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Martin Short

Martin Short

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"We were looking for a city where we could build a U.S.

festival that would be successful over the long term," said Bruce Hills, the chief operating officer of the Montreal-based company.

"Chicago, which has the fans and the infrastructure, was at the top of the list." "I've found that Chicago has the hippest comedy audiences," Short said.

"Why, I don't know.

It's just an observation." Just for Laughs, which is the leading name in French-speaking comedy and long a familiar name to BBC viewers in Britain, has been producing bilingual comedy festivals for years.

Its Montreal flagship festival began in 1983.

The company has expanded its festivals to Nantes and Paris, France, as well as creating an English-language festival in Toronto.

The company is also is the talent management and TV production business.

Those Canadian festivals are configured as non-profit operations, taking advantage of the extensive support for the arts offered by the Canadian government.

But the new Chicago festival, a for-profit endeavor, is something quite different.

That's because of the involvement of the U.S.

cable network TBS, which will turn several of the marquee events at Just for Laughs into TV specials, headlined by DeGeneres (airing June 27), Short (airing June 26) and Grier (airing June 28).

So if see any of the three (tickets are already hard to come by), you'll actually be watching a live TV taping.

Short said he'll also be filming on the streets of Chicago as part of his show.

In fact, the official, mouthful title of the festival is "TBS Presents A Very Funny Festival: Just for Laughs." In Chicago, the TV component was crucial for securing funding.

And the talent.

"A lot of the folks in the festival are already on our airwaves," said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president and general manger of comedy festivals for TBS, a network that competes aggressively with Comedy Central.

"And we think the live component is a great extension of our brand." Even though it's importing most of the marquee talent (by necessity), Just for Laughs has been careful not to offend the local players.

Events at i.O., the Lincoln Lodge and Annoyance Theatre are part of the festival programming.

Lakeshore Theater, one of Chicago's busiest year-round comedy venues, is hosting a slew of acts, along with Chicago Theatre and The Vic.

"I really think this is the strongest array of talent we've ever had for any festival," said Hills.

"The homegrown component is really crucial for us." You won't see any Second City branded programming at Just for Laughs -- Second City is officially holding its fire for its 50th anniversary this fall.

But Second City vice president Kelly Leonard says he's happy to see Just for Laughs take on Chicago.

"We like those guys," Leonard.

"Plus, they will be bringing a huge number of industry people to town." That sudden profusion of talent-spotters should be good news for the slew of improvisers and sketch specialists plying their trade every night here.

For five nights, at least, Chicago will be crawling with funny people.WHAT IT IS: A comedy festival put on by the Montreal-based company Just For Laughs.

This is its first time in Chicago.

The fest is taking place at 11 venues, including the Chicago Theatre, Monday through June 21.

Several events are being taped for TBS cable TV.WHO'S PLAYING: The big headliners are stand-up comedians such as Ellen DeGeneres, Martin Short and George Lopez.

There's also lots of sketch comedy, improv and local acts, including Best of Sketchfest at i.O.

and Messing With a Friend at the Annoyance.

And there's film screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center.HOW TO GO: Pick your events and go to or the individual venues for tickets.

(There are no all-festival passes.) For a complete schedule: TURN TO PAGE 5,0,1342110.story
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