For a fortnight each year, gales of laughter from Montreal blow away Canada's political ills ...

Have you ever noticed how cities the world over these days are eagerly embracing the media as a means of urban regeneration or international image-building? Montreal is in on the act, except that it's going for the jocular. For a full fortnight every year Canada's second city becomes the Cannes of Comedy, when it is invaded by purveyors of humour in every form imaginable - and some that defy the imagination.

You've probably seen performances from the Just For Laughs Festival on Channel 4, which has managed to produce a series from this event for the last eight years. It has relinquished the rights this year to the new kid on the block, Channel 5, which has struck up a co-production deal with the Paramount Comedy Channel.

The latest festival, which finishes today, is the 15th, a milestone that has just been commemorated by a series of celebratory features in The Hollywood Reporter. Commanding any coverage in Tinsel Town's trade rag gladdens the festival organisers, who lure hot young stand-ups to the banks of the St Lawrence river every summer with the tantalising promise that top execs from the major US television networks and some of the big movie studios will be there to scout for talent. More than 30 development deals have been hammered out here in the last two years, they say. Of course few aspiring, or even fairly successful, comedians would own up to having crossed the Atlantic for that careerist purpose. Britain's own Ben Elton got slightly irritated when the Montreal Gazette suggested that was his main motivation for launching a double assault on audiences with his play Silly Cow and his own one-man stand-up show Alone.

"They can't believe anyone would simply want to come to Canada - what a sad cultural cringe!" he told me later. His denial was rendered somewhat less convincing by the fact that we were chatting at around 2am in the lounge of the Delta Hotel, where most of the industry folk in town hang out to network.

Not everyone is here to schmooze with the star-makers. Many ordinary folk come to Montreal from across Canada, and even from parts of the US as well, just for laughs. Andy Nulman, chief executive of the festival (which is a private corporation) says his operating credo has always been "to ensure that the industry is taken care of and given what it wants without jeopardising the public's enjoyment of the event".

Nulman, who darts around the downtown district for the duration of the festival in various attention-seeking attires - including a red and white Montreal Canucks ice-hockey shirt - once had a stab at being a stand-up himself when he was a reporter on a now-defunct Sunday newspaper. But he died on stage - or, rather, seriously wished he had. "I'm not exaggerating when I tell you I contemplated suicide," he says, recalling his painful rejection by the audience.

But it all worked out beautifully for him. Being boss of a comedy festival has turned out to be a fairly lucrative pursuit, plus he gets the chance to revel in his own brief stand-up routine every time he's introducing the real performers. It plainly provides some balm for any emotional scars he still carries.

Nulman is an endangered species in this part of the world - an Anglophone Quebecer who is determined to stand up to his Francophone neighbours and try to stop them tearing "la belle province" out of the Canadian confederation. When the separatist Parti Quebecois erected a statue last week to commemorate the 30th anniversary of General de Gaulle's provocative "vivre le Quebec libre" declaration, Nulman hit back on stage with a few piercing comic rejoinders. The audience - all apparently fellow Anglophones - lapped it up. The Quebecois tend to flock to the first week of the festival, which is devoted to French fare. Some also take in English acts, but those who do must find it a turn-off to watch an endless succession of American stand-ups mocking the way they speak. (Some British comedians also go for cheap laughs with the same sad tactic).

Yet Nulman contends that Just For Laughs - or Juste Pour Rire, as the Francophones prefer - provides a vital annual safety valve for this divided province. "The political tensions in Montreal melt away during this fortnight," he says.

The city certainly seems to embrace the event, which these days puts Montreal on the map as much as its annual jazz festival. Television highlights are transmitted in more than 20 countries around the world. Leading comedians who come back to perform at the height of their fame - notably Roseanne Barr and Dennis Leary this year - say they've been drawn back by the Montreal audiences and by the city itself. Although many of them mock it, the Frenchness of Quebec is clearly one of the factors that attract monoglot Americans, who simply have nothing like it, even in Louisianan