Industry Profile: Andy Nulman
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Andy Nulman, president emeritus, Just For Laughs.
Montreal’s celebrated Just for Laughs festival is arguably the world’s premier showcase for international comedy.
Founded in 1983, the annual summer festival attracts over two million people, and has booked thousands upon thousands of comics, pantomimes, and acrobatic acts over the decades.
Among the comedic figures drawn to the festival have been Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, John Cleese, George Burns, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Drew Carey, Jim Carrey, Ray Romano, Jason Alexander, Martin Short, Tina Fey, Adam Sandler, Lily Tomlin, Howie Mandel, Bob Newhart, Bea Arthur, and Jerry Lewis.
Just For Laughs television shows have been viewed in over 140 countries, and have been seen on MTV, Showtime, HBO, BBC America. and Fox in the United States. Today, Just For Laugh’s YouTube channel attracts more than 3.5 million viewers daily.
While its president Gilbert Rozan founded the festival as a two-night, French-language humor event in Montreal, it was Andy Nulman--joining in 1985--in charge of introducing an English-language component to the festival who piloted a successful festival strategy of corporate sponsorship support, and who has acted as creator/executive producer of over 150 festival TV shows.
The festival has grown from a two-night event to a month-long celebration--Just for Laughs and its French component Juste Pour Rire. French language performers perform in the first half of the festival, while English language entertainers perform over the second half.
In 1999, Nulman left the festival’s full-time employ, although he continued to direct its major gala shows, and remained on the festival’s board of directors. He returned full-time in 2010.
Following leaving the festival’s full-time employ, Nulman and partner Garner Bornstein co-founded Airborne Mobile, a media-space company. In 2005, the two sold the company to Japan’s Cybird Holdings for a reported $110 million. In 2008, Nulman and Bornstein re-purchased the company.
Prior to joining Just For Laughs, Nulman was a respected journalist at the weekly Montreal tabloid The Sunday Express for 6 years. He was eventually promoted to the positions of entertainment editor and promotion manager there. During that period, he also freelanced as a music journalist for Variety, Us, and Circus in the U.S.
After being fired from The Sunday Express over an alleged prank-gone-wrong, Nulman came to Just For Laughs.
A prolific blogger, and in-demand public speaker, the irascible Nulman has authored three books “Pow! Right Between the Eyes: Profiting From the Power of Surprise” (2009); “I Almost Killed George Burns And Other Gut-Splitting Tales from the World” (2001), and “How To Do The Impossible” (1998).
Through cycles of entertainment it’s clear that most people need comedy in their lives.
I’ve always said that it’s a necessity. I have always said that laughter is as necessary as oxygen. Without it, you die. Humor is as necessary as oxygen. We provide a lot of it. That is why we have people coming back year after year (to the festival). I can tell you a million stories of people who have called me, and told me that they have some pretty rough lives. Be they people who are ill or people who work with those who are ill. They say, “You guys are my savior in the summer. Just being able to get that daily gag boost (via YouTube), it’s amazing.” Sometimes you ask yourself, “What am I doing? Why do I do this?” And then you realize that, perhaps, it’s a noble cause. You are providing laughter to the world. I come into an office, answer phone calls, write stuff, do deals and I try to advance the corporate bottom line but, in the end, I can look past all that, and say, “It’s pretty cool what we do here. We let people laugh. It’s even on my LinkedIn post, “We make ourselves miserable so you can enjoy life.”
Through your career, you have been the rock and roll guy, the mobile guy, the surprise guy, and also the comedy guy.
(President and founder) Gilbert (Rozan) is the comedy guy. It’s in his blood. I may be the smart-ass guy. I think that is more me.
Well, you are quite funny in your blogs, books, and speeches.
As a performer in the place where I do perform, yeah, but deep down my spirit is way more rock and roll than it is comedy. I dress the way I act. A bit of the swagger, if I may, with a lot more rock and roll than comedy to it. It has that bravado versus the comedic shirking. In comedy, there’s a lot of hiding. Hiding behind the persona. Hiding behind the written word.
Hiding behind the mask as well?
Could be. To me, I was always a bit more rock and roll than comedy. Comedy is a livelihood. It’s a way to make a living. but it’s not what, necessarily, what I do on a 24 hour basis.
The 2000 “Saturday Night Live” more cowbell” sketch with guest host Christopher Walken as music producer would likely appeal to you.
Believe me, I always thought that one touched me.
One week after Just For Laughs began this year, a Dave Chappelle single show was announced. After a single tweet, the show sold out, and four shows were added.
Yeah, welcome world to (the internet). That’s the way it works now.
Still Dave Chappelle hadn’t been at Just For Laughs for a decade, and hasn’t been doing much lately.
It’s irrelevant. People are smart, with long memories. They know what they like. We saw this when we sold out Louis C.K. in Australia three years earlier, and he had never played there. But the comedy community was talking to each other on the internet.
In the end, people wanted to see Dave Chappelle.
It’s the way that show business works. All the marketing money in the world that you throw at a show is not going to sell a show that’s cold. If people don’t want to see it, they are not going to see it. And if they want to see a show, you don’t have to spend two cents because they will find it. They know. That’s the one thing about show businesses. I used to work with (Montreal promoter) Ruben Fogel, and we would do all sorts of PR for (his) shows, and we would see that happen. And I see it happen with Just For Laughs. And we saw it with Chappelle. One tweet and the world just went crazy. The same thing with a Roger Waters’ show. They (promoters) don’t put out ads. The same with Springsteen. But it doesn’t always have to be a big name (to have a sell-out). It just has to be the right zeitgeist. Sure, there are certain things (shows) that you have to sell, and that you have to push but, if the show is cold no matter what you throw at it, it’s not going to heat up. If the show is hot, you don‘t need to do anything. The public will know about it.
Quebec is a bilingual province with a largely French-speaking population. Comics appearing at Just For Laughs must be sensitive to certain local cultural facts. In 1991, American-born British stand-up comic Jerry Sadowitz was punched out onstage by an irate audience member during a performance which mocked French Canadians.
It happens. The difference is that here in Canada he got punched out onstage, I’d say that in the States he would have been assassinated. So that’s the beauty of this place.
[Jerry Sadowitz reportedly kicked off his Just For Laughs performance with the greeting, "Hello moosefuckers. I tell you why I hate Canada, half of you speak French, and the other half let them.”]
Many comedians appearing at Just For Laughs seem to be captivated by being in Montreal. While it’s a North American city, it’s not like one they have experienced before.
And hallelujah because who wants to be in some place generic? Something that I search for in my travels, especially in the United States of America. is for something different and authentic. I spent part of the summer vacation in North Carolina on the Outer Banks (a major tourist destination). I never knew that even existed. And I found it fascinating. Who wants to be somewhere generic? That’s what bothers me the most when you are across the world in some little town in Turkey, and you see the same stores that you see you see on your street corner on rue Sainte-Catherine (in Montreal) or Yonge Street (in Toronto) or Madison Avenue (in New York). At least here (in Montreal), there’s something different.
Just For Laughs has become a home and a haven for comedic performers.
All I will say about it is that many (others) have tried; few, if any, have succeeded to go ahead and capture what we do here. There are so many ways and means that it shouldn’t work, and the fact that it does speaks volumes about the people working on it (the festival). Speaks volume about what we have done in the past to get it to this level.
It’s easier to do where you don’t have to cross the (U.S./Canada) border. It’s easier to do in a city where they only speak one language. It’s easier to do it closer to home where you don’t have to fly.
The fact that all of these things come into play, and that we have gotten over all of these “hurdles”--I don’t think that they are “hurdles”; they are benefits, but that remains for someone else to debate--but no one else has been able to do this. Believe me, there have been people with tons of money, tons of will, and tons of support from big corporations—be they be media corporations or consumer goods companies—but nobody has been able to do it. We have rolled with the punches and changed with the times, and we are going to continue to do so.
Over time, the festival has evolved from a two-night affair into a full month of shows, and galas. Each year, there’s something different at the festival.
Yeah, but you have to do that because people expect that. If you don’t the audience will say, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to innovate or evolve, your competition will do it for you.”
What competition does the festival have?
The competition that we have is the internet. It’s a restaurant. It’s a movie. We are fighting for the consumers’ time, and fighting for the consumers’ dollar.
Montreal is also busy each summer with such events as Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and Les FrancoFolies de Montréal as well as M for Montreal in the Fall.
Indeed. I always say that there are two kids sitting in a basement who have the weapons to eliminate us. Not that they are malicious. They aren’t malicious. They don’t want to, but they will say, “Here’s something that we can launch.” And if it takes off, we are left behind. So that’s why we continually strive (to change). I will tell you that I don’t think the change (here) is coming as fast as it should---I scream and yell about that—but there are only a certain amount of hours in the day. But I really do think that if you are not staying on top of it, somebody is going to kill you. They may be planning it. Most times they aren’t. There are a hundred industries that have fallen by the wayside, not intentionally, but somebody came up with a better product, and tapped into the consumer who said, “We’d rather have this than that now.”
The French language segment Juste Pour Rire remains wildly popular.
Of course. It’s massive. I don’t think people understand how big it is in French. The way it’s seen here in the French community is like part of the tapestry. It is unfathomable to think of Montreal without it. It’s not an event. It’s part of life.
Rock acts are often booked one or two years in advance. Comics usually aren’t booked that far in advance.
Sometimes that happens. Usually, you can get them in advance.
In 2010, you only landed Steve Martin as a host three weeks before the festival started.
That’s the way it happens sometimes because they (comics) are doing a movie and they are available or they say, “Hey, I’d like to do this. I’m coming up.” Or they aren’t available because of some TV show. But that’s the way it is. Musicians live to play music. A comedian has many facets.. A comedian can be a film star or be a television actor or a director or someone who just wants to take some time off in the summer. It is not necessarily everything or all of what they do. Touring is not 100% of their schedule or formula raison d'être. It’s like, “Yeah, we could do this.”
As well, comedy isn’t always comedic. Every comic has a specific viewpoint of what they do and how they want to be presented.
You see that on YouTube. Comedic is not necessarily punch line driven. It doesn’t necessarily have to be funny. It just have to have a certain attitude or spirit to it. That’s the beauty of it.
Comics can be difficult to work with. Among those with reputations for being difficult that have appeared at Just For Laughs are Jerry Lewis, Roseanne Barr, and Mort Sahl.
They were all difficult for different reasons. Jerry was difficult for one reason. Roseanne for another reason. Mort Sahl for a third reason.
Jerry choked me. Roseanne pushed me. Mort left town.
I would have to say that they are all difficult, but they were difficult for one reason because they gave a damn about the performance. They felt that that what was being done compromised their performance. Jerry was also a bit a lunatic about the tax situation. (The Canadian) withholding tax.
You don’t mind difficult, if they care about the performance. You mind difficult if people are on drugs or are lazy or being nasty for no reason or being sexist or racist. That’s a problem. But I have to say that a lot of these guys were difficult because they were really striving for excellence in their performances, and they thought that their performance was being compromised. Mort Sahl was a pain in the ass. He left saying “This is not the show that I thought it was going to be. I’d rather leave than perform.” I wasn’t happy with it (the decision) but that’s life. Roseanne was a pain, but she said, “I don’t like the way that this is going.”
We have had other people who were on drugs or were lazy or didn’t show up or were Irresponsible and all of that stuff.
How did you almost kill George Burns which is the title of one of your books?
We had him here in 1993 as we were inducting him into the Just For Laughs Comedy Hall of Fame. He was so fragile. He was in a wheelchair. We wanted to do something special because we had all of the (media) cameras there. They wanted to do a visual with dollar-sized confetti being dropped on this group of people downstairs. They had them wrapped up in these brick-like things, and they would throw them out. Two elastics and the air pressure would expand the bills, and the other elastic would fall off and it would fall like a snowflake. Except they forgot to take off the elastic on one of the bills, and it plummeted. It came within inches of killing George Burns. If that would have hit his head from three stories above, he would been toast. That would have crushed his head.
Between Just For Laughs, “SCTV,” and Lorne Michaels being creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” Canadians have greatly influenced the world of comedy, especially in America. Canadians, as insiders as well as outsiders, have practically made an industry of selling comedy back to America.
It’s always been the case. Basically what we are is the Petri dish, the experimentation place where we take in, say the influence the country below, the United States; and, perhaps, from the country to our immediate left, Great Britain; and mash those two together into a format that we sell back to America. It’s almost similar to what the Brits did in music in the early’60s. Let’s take a formula of rock and roll, and some skiffle and repackage it, and send it back to the Americans as the British Invasion.
Interestingly, few British comics have crossed over to America, excepting Monty Python, but Brits like Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, and Billy Connolly have been popular in Canada as were the Goons, and “The Two Ronnies.”
Indeed. We have lived with that for a number of reasons. The British comedians aim at a British audience. A Canadian comedian aims at an American audience.
Because they want to land an American TV series.
The biggest market for Monty Python in North America may be Quebec.
Yeah. That’s because. CBC played Monty Python (the ‘70s series “Monty Python's Flying Circus”). We just did a tour across Canada with John Cleese. Forty shows and we sold out every one of them. There’s a massive following because the Crown Corporation played that show. They may not have played it in prime time but when he mentioned “The Two Ronnies,” or he mentioned shows that are very much on the fringe of the television history here, people knew them because the CBC played them.
Since Just For Laughs launched in the early ‘80s, the business of comedy has greatly changed. The route for stardom for comedians was once playing the nightclub circuit or appearing on radio and television or in a film. When Just For Laughs launched, there wasn’t much else around.
No. I still remember when we first started Just For Laughs, and we were on the road with it. Gilbert and I were going to meetings in New York, and Los Angeles and we had to explain what a comedy festival was. They didn’t exist, and they (agents and managers) thought that we were idiots thinking that we could pull this off. You go to LA and there were these rooms with Mitzi Shore running The Comedy Store, and Bud Freidman there (with the Improv club). We tried to get into the William Morris Agency in New York. We were so happy that they gave us a meeting. They thought so little of us that they wouldn’t even take us into their offices. We had our first meeting with the William Morris Agency in New York in the lobby. It was, “Tell us what this thing is all about.”
Clubs then exposed and headlined their clients. Why would an agent send a comic to a festival in the summer for 20 minutes of standup?
That was the point.
And in Montreal.
But back then Montreal had as much cache as any Canadian city. We are a huge part of what makes Montreal, but we don’t see ourselves as a local event. We see ourselves as a universal event that happens to take place in Montreal, Canada. To shine here in Montreal, we really have to think of ourselves as an international event.
Was that universality defined in the early days of the festival? After all it started off as a local French-speaking event.
Of course, but the internationalization started once the English market was explored. We knew that we weren’t going to get very far doing an English event only using local comedians.
Still in the 1980s, it was hard to believe that a comedy festival would work in a Canadian city with mostly a French-speaking population.
Also, to be very frank, given your audience, this is such foreign territory and, perhaps, such little interest. “What do I care about this stuff for?” We ran into that; where we had to fight that type of prejudice. I remember we sat down with HBO and they loved the idea of this international comedy festival, but they said, “Well, why Montreal? Why don’t you do it in Boston? We don’t understand why you are doing it in this city.” I remember this one executive said, “This international festival is such a great idea. Now how do we get rid of all of this foreigner shit?” That’s a great quote.
You brought in an English component to what had been a Francophone comedy festival. A bit of a jump at the time given Quebec’s mostly French population?
No. It wasn’t a bit of a jump for me because I had just come off the road with Howie Mandel. We did Howie’s international tour including his first American tour. So no. Even to this day, this whole language thing is so strange to me. I find it so utterly ridiculous to have these kinds of battles and fights. I think that knowing more languages enriches you. I think that opening yourself up culturally enriches you.
To this day, I don’t necessarily get it (any problems of having English performers before largely French audiences).
Even back then, what was the battle? I have to tell you that you realize living here and traveling primarily throughout North America that, in essence, we are all the same. What I mean by that is that if you give a Quebecer the opportunity to see a big American star or local star—not that they are going to turn down a local star; far from it—but they are still enraptured by the American star. That’s one of the things that made us strong in the early days. That, even to a local populace, they said, “Wow, these are the guys bringing in internationals stars. People that we see on sitcoms. People that we see when we watch ‘The Tonight Show.’ People we see, as time went on, on HBO, and Showtime.” Quebecers are very, very open. Even some of the most ardent separatists have their eyes open to the United States of America, and its star system and its media. And now in the internet age, it’s impossible to ignore.
Within days of taking on both the English and French productions of the Just For Laughs, you appeared as guest on a Francophone TV show alongside the renowned Québécois comedian Yvon Deschamps. You made Canadian TV history by getting naked while upstaging Deschamps. You appeared nude?
Sure I did. There’s the video. And I use that video when I do speeches of “How To Do The Impossible.”
What was Deschamps’ reaction?
He walked off the set, but in a humorous way. He wasn’t mad. He just walked off the set, saying, “I can’t compete with this” which was my goal of how do you upstage the biggest name in French comedy?
Why go on a French show with the grand-père of Quebec comedy?
It was a challenge. That’s the whole thing in life on a daily basis. Yeah, I could play it safe or I could take a shot and do something a little different and a little crazy. And I wouldn’t say crazy, but it was a challenge.
It’s always easier to say no (to an invitation). If you don’t take that shot, you are never going to chance to do something phenomenal or have a chance to do something great or have a chance to discover something either about yourself or others. You are also going to feel the burn of pain and you need the burn of pain to say, “Oh Christ, I’m not going to do this again” or “Here’s what I learned from this.”
Just For Laughs landed on TV in Canada fairly quickly.
Right at the very beginning. The first year in English. Our first show, if I recall correctly, was ’85 or even ’84. I’m not sure. But right from the start. In the United States, we did an hour special on HBO, and Showtime in the early days. So you had 6 acts out of 50 that were here on the special.
So you managed to tick off 44 acts that didn’t get on the American special.
One of them who did was Craig Ferguson in 1987. That’s why he remains a friend to this day.
Did being on television give the festival a major profile boost?
It did here in Canada big time. CBC in the early days, and CTV and The Comedy Network later, and now with both of them, and other people. It most definitely did as well as when we were on Showtime and HBO in the States.
There is no greater validation of what anyone is doing than being on television.
Television validated us here (in Canada) more so than in the States. While Showtime and HBO were great to us, it was even better because it validated us to Canadian audiences. “Well yeah, we are seeing you on CBC, but wow you are on American television.” People were excited by that. There’s no great validation (for Canadians) than acceptance down south. But that said, like anything else, even to this day and despite the internet—I can tell you that the internet has created many great stars, and is still is doing so—but being on television is the great unequalizer. It separates you from the pack. You have to have been seen on television. I know it when I have been on TV and when my friends are on TV. It’s different.
I have a friend who is about to become part of a major CBC reality show. I told him, “Enjoy this privacy while you can because very soon—as of January when the show hits—within one month, you are going to walk around, and people are going to point you out, and people are going to come and talk to you. People you have never spoken to before. You are going to go a wedding or a bar mitzvah, and people are going to drive you nuts because you are on television. It changes everything.” The same thing with us. We were on television and it changed everything. It still does.
The Just For Laughs’ YouTube channel attracts 3.5 million hits a day
At least 3.5 million. It’s huge.
In 1999, you left the festival’s full-time employ, but came back in 2010. Why did you leave?
Well, I left because I was bored. I was basically doing the same thing for a long time.
You continued to oversee the festival’s major gala shows, and remained on the board of directors of the festival.
Yeah, I never really left. I took my summers off. I did the galas, and I was on the board. So I was basically here in one shape or form. But I had been bored with what I was doing, and there were people here who needed to grow. I felt, frankly, that I was stifling their growth by being here. So I said, “Time to leave. All the signs are there.” I was really in love with the internet. “Let’s see where this goes.”
You went off and created Airborne Mobile with Garner Bornstein
People thought we were mental. That we were completely out of our minds.
How much was invested in starting up of Airborne Mobile ?
Oh, a couple thousand dollars. We got early investment. We were one of the first people in North America to do mobile content, games, ringtones, wall paper, screen savers, and apps. We did really early apps. We did apps for the NHL. We did apps before there were apps. Remember when we launched that mobiles were green screens with dots. I remember we went to Paris, and we saw the first colored screen. I remember we were telling people that one day people would be watching video on their mobiles. They thought that we were completely hallucinogenic.
You sold Airborne Mobile in 2005 for $110 million to a Japanese firm. Cybird made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
We also had another offer for $10 million about a year before that we were going to take. Then they reneged at the last minute. We were just about broke. In retrospect, it’s funny how life works because you never know. Everything is for a reason. Then Cybird came along. We said that we were “Geffenized.” Geffen was the last record label that wasn’t sold. There were more buyers than sellers. The same thing (with us). A lot of people looking at buying were all of these companies that were public in Europe and Japan that needed to do something with their stock pile because their investors were asking, “What are you doing?” So they had to buy something, and we were there. I don’t want to diminish the work that we were doing. It was pretty amazing that a year later (after the first offer) we had a 10X increase in value.
You bought back Airborne Mobile from Cybird. Hopefully not for the original purchase price.
We paid a dollar in the end for the company for a number of reasons. There was a big internet scandal in Japan that brought down some really great companies including Cybird, unfortunately. They were really good people, but everybody was tarred with the same brush. There was a legal issue in the States, and they still owed us money because the $110 million was only for 85% of the company. To make a long story short, they said, “Just take it.”
The buyback led to a retooling of the company.
The iPhone changed everything. You were really able to see it. You could track your pre-iPhone and post-. The week of the launch you saw a change in your business. It was astonishing. You just saw that curve fall off a cliff. Fell right off a cliff.
How much of a rock and roller were you growing up in Saint-Laurent, the largest of Montreal's boroughs
Big time. In high school I did silly things that were class clownesque. I ordered pizza for a class long before it was seen in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982). We did silly stuff. A lot of it had to with things that were around rock and roll. I was always in it.
I’m seeing Peter Noone on the 3rd and 4th of December. He’s appearing at a fund-raising concert that I host every year. One of the things I’m going to tell him is the story about when I was on “Magic Tom” (“The Magic Tom Road Show”) which was a TV show here when I was 6. You’d go on the show, and you’d sing a song. It was almost like “Romper Room” where kids sang “Frère Jacques” or “Old MacDonald Had a Farm Had a Farm.” I sang (Herman’s Hermits’ 1965 #1 Billboard pop hit) “I’m Henry The VIII, I Am.” I became friends with Magic Tom Auburn who is long gone now as I got older ,and he basically retired. He’d say, “In all my years I will never forget that kid who sang, “I’m Henry The VIII, I Am.” So was I a rock and rolller, yeah.
[English language commercial television arrived in Montreal in 1961 and local Channel 12 began offering “Surprise Party” starring Tom Auburn. This weekly feature, later known as “The Magic Tom Road Show” became the longest-running program in Montreal history---15 years. In the program’s peak years, the station averaged 20,000 letters annually praising the show.]
You grew up in Montreal--a great rock and roll city--with local promoters Donald Tarlton and Ruben Fogel presenting great shows in that era.
I started going to shows when I was 16. (Drummer) Chuck Comeau of Simple Plan was recently in my office, and I showed him my jukebox filled with vintage singles of the ‘60s. These aren’t things that I bought recently. These are things that I had. I’ve had them since I was 7. All of the original Capitol (Record) Beatle singles. They are all scratched up because they were played.
While still a teenager, you began working as a journalist.
At 16, I got my start in sports of all things at The Sunday Express. Sports was an entry to get into entertainment. They had no openings in entertainment, but they had openings in sports. You pick the open door.
You were only 16?
I was 16.
You and I both wrote for Circus magazine.
Oh yeah. You know how I got that gig? Some photographer guy told me that he took a shot for Circus, and he gave me the name of the publisher, Gerald Rothberg. So I called him up. I lied. I said, “I’m going to be in New York. I’d like to come and meet you.” I was 17. He said, “Alright.”
So I went to New York.
I remember that the plane landed, and it was pouring rain and I got soaked. I dried my hair at the Chock Full O`Nuts coffee place which had a blow dryer. I dried my hair, and I went into the Circus office. The next thing I knew I was writing for Circus magazine. I covered the Rolling Stones when they played at the Civic Auditorium in Oshawa (April 22, 1979) following the Keith Richards drug bust.
Writing for an American rock magazine as a Canadian teenager was quite a feat.
I couldn’t believe that I was there. Circus was the first magazine that I got in 1972 when Marc Bolan on the cover, and Alice Cooper was the pull-out poster of that issue. There was also an article on Chicago. I remember because I still have that issue. I couldn’t believe that was writing for them at the age of 17. Five years after buying my first issue I was writing for them.
[Circus, published from 1966 to 2006, was a monthly American magazine devoted to rock music with contributions by such celebrated music journalists as Paul Nelson, David Fricke, Fred Schruers, Al Aronowitz, and Kurt Loder.]
In the ‘60s as a teenager, I wrote for Hit Parader when Jim Delehant was the editor.
I remember Hit Parader. I am looking at two Hit Paraders on my wall, framed above my jukebox. One of them has Elvis, the Beatles and Peter Noone; the other has Peter Noone, John Lennon, and Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys.
You were fired from The Sunday Express when you were 23. Why?
I threw wine at my boss. Here’s the story. I couldn’t have been any happier than being a journalist. It was the greatest gig in the world. I went in every week. I wrote about stuff that I liked. I was writing about music and I was writing about entertainment. I was invited to all kinds of places. I was a kid, and I was treated like royalty wherever I went. I thought, “This is really fun.”
Because I was going to management school at McGill University, I became promotion manager of the newspaper. So I was doing promos and working with sponsors. I was having the time of my life.
One day I did a promotion and the clients were there. Our readers were there. We did this cruise, and then we went to the Old Spaghetti Warehouse in Old Montreal. We got a little drunk and the sales manager, Michael Lawton, thought that it would be fun to cut my tie. Like snip it. If you know anything about me, and my fixation with fashion and clothes, you don’t screw with the clothes. So, in my mind, immediately I said, “Okay, let me try to have this on jocularity equation. What equals a cut tie? What on the jocularity scale equals a cut tie?” Well, I thought, “Perhaps a glass of red wine thrown at a white Lacoste sweater is perhaps equal.” He was wearing a Lacoste sweater, and I very conveniently had a glass of red white wine. So I threw it at him. I laughed as much as he did, when he laughed when he cut the tie. “Okay, this is kind of fun.” Three weeks later, he became editor of the newspaper, and his first order of business was to fire the little insolent prick. So I was fired in ’83.
Today, you do a fair amount of motivational speaking.
I wouldn’t say motivational. I talk and if people get motivated, hallelujah. Recently, I gave a speech for the he John Molson School of Business. They have a conference every year. It’s their 13th year. They called me on the Monday for the Saturday. My first question was, “Who canceled?” And he told me that Christine Sinclair couldn’t make it. The captain of the Canadian women’s national soccer team. I said, “Look I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know what’s it’s like when people cancel at the last moment. I have dealt with that and I know how horrific it is. I know how terrible you feel. All you want is someone to say yes.”
So I said yes.
They asked, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know.” It’s like sports. You are off the bench, and into the limelight. “I will think of something.” The point was that it was much easier for me to say no. “Why would I do this? Why would I waste my time?” But, to me, it was also a challenge, “Okay, here are people who don’t know me, and probably will not like me because I am different from them.” I have to tell you that the world of sports and the world of entertainment are so different. But you are going to walk into the lion’s den and conquer them. You have 45 minutes to deal with them. I found that challenging invigorating. “Let’s see how it goes.”
How did it go?
I think it went okay. It wasn’t phenomenal. You could tell that there were certain people who loved it; certain people who copped bad attitudes; and certain people, who were suit-wearing old school sports guys, who looked at me like a guy with a guy with a skull of Swarovski crystals on the back of his jacket with a bit of disdain. But that’s okay because where do you go in life where everybody is on your side?
A couple of years ago I was giving a speech and it was going so bad that people walked onstage, and took the microphone from my hand. It wasn’t working. I went, “Okay,” I didn’t relate to this audience. That’s life. Now I know what total humiliation feels like, and I can internalize it. Great.” And I went on with my day. But to not take the shot because you are afraid of that feeling is ridiculous.
American game show creator Chuck Barris used a hook to stop bad amateurs performing on “The Gong Show.”
Well that happens. Again who has never had the hook has been elevated on that cloud?
At Christie’s New York recently, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) was sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $58.4 million becoming “the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction,” according to the New York Times.
Well, that little thing on my top shelf just went up in value.
Your Balloon Dog (Blue) also by Jeff Koons is also an iconic part of Pop Art.
Yeah. Oh goody. I didn’t know. I brought home Balloon Dog (Blue) and people laughed at me. My family thought I was nuts. “It’s a balloon dog.” I said, “Yeah but it's made out of porcelain.” They said, “Why would you even want that?”
How much did you pay for it?
It was $3,500 a decade ago.
[American artist Jeff Koons is famous for creating large scale Balloon Dogs in 5 colors (Blue, Magenta, Yellow, Orange, and Red), many of which are now in museums. Demand for Koons’ art is strong throughout the world. In her single "Applause," Lady Gaga sings, "One second I'm a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me," a statement about mingling art and pop and transcending the bonds of genre definition. In creating the artwork for her album “ARTPOP,” Koons cast Gaga in a variety of metamorphic roles in a single image.]
You have an Andy Warhol as well.
Three. In my office, I have Mao wallpaper that he used in the gallery in Paris to hang his original Mao oils on. It’s a piece of that wallpaper. At home, I have Andy Warhol Volkswagen from the ad series, and the Dracula from the Icon series.
Your son Hayes is an artist.
I am very proud of both my boys. Aidan lives in Toronto and he’s in the tech business. Just selling his first business. He’s an entrepreneur. Hayes says he builds furniture, but the stuff is really functional art. It’s amazing the stuff that he puts together. He’s got an artist’s head, and an artist’s soul. He left school and graduated in the summer, and started a business when he came back from a trip in August. and here he is.
Just For Laughs’ yellow Ford Focus TV commercial shot in Old Montreal is currently airing nationally in Canada.
Is it on TV? Oh baby, I love it. I’m a happy man. That is our first foray (into making commercials), and it’s been a massive success. The gag has been so big. I’m happy that they are running it.
What’s Just For Laugh’s biggest challenge? Dealing with consumers’ distraction with technology?
Nahh, the technology is never a challenge. It’s an opportunity. The biggest challenge for me personally is living up to our, or my, potential. I think that there is so much that could be done, and it will be a damn shame if we don’t live up to it (our potential) as an event.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.