking about that. You really can't. Here's Sam Jay again.

JAY: So I get obsessed with what they going to do, so what should I do? Oh, he does this type of material, so I should stay away from that, when you really should always just be yourself. So I try to silence that in my mind as much as I can.

LIMBONG: In true comedy training ground fashion, the festival is adamant that none of these sets is recorded by the audience, but her set - which centered around her marriage falling apart - sounded like something you'll be hearing in a special soon anyway. Other standouts included a 26 year old from New Jersey who was just on Colbert.


RAMY YOUSSEF: My name is Ramy Youssef, and I'm Muslim. Like - yeah. Yeah. Like from the news.


YOUSSEF: Have you guys seen our show? Fox News or any of the news really. They're all about us.

LIMBONG: And Rae Sanni, who delivered a joke about being a stripper but not having the right kind of body to make it super lucrative. This is from a set of hers in Brooklyn earlier this year.


RAE SANNI: I was sitting on the floor of the locker room crying because I had only made $29, and I hadn't tipped out the DJ yet, right? And, like, one of the fat [expletive] big [expletive] money-making [expletive] came over. She's like, next time, use your personality.


LIMBONG: And it's not just stand-ups. There were showcases for sketch actors, online video creators and arguably the lowest on the totem pole with the most to gain, people un-repped - no manager, no agent, just their jokes.

JEREMY MCCLELLAN: I have no idea how I would get on "Jimmy Kimmel" - right? - or, like, you know, "Conan," or whatever. I have no idea how - just, like, email conan@gmail? I don't know. I don't know.

LIMBONG: That's Jeremy McClellan, one of the un-repped comedians a little before his set. For a guy without representation, he'd been doing relatively well, booking international tours, getting some press, but he's hit a ceiling that's hard to DIY your way through. That said, he did expertly weave his way through his joke about getting into an argument with his wife about the wage gap.

MCCLELLAN: But like I explained to her, that's just because men naturally gravitate towards higher-paying professionals like doctor or engineer or CEO, whereas women - this is true - just naturally gravitate towards lower-paying professions like female doctor and female engineer and female CEO.


LIMBONG: A lot of the comedians agreed the best advice is to just be yourself. Eyes on your own paper. Don't think about the suits in the crowd. Here's Ramy Youssef.

YOUSSEF: It's just such funny advice. Be yourself, and it's like also do it in six minutes. Also, like, everyone's here.

LIMBONG: And everyone's hoping to say that they were in the room when the next Jerry Seinfeld was a New Face. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN GIBBARD'S "I DON'T KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.