Bruce Hills has been the COO of Just For Laughs for 19 years Photo: Matthew CopeBruce Hills – a lifetime of comedy at Just For Laughs Peter Kerr April 13, 2018 4787 The Globe & Mail describes Bruce Hills as “The King of Comedy”, comedian Dave Chappelle describes him as the “Comedy Curator of a Generation”. The UK edition of GQ Magazine states that he is “the most powerful man in international comedy” Just For Laughs is the largest and most influential comedy festival on the planet. It’s a Montreal success story of global significance. Talent agents, movie and television producers, and talent scouts come to Montreal every summer looking to discover the next big star, and to be a part of the world’s biggest comedy festival. Overseeing the development of this madcap business is the company’s Chief Operating Officer, Bruce Hills – who brings a quiet sense of dignity that inspires not only the people who work at Just For Laughs, but also the comedians, agents and producers who perform at and attend the festival Comedian Dave Chapelle presenting Bruce the Canadian Screen Association ICON Award Bruce has worked in almost every aspect of JFL, starting as a driver; meeting artists at the airport and being their chauffeur during their stays in Montreal. He’s worked in various departments since, from the Public Relations, to being a talent scout and then as a programmer. For years, he was the Vice-President for International Television and Director of Programming, building a wealth of experience in the entertainment business and an impressive reputation. In 1999 he took on the role of Chief Operating Officer, steering the festival’s worldwide growth in spinoff festivals, international tours and award-winning television specials. Bruce now oversees this multifaceted conglomerate, with festivals in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Australia. He is also responsible for over 1000 worldwide television specials, with networks including; The Comedy Network, HBO, CBC, Comedy Central, Showtime, Fox, BBC, CW, and the Comedy Channel and Network Ten in Australia. And that’s a partial list. “When I was a high-school student in St-Lambert, I was drifting a bit and not really applying myself to my studies. My Dad was a highly regarded Geography Professor at McGill, and my Mom was a very intelligent woman. They were supportive of me, but I knew that my indifferent performance at school was a concern for them.” “I was looking for a summer job, and contacted Just For Laughs. I was hired as a driver for artists, TV Executives and Producers. I really enjoyed the experience and came to the realization that the entertainment business could be a good career path..” “I made a lot of good contacts as a kind of mobile concierge. Later on, when I was in a more senior position, people would recognize me; ‘Say, didn’t you drive me…’. I drove for Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard after they made The King Of Comedy together, they weren’t on speaking terms. They would each ask me what the other was saying about them. I met a lot of other artists, big agents and managers in that job. When you’re in a car with someone on-and-off for a few hours; you end up getting to know each other. I have some great memories of my two summers as a driver.” A younger Bruce with an even more youthful Jon Stewart Bruce had found his passion for the entertainment business at an early age. Equipped with an eccentric sense of humour and a sharp intellect, he was in at practically the ground floor in the early days of Just For Laughs. He thrived in the fast-paced and high-pressure environment. “There are times when it’s so fast…so manic…” He just shakes his head and smiles across the table at me. I can tell he wouldn’t change it at all. Just For Laughs has been a springboard to stardom for many comics, including Russell Peters, Kevin Hart, Tim “The Toolman” Allen and Jimmy Fallon. Perhaps the most famous has been the amazing success of Dave Chappelle. “As a programmer, I’d watch hundreds of video cassettes of comedians auditioning for a spot. I came across a cassette with just the manager’s name and phone number taped to the cartridge. He had two flawless seven minute sets. Not a wasted word and very, very funny. I called the number, and told his manager that Dave was ‘in’.” What Bruce didn’t know was that Dave Chappelle was flat, busted broke, and the booking at Just For Laughs in 1992 was a financial lifeline, in addition to securing more work from the talent spotters. To this day, Bruce and the now world-famous Dave Chappelle are good friends. “My focus now is on supporting my team, who are the most experienced and talented programmers in the industry. We currently give more comedians TV spots than all the late night talk shows in the US combined, and our New Faces of Comedy showcase is largely seen by the industry as the most important showcase in the world.”“Just For Laughs in Montreal has always been produced with passion. It’s about the art. Sure – we have fun, but right from the early days we wanted to be the #1 comedy festival in the world. We put in the effort to make that happen, and now we want to remain the premiere comedy event in the world – so we keep working with enthusiasm and with respect for the artists and audiences. We have a talented group of people here, and it’s a team effort.” To keep the stresses and strains of the fast-paced entertainment industry at bay and in perspective, Bruce participates in weekly ice hockey, basketball, tennis and ball-hockey games. “I keep myself moving – exercise is essential. If I miss a day because of an important business meeting, I still have the remaining days of the week to stay active. I often play basketball with my son Michael and daughter Alexandra. Of the three of us, Ali probably has the best shot.” Bruce goes on to describe ‘road trips’ that he takes with his children. It’s immediately apparent that the term ‘road’ is a euphemism in describing trips to Chicago, London, Paris, and other major cities. “I take them individually, and they get to pick the destination.” “Occasionally there are opportunities for my kids to meet major stars backstage. I have this privileged position because of my job, but I’m careful to respect the privacy of the stars. Some are more open to meeting people than others. We just pick our spots.” “Life in our family can get a little hectic, and my wife Liz is the foundation of our household. She also makes time to give back to the community in different ways. I first met her when she came into my office for an interview in 1989 and she worked for us that summer as an assistant in the PR department. Afterwards she went to Toronto for a job. A year later we reconnected and started seeing each other and shortly thereafter she moved back to Montreal, and we got married in ’93.” Bruce with the late Don Rickles Bruce is active in giving back to the community, supporting Cedars Cancer Institute, the ALS Society of Quebec and guest lecturing at McGill, Concordia and Operation-Back-To-School. “I especially enjoy speaking with high-school students who are unsure of their career paths because it reminds me of myself. Rather than give them a speech, I tell them about my own story – how I wasn’t doing too well in school and how I didn’t have a purpose, or vision about what I wanted to do. Then I tell them how I figured it out, that I simplified my path and found that I was passionate about the entertainment business. I encourage them to do the same: focus on what they love to do. If you love food and have a knack for cooking, then take some classes or get a summer job shadowing a chef. You have to get in at the ground floor and grow. You can also find ways to volunteer in any given field, especially while you’re young and have the opportunity to try a number of things.” The future looks bright for Bruce and his colleagues at Just For Laughs following the purchase by a group of investors led by ICM partners and including comedian/businessman Howie Mandel. “When I was in LA recently, I met up with Howie and his team at their offices. He’s very motivated about Just For Laughs, and understands that Montreal’s unique bilingual culture is an important ingredient to our success. Bruce Hills took a chance to work as a chauffeur for Just For Laughs and found a passion for the entertainment business. Three decades later he’s still having fun and continues to steer the world’s largest comedy festival and related businesses by being creative and relying on the talents of the Just For Laughs team. For more information about Just For Laughs, please visit: www.hahaha.com Related
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