By: Meghan Yuri Young
Photography: Samuel Engelking
With a focus on mirroring the city’s diversity, Just for Laughs Toronto’s festival producer, Oz Weaver, hopes the 10th anniversary of the event is also one of discovery — in more ways than one.
The pandemic changed everything, and the well-loved Just For Laughs (JFL) Toronto festival is no exception. After a two-year break, the 10-day event returned with a new name (you may remember it as JFL42) and a mission to reach the widest audience possible. At the same time, JFL Toronto, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, hopes to help patrons discover new stand-up comedy talent while they simultaneously explore the city.
Leading the vision for the expanded festival — which held its first street event and hosted the fan-centric ComedyCON, a series of panels, podcasts, and conversations that showcased a side of comedians we don’t usually see on stage — is producer Oz Weaver. Originally from Toronto, Oz’s personal connection to the city has given them valuable insight into producing a festival that’s truly inclusive of our diverse cultures, communities, voices, and the breadth of comedy.
Meghan Yuri Young: Oz, it’s so lovely to chat with you about Just For Laughs Toronto. For anyone who’s not familiar with you, tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Oz Weaver: I’m Oz Weaver. I’m the festival producer of Just For Laughs (JFL). I’m across the entire festival in different capacities — working with the programming department to the marketing department to the box office department. We really work as a big unit, which is great. It’s a big festival to run, and [we grew] it this year. We’ve expanded it by double from 2019. We came out of the pandemic and went, “We should make this bigger.” It’s just a really exciting year for the whole JFL team.
MYY: How was it possible to double the festival from 2019?
OW: Well, in 2019, we had a really successful festival. It was one of our biggest festivals yet in Toronto. We started looking at it and going, “How can we evolve the Toronto festival?” This is [JFL Toronto’s] 10th anniversary, and it was the perfect time to shift directions a little bit. There’s still the festival that everyone knows and loves, but we’ve taken the JFL42 Festival, which is what it was called in 2019, and rebranded it Just For Laughs Toronto.
“I can say this as a Torontonian, we love to hear “Toronto” in every sentence. So, I think rebranding the festival as Just for Laughs Toronto shows that it’s Toronto’s comedy festival.”
Because we’re deeply involved in the comedy scene here, we [knew we could] have an even bigger experience.
We ended up taking the 42, which is the original part of the festival, and made that a series of the [expanded] festival. We’re doing our Headliners series again, like we normally do, which is our Meridian Hall shows. But we expanded Headliners into four arena shows this year. We [already had] John Mulaney and Amy Schumer in arenas [last week], and we have Trevor Noah [on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1]. Our venue size is one way we’ve grown — from Meridian Hall into the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, where we put on ComedyCON, which [was] all of our daytime programming. We expanded that program to also include autographs and photos, like any other fan expo or con.
The other big expansion piece was adding a free 100,000 sq. ft. outdoor site. So, for the first weekend of the festival, for the first time, [we did] this massive outdoor festival. The headliners [were] Monét X Change, Bob the Drag Queen, Russell Peters, and Craig Robinson and his Nasty Delicious band.
MYY: Overall, it’s quite a massive festival.
OW: The whole festival is 10 days long and started on Sept. 23, so there’s [five] more days of amazing programming. We’ve been in over 15 venues around the city and are featuring more than 200 artists throughout the festival. It’s one of the shining beacons of comedy in North America.
I think that’s the most important part: creating something truly for everyone. We’re not going to be able to please everyone. But we’re definitely trying to really broaden the scope so that people have a lot of ways into the festival and a lot of ways to interact with new and upcoming artists — especially a lot of new Canadian artists who’ve been on the scene for a long time and aren’t quite established. And also bringing international acts, so people can get a taste from the rest of the world too.
MYY: Before we get into that, I have to admit that I didn’t even know that you were originally from Toronto!
OW: I lived in Toronto for around 15 years. So, I find myself pretty Torontonian. I live in Montreal now. Part of our team lives in Toronto, working on the local festival, but a few of the senior staff now live in Montreal. I love Montreal … but my heart definitely is in Toronto. So, being able to help build and work on this festival has been really important to me because the city means a lot to me.
MYY: And, as you mentioned, it’s even more special this year since JFL Toronto is celebrating its 10th anniversary!
OW: Yes! And we celebrated our 40th anniversary of the Just For Laughs brand.
“There’s actually seven festivals around the world. Toronto is the second biggest, so it really has found its place and is one that artists, industry, and fans all look forward to.”
MYY: In your experience, knowing you have such a deep understanding and appreciation of Toronto, what are the differences between Toronto and JFL’s other festivals?
OW: Canadian comedy in general is very important to us. Our director of Canadian and international programming, Zoe Rabnett, spends a lot of time going across the country to find new comedic talent to keep those connections alive. She lives in Toronto, too. But, in terms of the programming of the festivals, they’re both looked at completely differently. We program for the city we’re in. They’re different vibes, they’re different fields. It would be a mistake to try to replicate our original festival and just copy and paste it to different cities. Toronto’s a good example of that.
Of course, we also have visitors who come to Toronto just for this festival from New York or Detroit, who get to experience Ontario and its capital. We bring in a lot of international acts, too. It creates this really nice melting pot of international acts, Canadian acts, and up-and-comers. We call [JFL Toronto], the Festival of Discovery.
MYY: That’s so fun! I also feel like this range is reflected in the variety of voices your team has brought together.
OW: You’re absolutely right. The festival has to be programmed for all of Toronto: for its BIPOC community, the LGBTQ2S+ community, and more.
“It’s really important to us, when we look at the entire programming scope, that we try to do something for everyone.”
It’s not always possible [since] it’s a limited festival of 10 days, but I think we’re really hitting that mark this year. It’s definitely something we’re looking at further exploring on different language stages and such.
MYY: Who are you hoping to meet and greet this year?
OW: I’m just so excited for so much of the lineup. You just commented on this; when you look at the lineup, you see Toronto looking back at you, which is important to me. Especially on the poster, where it’s all of the acts’ headshots, you’re like, “Oh, that is Toronto looking back at me.” I know they’re not all Torontonians, but it is the mix and the diversity of Toronto. While anyone looking at our programming would notice that there’s a lot of stand-up, there’s also a lot of diversity beyond culture and people. It’s also about the diversity of what comedy is. Comedy is broad and this festival explores that.
MYY: As a former local of Toronto, what are you seeing and doing in between all of the work and the production that you’re involved in?
OW: My job is a bit all-consuming, which is great. But living inside of the festival is living as a Torontonian. I’m at different venues across the city.
“Toronto’s so huge, as you know. There’s no way to ever experience the entire city, but a festival is the perfect opportunity to bring you to different areas you may have never been to.”
You get a chance to also try out a new restaurant or bar while you’re out. Toronto has a great bar and restaurant scene. I’m very excited to taste and drink as I go along. Our venues are also arts venues across the city, so I’m also just excited to see us help program post-pandemic and be part of that, like, light and driving force.
MYY: I’m gonna put your memory to work a little bit. Do you have a particular venue or neighbourhood in the city that you’re really excited to visit?
OW: I lived in Regent Park for four or five years. That is what I see as my home base when I’m in Toronto. Unfortunately, we don’t have a venue in Regent Park, but very close by is where we [held] the brand new street festival. We closed Front Street from Yonge to Church. I’m excited to [have been] able to create something down in that area that is so lively, that really galvanized the restaurants and the venues.
MYY: We’re grateful for the festival, the talent, and the experiences you’re bringing to the city. Before we wrap, what are you grateful for?
OW: I’m deeply grateful that I work in the arts and that I get to work with incredible artists. It’s amazing that I have a hand in helping make sure that platforms exist for incredible art and artists. I’m so happy that my career has kept me in the arts and entertainment. I hope I stay here a very long time because there’s nothing else like being able to have that connection with the arts on so many different levels, while also making sure that it gets to people and that people get to enjoy it.
With five days left to attend Just For Laughs Toronto, which is on until Oct. 1, 2022, you still have plenty of opportunities to experience some belly laughs. Headliners such as Trevor Noah, Tim Dillon, Iliza Shlesinger, and Mike Birbiglia all have upcoming shows. You can also check out JFL’s signature 42 series, which is your chance to discover new favourites or revisit all-time favourites as numerous comedians take to stages across the city.