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New Faces At This Year's 'Just For Laughs' Comedy Festival

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The biggest comedy festival in the world wraps up tomorrow in Montreal. It's called Just For Laughs. Wanda Sykes, Kevin Hart and Hasan Minhaj headlined. But at the other end of the spectrum, a new crop of hopefuls sought to get their names out into the world. It's a long-running showcase called New Faces, and NPR's Andrew Limbong has the highlights.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Six minutes - that's all the time you get to show your best to a small theater packed with industry professionals scouting for new talent. Just to get a New Faces slot is a big deal in comedy circles. Previous performers who've done it include Jimmy Fallon, Hannibal Buress, Ali Wong. So the name holds a lot of weight in the profession - unless you're Shapel Lacey.

SHAPEL LACEY: I didn't really understand it, like, until I got here.

LIMBONG: He's a standup originally from Phoenix and recently moved to Los Angeles. He says when he landed a spot at New Faces, he didn't think it was all that different from other showcases.

LACEY: Then everyone was, like, talking about, like, oh, this is a solid opportunity. And I was, like, OK, I'm going to quit my job (laughter).

LACEY: I graduated from anger management, so literally, you're all safe. I mean...

LIMBONG: You're not allowed to record any material at New Faces. But Lacey opened his set with this bit that he did at the Laugh Factory in LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LACEY: So I'll get at least one person that'll come up to me and be, like, oh, OK, you went through anger management? OK (laughter). You know, what makes you mad, huh?

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Hannah Einbinder opens her sets a little differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIMBONG: Instead of the normal so here's where I'm from kind of stuff, she opts for a noir retelling of her childhood. Her mother happens to be "SNL" founding cast member Laraine Newman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANNAH EINBINDER: My mother had me when she was 42 because before that age she was - busy.

LIMBONG: Unrepped New Face Lael O'Shaughnessy did self-deprecating, more physical comedy with well-timed gestures.

LAEL O'SHAUGHNESSY: I do feel - I feel hot. Like, I feel like like a hot, little ticket (laughter), you know?

(LAUGHTER)

O'SHAUGHNESSY: You guys are, like, who's that hot, little ticket up there? Spin her around. You know, that's what you're thinking.

MCCAMMON: And Dewayne Perkins told this story about coming out to his religious mother.

DEWAYNE PERKINS: She looked me in the eye, and she said I love you, and you're going to hell. And I said, you're divorced. So are you.

(LAUGHTER)

PERKINS: Then we looked at each other for what felt like forever. I thought she was going to hate me. But all she said was, you got me there. And I was, like, (laughter)...

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: Of course, six minutes on stage is just a part of it. The comics then hang out, hobnob, rub elbows with deal makers, people that can make things happen for them. Perkins says when you're on stage, you have the microphone. You have the power. But in places like the hotel bar, where a famous comedian is talking with a woman in a suit just a few feet away from us, it's trickier for him.

LACEY: The social aspect of all of this I find so much harder than the actual, like, comedy side. That dynamic is so new. I'm, like, I don't know how to do this.

LIMBONG: Sometimes you don't have to do anything. Earlier in the day at that same bar, I was interviewing New Face comedian Shane Gillis when Bobby Kelly interrupted. Kelly's an established comedian, huge in the New York scene, and he told Gillis he'd seen a set of his on Facebook.

SHANE GILLIS: Did you like it?

BOBBY KELLY: I really liked it.

GILLIS: Really?

KELLY: You're very funny, dude.

GILLIS: Thank you very much, man.

KELLY: I mean, I wanted to hate it.

GILLIS: Wow, man.

KELLY: I swear to god, I just watched it - I watched it on my vacation in the woods. Your stupid face came up, and it was really - this guy's one of the hot new guys...

GILLIS: You're a hot guy.

KELLY: ...Even though he looks like he's 48.

GILLIS: (Laughter) I'll see you, man. That means a lot. That was Bobby Kelly, and pretty sure he hated me. So that's nice (laughter).

LIMBONG: So sure, these sets are only six minutes. Now you, me and other comedy fans get to wait to see what these comics do with the rest of their time.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News, Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.