Midway through the recently concluded Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, her first as vice president for programming, Maureen Taran was talking with a veteran stand-up comic who wondered, with evident envy, why so many young sketch groups were generating so much industry interest and how he could get that kind of attention.
Her answer, she recalled, was simple: "Pick up a camera and do it yourself."
This year, Just for Laughs was, as it has been for 25 years, largely a showcase for stand-ups from throughout the English-speaking world and a gathering place for comedy professionals. As usual, there were comedians who seemed poised to break through to a bigger audience (Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis) or who were ready to face North American audiences (Jim Jeffries from Australia, Stephen Amos from Britain). But in at least two ways, this year was a little different.
With the sitcom format in decline, more than one festival participant was heard to remark that the days when a stand-up could come to Montreal with a solid set and leave with a network development deal are long gone. That may at least partly explain why two of the hottest topics at Just for Laughs this year were sketch comedy and the World Wide Web.
Sketch comedy, never more than a sidelight at previous editions of Just for Laughs, was prominent this year. There were performances by, among others, the reunited Kids in the Hall and the anarchic British troupe Spymonkey. One of the most anticipated events was The Lineup, a showcase of six up-and-coming sketch groups, with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of the fondly remembered HBO series Mr. Show as hosts.
Also present in greater numbers than ever, Taran said, were executives in search of Internet content, for television networks and cable channels, as well as for comedy Web sites like Super Deluxe (superdeluxe.com) and Funny or Die (funnyordie.com).
The two phenomena are not unrelated. The Web is proving to be a very hospitable place for sketch comedy, if not yet a very lucrative one.
Few people were willing to go as far as Mark Krantz, a veteran comedy producer in Montreal seeking talent for Super Deluxe, who said in an interview after the festival that "the Web just might be the future of all things comedy." But comedy in general, and sketch comedy in particular, is already a big deal there.
Posting a clip on YouTube or MySpace can jump-start a comedy career: homemade digital videos helped propel Andy Samberg to Saturday Night Live and led to cable series for the sketch groups Human Giant and the Whitest Kids U'Know.
If the Web is still more a means to an end than an end in itself - getting on television remains most comedians' goal - the ability to produce sketches quickly and cheaply, and to show them to the world almost as soon as they're made, is changing the comedy landscape. Sites like Super Deluxe (a unit of Turner Broadcasting) and Funny or Die (which is run by Will Ferrell and the writer-director Adam McKay) have the clout to make the Web not just a place to post clips but also a career option, for established comedians as well as for unknowns.
"The Web has opened things up," said JoAnn Grigioni, the director of talent for Comedy Central, who was at Just for Laughs scouting acts both for the cable channel itself and for its Web site, comedycentral.com. "There's so much more that you can do with talent that might not fit in a show on the air."