‘Weeds are as Important as Trees’: Where Now for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) is at a crossroads. Its administration could continue to prioritise commercial aims and grow as an international showcase of mainstream performance comedy. On the other hand it could restructure and re-engage with participants in an effort to encourage risk-taking and invite audiences to feel part of something bigger than a corporate entertainment package. If it does not adopt the latter approach, the festival will lose its reputation as a breeding ground for edgy comedy writing and performance and will become a one-stop-shop for shows designed to attract the greatest box-office returns.

The first Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) took place in 1987. A new generation of writers and performers was emerging but there were few opportunities for them in radio or television. FM radio was not yet commercial. The shows that drove the comedy boom in commercial television, Comedy Company and Fast Forward, drew on the talent pool being developed onstage in Melbourne, but they weren’t established until the following year. In 1987 the people who would become FM radio stars and would make top-rating TV shows were working for peanuts in sweaty little theatre restaurants all over the inner north; trying out material, collaborating in different combinations, experimenting with characters and voices, and taking risks in front of local audiences. The festival showcased this talent and put the electronic media on notice.

In July 1986 the Cain government approved a grant supported by the chairman of the Victorian Tourism Commission, Don Dunstan, to help establish the new festival.[1] Ten years earlier, John Pinder, the man credited with creating the festival, had established the Last Laugh Theatre, Restaurant and Zoo, a comedy venue in Collingwood.[2] The MICF emerged from the anti-establishment theatrical traditions of the Last Laugh and other venues including the Pram Factory, La Mama, university revue shows and Circus Oz.[3] A ticket to the Last Laugh in those days offered dinner and a show featuring young performers, including Wendy Harmer, Richard Stubbs, Peter Moon, Maryanne Fahey, Jane Turner, Lynda Gibson, Brian Nankervis and Ian McFadyen. Circus Oz acts appeared regularly, as did sketches by performers who had graduated from university revue shows, notably University of Melbourne’s Architecture Revue starring Rod Quantock, Mary Keneally and Steve Blackburn.[4] The Last Laugh presented a weekly interactive soap opera spoof called Let the Blood Run Free. At the end of each ‘episode’ audience members determined the direction of the storyline for the following week’s show. Others, including Max Gillies, Rod Quantock and Red Symons, also performed as part of the politically engaged ensemble-based collectives of the Pram Factory and La Mama theatre.[5]

In Shane Maloney’s words, the festival was also set up to recognise ‘an existing reservoir of absurdity and playfulness’ in the wider Melbourne community. It was designed as a participatory community festa that tapped into a readily available pool of local talent and explored a range of comedic forms. Maloney was a cultural officer with the City of Melbourne in the first year of the festival and was placed on secondment to help plan the program. He soon became the festival’s general manager. He is now best known as the author of the Murray Whelan novels, begun in 1994. He says the idea behind the festival wasn’t to generate shows with ‘people in Melbourne watching people telling them jokes’; it was instead a conceptual umbrella erected over the city ‘giving people a licence to be silly’. Rod Quantock uses similar language when describing his famous bus tours in which audience members were supplied with Groucho Marx masks and taken on a tour of Melbourne by Quantock and his rubber chicken called Trevor. ‘I just open doors to them and say, “Well, you can now be silly. Or you can misbehave or you can trespass.” ’[6] This spirit of public cheek was one of the key objectives around which the festival was designed.

When it was launched on April Fool’s Day in 1987, the festival invited wit from across the general Melbourne community. The Age released a fake front page. The chief magistrate opened his court for a mock trial involving local performers and members of the public. The festival hired two men to wander around Melbourne dressed as Melbourne City Council workers and scavenge in rubbish bins for food. Unlike today, stand-up comedy shows were not the major component of the festival. The MICF’s first international guests were Peter Cook, the UK circus troupe Ra Ra Zoo, poet Roger McGough and, as advertised in the Age, ‘a stand up comic’ named Peter McCarthy.[7] The MICF ran an evening of readings called ‘Humourists Read Humourists’, which, in its first year, featured Cook reading J.B. Morton, Barry Humphries reading from the Sandy Stone monologues, and Ernie Dingo reading from the real diaries of a colonial administrator discussing indigenous populations during settlement.

‘I love them but I’m frightened’

Fast-forward into the festival eleven years and I’m watching a show I’m finding difficult to categorise. Think Mornings with Kerry Ann or Sunrise, only live onstage and hosted by two emotionally stunted plus-size women crammed into too-tight taffeta party frocks. Shockingly overbearing, they cross live to their paedophilic musical director and a cardboard weatherman called Alphonso the Room Temperature Pony. The act is Miss Itchy’s Crème de Menthe Breakfast Show and the year is 1998. Its weird hosts are Miss Gerda (played by Linda Haggar) and Miss Candy Girl (Fahey Younger). Coming up next is a song from the fabulous Children without Lips Choir. There’s a segment called ‘Sponsor a Private School Child’ that begins with a presenter declaring, ‘Well, it breaks my heart to see kids like Tarquin, Myfanwy and Fleur.’ There’s a discussion between festival director Susan Provan and Jesus Christ, and a celebrity interview (hyped as the Queen Mother’s favourite segment) called ‘Fuckin’ Cunt in a Cage’. The audience around me is divided into people laughing hysterically or frozen in shock. The most common response to Miss Itchy’s show was, according to Haggar and Younger, ‘I love them but I’m frightened’. The show won the inaugural Barry Award (then the Stella award), now the most highly sought-after award at the festival.[8] Miss Itchy’s show got me hooked on the MICF.

My perspective on the festival’s current status in Australian culture is shaped by my experience as a regular audience member, a participant (as a director and/or writer of several shows since 2003) and an avid consumer of comedic writing and performance. There is no substantial documented historical account of the MICF and it is not my intention to attempt one here. In my view, however, the festival administration’s current approach to its participants and its potential audiences requires close analysis.

The Current Tensions: Tourism versus Performance Hub

These days the MICF is a large and commercially successful corporate institution that forms a significant part of what is now a comedy industry in Australia. The festival’s general manager, Virginia Lovett, declares in the 2010 post-festival press release:

“We are looking forward to an even bigger Festival next year to celebrate our 25th anniversary. With the ongoing support of the government and corporate supporters the Melbourne International Comedy Festival will continue to be a major cultural tourism destination in Autumn as well as providing a hub for performers [sic] development.”[9]

This first vision—that of an even bigger festival that will, with corporate support, develop Melbourne into a tourism destination—is, I suggest, being realised at the expense of the latter goal of providing a hub in which festival participants can develop cutting-edge, funny, interesting and relevant work.

Despite its focus on the corporate, the festival’s famous grassroots beginnings continue to be idealised. Its application process, for instance, is ostensibly democratic. The festival is not curated; anybody who registers on time and pays the fee is officially part of the festival’s program, and the idea that ‘anyone can make a go of it’ remains central to the narrative of the festival administration.[10] Festival director Susan Provan advises first-time participants to have a car they can sell if things go wrong.[11] The implication is that although getting through the comedy festival without going broke is a good outcome, the great results are obvious and can be seen by everybody on our television screens. The assumption that performers will have a car to sell in the first place is worth examining. Regardless, the idea that an independent production can rise to prominence from obscurity, as many of Australia’s television comedy performers have in the past, is an appealing narrative for performers with the self-belief and financial support to rise to the challenge and make the most of a system set up to benefit competition. It is, however, as I hope to demonstrate here, an idea that runs into trouble when the application process is opaque and confusing.

The Kennett Legacy

Over the years the festival’s fight for financial survival has compromised its pursuit of that original aim of encouraging communal cheek. The festival board, director and staff have fought for funding from its inception and its administration has survived several financial crises.[12] Shane Maloney remembers that, even after the success of the first festival, when the Labor state government and Melbourne City Council provided funding, it was difficult to attract corporate sponsors for what was thought to be a risky financial venture. The festival continued without the involvement of one of its founders, John Pinder, who left in the 1990s to work in Sydney. In 1994 Susan Provan was appointed festival director. Maloney remembers the precarious position the festival was in due to government pressure on arts organisations in Victoria at the time of Provan’s appointment. For all its inventiveness and inspiration, the festival needed management that answered to the government’s ‘obsession with economic viability’. Jeff Kennett was celebrated for his support of the arts, particularly in regional areas[13], but his government’s ‘industry approach’ has been described as shifting the perceived value of art away from an appreciation of ‘cultural capital’ towards a focus on economic capital.[14] The projects and companies awarded funding were ‘selected according to their capacity to become self-supporting, or to generate revenue for the polity—such as encouraging tourism or providing content for communications’.[15] The Kennett government’s Arts 21 policy and its focus on the commercial shaped the art that was being produced at the time. Thus Chunky Move, selected by competitive tender to become Victoria’s central dance company, was seen by some as ‘no longer just a contemporary dance company, but a concrete manifestation of the industry and its mutual interlocking with cultural tourism’.[16] The ‘economic capital’ model still permeates the MICF’s approach, and its role as a tourist hub remains central to its publically stated objectives.

Similar debates are taking place in the United Kingdom at the moment as artists face funding cuts and find themselves defending their art in purely economic terms.[17] Charlotte Higgins argued in an article entitled ‘In the complex ecosystem of British arts, weeds are as important as trees’ that politicians should not ‘underestimate the complexity and delicacy of the ecosystem’ that delivers the National Theatre on the one hand and the free Forest Fringe on the other.[18] Where ‘comedy’ sits in this ecosystem of trees and weeds is not addressed. John Kelly, another UK journalist, suggests, however, that ‘escapist’ entertainment is the one form of art that survives economic rationalist funding models.[19] Just weeks before the November 2010 Victorian election, then premier John Brumby pledged an injection of $4 million into the MICF over four years. This has not, so far, been matched by Premier Ted Baillieu, who was once a member of the festival board.[20] The battle for economic survival may not be over yet.

Maloney recalls that, during the Kennett era, the festival edged away from its grassroots beginnings and became oriented towards cheap, no-frills stand-up acts. In the 1990s, stand-up comedy line-ups pushed rock’n’roll out of pubs and emerged as the dominant format for festival shows. Keen to establish itself as a commercially viable institution, the festival established relationships with the television networks. The Comedy Festival Gala, Good News Week and The Big Gig grew out of those relationships. TV-friendly formats including music acts and skit-based comedy were beamed into people’s homes and local comedians became household names. According to Tony Martin, however, The Big Gig was called ‘The Night of a Thousand Catchphrases’ by its detractors at the time, and even today the television branding of the festival has not broken free from the comedy line-up format.[21] The results are uninspiring and do not reflect the creativity that exists in comedy-performance communities.

Risk Taking: The Possibilities Presented by the MICF

The fact that the festival continues to justify its existence in terms of its economic capital creates a competitive, industry-focused, risk-averse culture that prioritises box office over creativity. The responsive, participatory model of the inaugural festival, and the decision to embrace diverse artistic forms such as poetry, street performance and literary readings, are what made the festival unique and exciting. Today, the possible formats for comedic experimentation are expanding as technology develops and communities find new ways of connecting. In this way, says Lyn Gardner, festivals need to be

“distinctive, local and daring. That means not just work that travels from one festival to another on an international merry-go-round, but a genuine engagement with a region’s artists, audiences and issues. Festivals also have to be an opportunity for risk-taking.”[22]

In Australia, small comedy communities are blossoming outside the festival, where risks can be taken. Within the festival, writers and performers are experimenting too, pushing the boundaries of the established comedy festival norm, in spite of the limitations of their timeslots, venues, and budgets. If the festival focused more on nurturing those instincts and engaging directly with the two groups on whom it relies for bums on seats—the audience and the participants—the Melbourne International Comedy Festival would truly become, as its press release claims, one of the great comedy festivals in the world.

Behind the Scenes: The Experience of Festival Participants

The structure of the festival is centralised and has not changed, as far as I can tell, since I was sitting in the audience watching Miss Itchy in 1998. Susan Provan has been festival director since 1994. No guest programmers or rotating creative directors have been appointed to ensure a responsive and creatively progressive festival program. Positions on the festival board are fixed at a maximum term of eight years. Although there are usually two comedians on the board, this number has varied and the positions are not elected but appointed at the discretion of the board and senior staff (including the director) in consultation with, according to Director Susan Provan, ‘senior members of the local producing comedy fraternity’. [23] This structure has not been publically examined since it was established.

The application processes for festival participants are unclear and divisive. In order to stage a show, applicants have to apply through the festival’s website by the end of November. They pay a registration fee[24] and submit final show listings (including images) for printing in the program guide, which comes out about five months later. Requiring a five-month lead-time fails to take into account the probability that creative timelines—especially those involving comedy—might require revision and reinvention in order to remain relevant and topical. Most shows have not fully taken shape five months before the festival—that’s exactly when writers and performers are busy honing their material. As a result, the listings in the guide often look the same: headshots of comedians doing a ‘what’s with that?’ face with their hands on their hips next to some media quotes about their previous show. Inevitably, given the amount of work required to get the application together, those with management representation or their own producers or publicists are better off than those who are doing it all themselves.

The question of which shows get to perform in which venues is critically important to festival participants. In addition to its role as the discretionary decision-maker on this issue, however, the festival is a venue manager for some of the venues being allocated.[25] Participants who successfully apply for festival-managed venues get a booking system, venue staff[26], and, in the case of the Town Hall precinct venues, a centralised location and a listing on ‘the Town Hall chalkboard’. The Melbourne Town Hall (the festival hub) has a chalkboard out the front that provides a constantly updated listing of what’s on next and which shows have just sold out. The board does not list all festival shows, only those in the Town Hall precinct, almost all of which are venues managed by the festival. These festival hub venues are at the greatest advantage—Trades Hall (now managed by the festival)[27] and other satellite venues managed independently are geographically isolated. There was even a rumour that the festival would provide a bus to move punters between venues.[28] General manager Virginia Lovett has denied there was a promise to provide a bus, pointing out that, far from abandoning satellite venues, the MICF ‘stepped in at the eleventh hour’ to ensure Trades Hall venue’s survival.[29] Yet so long as the process for procuring festival-managed venues is so mysterious and the procuring of them so profoundly affects a show’s ability to promote itself, ease of access by the public and the extent of administrative support, there will be a perception that shows in non-festival-managed venues are secondclass.[30]

The festival also plays a third role in the venue allocation process: each year, the MICF ‘presents’ international acts for Melbourne audiences.[31] In other words, the festival acts as promoter, producer, and venue manager for the biggest acts in town. As a result, independently produced shows are in competition with the festival for venue space, press coverage and audiences. The conflicting roles of the festival create frustration and suspicion within the comedy community.[32] Matt Quartermaine wrote on the Scrivener’s Fancy blog in March 2010:

“The cards are also stacked against the local acts, who must deal with the ‘We can see you guys anytime, so we’re going to one of the foreign acts’ syndrome. Raising the level of difficulty is that the Melbourne International Comedy Festival actually pays to bring some of the overseas comedians to the city and promotes them, presumably using some of the fees paid by the local shows.”

Director Susan Provan has denied the implication that the festival’s support of international acts comes at the expense of local performers, claiming that it works the other way around. ‘We don’t subsidise the overseas artists, the overseas artists subsidise the whole comedy festival program,’ she says. ‘That’s how we pay for Raw Comedy, Class Clowns, Jeeze Louise, Victorian regional and national tours, forums, workshops, all the programs that go into developing local comedians.’[33] Without paid international guests, says Provan, local comedians and audiences wouldn’t have a festival to participate in at all. The fact that the festival plays the conflicting roles of administrator charged with discretionary decisions about venues as well as those of producer and venue manager is separate from that of whether international acts should be supported. The role of producer for these shows could be outsourced, or a grants program could be set up to encourage local producers to bring out international guests.

The capacity a show has to attract media coverage creates another division between well-resourced shows and smaller independent productions. Until late last year, the Age was a long-term media sponsor of the festival, providing its program guide free with the newspaper.[34] Perhaps as a consequence of this, the Herald Sun—Melbourne’s other daily newspaper, which has a much wider readership—generally didn’t review festival shows at all. So in order to get a review anywhere other than online or in the street press, a festival show needed to be reviewed in the Age. The limited review space available in the paper made the process of being reviewed highly competitive. In this context, independent producers and performers, in the face of increasing costs, simply couldn’t compete with professional publicity campaigns.[35]

In an effort to combat the perceived domination of media coverage by festival-produced acts, an anonymous full-page advertisement appeared on the back cover of ‘The EG’ in the Age in 2007. The advertisement mentioned several independent productions that ordinary punters might not have read about and encouraged readers to ’take a chance on a new artist or a new venue’.[36] In recent years the Age reviewed a range of shows, careful not to focus too heavily on international performers or larger shows. In addition, its comedy blog has been wide-ranging and democratic, attracting heated debates and long comment threads with contributions from comedy fans and comedians alike. The relationship between the Age and the festival has secured continuous media support for the festival, but the dominance of the newspaper in presenting the festival to Victorians has sometimes meant that the priorities of the festival have been canvassed in its pages. In December last year, the festival announced a new partnership with the Herald Sun for the first time since Susan Provan’s appointment as director. The nature of the partnership is not yet clear, although there has been no indication of a substantive change in approach.[37] Each of these sponsorship agreements has been between a single newspaper and the festival, with no recourse for participants who wish to challenge the paper’s market domination. Sponsorship agreements like these worked well for both parties when the festival was finding its feet. Today the festival is large and expanding and participants and audiences deserve media coverage unfettered by the questions of impartiality that are inevitably raised by such corporate deals.

The infrastructure of the MICF has not adapted to its growing status as one of the central bodies associated with comedy in Australia. As a consequence, the contradictions outlined above have become more obvious. There is no other comedy festival in Australia to rival Melbourne’s. There is not a well-financed comedy TV network in Australia like the US Comedy Channel that produces locally made high-quality comedy television. Nor is there a lively year-round comedy scene here to rival the festival. Last year Rod Quantock bravely came out and said something comedians have been muttering for years: the MICF killed Melbourne’s comedy scene. ‘It’s almost impossible to get any live work now, there are no venues any more,’ he said. ‘The festival destroyed live comedy in Melbourne to a great degree.’ Ironically, Quantock’s words were printed in a glossy magazine feature article about comedians in The (Melbourne) Magazine.[38] The comedians—all of them represented by the comedy agency Token Artists—are featured in glamour shots as (legitimate) Melbourne celebrities. Most of them have appeared on national television. The media’s conflation of ‘comedy’ with television and celebrity in this way again situates the festival at the centre of the ‘comedy industry’, a position the festival seems keen to occupy.

‘Be Funny!’: Finding the Cutting Edge within the Festival

Comedy has moved on from 1990s formats and is now responding to a different world. Performers and comedians at the festival are pushing boundaries every night. You get the feeling they might do something even more remarkable if only the festival weren’t so geared towards performance-based comedy designed to get reviews, awards, television opportunities and bums-on-seats. Last year’s festival program boasted many excellent shows imbued with the same inventive spirit I enjoyed so much when I first saw Miss Itchy in 1998. Asher Treleaven’s show opened with him, a large-limbed fidgety blond man in a white suit manically popping pills and plunging his face into an oxygen mask to catch his breath. He delivered the most devastating deconstruction of Australian homophobia I’ve ever witnessed.[39] Very late at night in a tiny room below the Town Hall, a lanky man with an oily Mohawk clambered out of a refrigerator to perform, with a collection of found objects, what amounted to a gentle, witty environmental manifesto.[40] There was an interactive history lesson,[41] an awkward poet laureate[42] and a one-man play about a regional Victorian football team forced to overcome its racism when faced with an asylum-seeking team-mate.[43] There was physical comedy, puppetry, improvisation, theatre, stand-up, mime and burlesque.

Over the last fifteen years the festival has also set up programs to encourage diversity and community contribution. In 1995 a women’s comedy line-up called Upfront began (with the help of Miss Itchy) and continues today alongside the Jeez Louise women in comedy workshops. In 1996 the Class Clowns program was established to encourage school-age comedians and RAW Comedy began, becoming immediately popular and introducing amateur comedians including Nelly Thomas, Hannah Gadsby, Josh Thomas and Nick Sun to the comedy stage. The Roadshow program, designed to bring the festival to regional Victorians, was set up two years later, and the Deadly Funny competition has been showcasing indigenous comics since 2004. These programs were desperately needed and have provided support to some fabulous comedians. Without them, the boom the festival has experienced (both in terms of audience and participant figures) would not have happened; nor would the festival be as diverse as it is. The festival’s support for these initiatives under the leadership of Susan Provan is commendable. It would be unfortunate, however, if the existence of the programs gave the impression that the work of diversifying and expanding the reach of the festival has been done.

It’s easy enough to find samples of today’s burgeoning grassroots comedy communities in the darker corners of the festival. There are comedy showcases at the Festival Club, for example, which are festival-backed events featuring a range of acts doing five- to ten-minute slots. From 11.30 p.m. on Tuesday nights at the Festival Club in 2010, the Last Tuesday Society took over the HiFi Bar.[44] Usually based in inner-city Melbourne bars once a month, Last Tuesday is billed on its website as ‘a Melbourne based gathering, allowing performers of all styles and persuasions to try out new and exciting pieces of work in the presence of other interested theatre practitioners’.[45] Writer-performer Thomas Henning, in a passionate piece on the singular daring of the Last Tuesday Society, quotes Glen Walton of the Suitcase Royale, saying:

“Too often a performer can be pressured into performing a ‘perfect run’ all the time and not allow for the natural deviations that can occur when a performance can be fluid and not locked to a preconceived notion of ‘professional theatre practice’.”[46]

The inventive spirit of the Last Tuesday Society was refreshing, if unexpected by festival audience members. A man in a suit holding a beer bellowed ‘be funny!’ to Red Bastard, a sweaty, wriggling misanthrope covered almost entirely in red lycra with a huge exercise ball as a stomach onto which he dove and bounced, shouting and wobbling about like an angry Tellytubby. His horny audience-participation session climaxed with a sixty-year-old bespectacled gentleman in the audience attempting unsuccessfully to remove his arm from Red Bastard’s giant lycra anus. The audience that night was part of the atmosphere—which Henning describes as fear—that helped shape the evening. Walton considers the audience very much a part of the Last Tuesday performances. He says they create ‘an environment where the audience is let in on the action and treated as a participant in an event, rather than a viewer of a spectacle’.[47] One of the best things about Last Tuesday, says Henning, is that it saves ‘the audience from getting stuck in front of an unceasing, mind-numbing ordeal of limp entertainment’. In this sense, for some segments of the audience, the act was not what they expected of the festival. Perhaps it should be, or at least it shouldn’t be such a surprise when it happens.

Asked about the response of the festival crowd to those Last Tuesday Society nights, Higgins told Henning, ‘We’re too funny to be art, and then in the comedy festival we found we were to arty to be funny.’[48]

Comedy pin-up boys Bill Hicks and Andy Kaufman, who continue to influence writers and performers, were shocking and often unpopular during the periods when they were performing what is now regarded as their best work. Not everybody will enjoy everything the Last Tuesday Society presents, just as not everybody liked Miss Itchy, but this is exactly the kind of inventive comedic performance that needs to be embraced by the festival’s central program and celebrated as part of its outlook.

Connecting Comedy Communities beyond the Festival

When the festival started it was an alternative to mainstream entertainment and a place where talent and humour could be part of a workable society run by local communities rather than corporations. People were encouraged to infiltrate civic institutions such as courts, newspapers and local councils. Now the festival is itself an institution. Outside the constraints of the festival program, particularly online, comedy communities are engaged in just the kind of cheek and mischief the MICF was set up to tap into. The MICF has no significant online content. There is a capacity for participants to add videos to the online program, and the festival has an iPhone app, but no attempt has been made to embrace the various forms of online comedy that are happening in Australia and abroad.

In April 2007 American comedian Will Ferrell launched the website Funny Or Die when a video of his went viral.[49] Funny Or Die—now owned partly by HBO—presents videos including the Drunk History series. Drunk History features narrators such as comedian Jen Kirkman recounting great moments in American history while actually drunk. In one case, due to Kirkman’s inebriation, the actors re-enacting her story are blighted by a persistent case of the hiccups. On YouTube, Maria Bamford’s devastatingly funny portrayal of her own nervous breakdown, The Maria Bamford Show, is a TV series format made for the internet.[50] The BBC’s website features videos such as the unassuming No More Women word game videos by Mark Watson, Tim Key and Alex Horne. When comedian Ross Noble joined Twitter last year, he started a tradition called Bombard Tuesday, wherein he encouraged his followers to send silly questions to targeted Twitter accounts. Hence British Labour MP Kerry McCarthy suddenly found herself answering hundreds of questions, including ‘Where do you stand with regards to using armadillo shells as both a fashion accessory and safety head-gear?’[51]

There are several online comedy successes in Australia. The Beached Az viral video has edged its way onto ABC television. Lou Sanz’s blog-writing and video work includes a pilot episode of a sitcom starring many MICF performers.[52] Anne Edmonds writes and performs video content both in and out of character, my personal favourite being her video about the persecution of racists in Australia starring the deeply earnest Raylene the Racist. The Bedroom Philosopher (Justin Haezelwood) has produced several popular music videos including Northcote (I’m so Hungover), which was adapted by Metlink as part of an online marketing campaign. Podcasts The Sweetest Plum, Boxcutters, and Josh Thomas and Friend have found new audiences and even corporate support.[53] There are also popular comedy blogs and review sites. Chortle, the comedy review site run out of the United Kingdom, attracts 120,000 unique visitors every month. In Melbourne, in response to the undersupply of review space in the Age, two Australian review sites—The Groggy Squirrel and The Pun—generate an impressively thorough list of reviews during the festival and beyond.

The Wheeler Centre and the Fringe Festival attract some non-stand-up comedic work. Locally produced collaborative events such as the Last Tuesday Society, the political comedy night Political Asylum, The Wrong Night, Nelly Thomas’s Character Comedy line-ups, the music appreciation gigs Championship Vinyl and even the recently established Women of Letters gatherings are designed to connect to loyal audiences who appreciate comedy. At the end of the Women of Letters events—spoken-word gatherings in which performers read letters based around a theme—each guest is given an aerogram, a pen and a stamp to write their own letter. The involvement of the audience in the theme of the evening is often a feature of these events. Unfortunately, the audience that is so ready to pay money to see festival shows and to review them for the love of it on user-generated websites and blogs, does not enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the festival in the way Lyn Gardner suggests occurs with the most successful festivals.

There’s still room for us to grow

Susan Provan was quoted in 2008 saying ‘the Edinburgh Fringe has 2000 shows and one million ticket sales, so there’s still room for us to grow’.[54] The festival’s ambition to expand should be tempered by a regard for quality and an acknowledgement of its current structural inequities. Edinburgh’s structure is democratic and clearly explained (there is a series of ‘How to’ podcasts on their website). The festival is, like Melbourne’s, uncurated. It is run by an independent charity called the Festival Fringe Society. Its website declares that:

“The Festival Fringe Society does not get involved in production, run any venues or pay any fees to artists, and no single individual or committee determines who can or cannot perform at the Fringe. There are also opportunities for buskers, street performers and market traders to participate in our street events and for one-off gigs throughout August.”[55]

Melbourne’s decision to offer some kind of financial support to international guests makes sense in comparison to Edinburgh, given that Melbourne is a day’s flight away from most international comedians and does not provide the same networking opportunities.[56] Outsourcing the role of producer for the international acts and the role of venue management to independent organisations would go some way towards overcoming participant dissatisfaction with current practices and would allow the festival to concentrate on the quality of its programs and creative partnerships. If the MICF must continue to support international guests with its own resources, it should establish clearer guidelines in consultation with participants. Otherwise these structures combined with the longevity of Provan’s directorship will continue to perpetuate the sense, keenly felt by the comedy-performance community, of a closed shop. Comedic daring and creative innovation are very much part of the festival’s success, but the focus on ‘making it’ (into a good timeslot, a good venue, getting a good review, meeting the requirements of a television gala format) is in danger of leading the festival away from its base. Audiences—whose central experience of the festival is through the program guide, the television specials and the sponsoring newspaper—will miss out.


  1. Kate Nancarrow, ‘Moments in Time—March 1987: The First Melbourne International Comedy Festival’, The (Melbourne) Magazine, February 2008.
  2. Pinder, described as the ‘Sydney Greenstreet of Melbourne comedy’ at the time, set up the festival with promoters Clifford Hocking, Greg Hocking, Tim Woods and others, some of whom remained in management positions until Susan Provan’s appointment in 1994: Shane Maloney, ‘Cook’s Tour’, Bulletin with Newsweek, 18 December 2007, pp. 28–32.
  3. Shane Maloney, interview, 2010. Maloney recalls that when patrons complained about the food, Roger Evans, the manager at time, emerged from out the back and sucked up the offending meal with a vacuum cleaner.
  4. An Architecture Revue alumnus from this era who abandoned his pursuit of a career in comedy is Victorian Premier and arts minister Ted Baillieu: Paul Austin, Farrah Tomazin and David Rood, ‘Going the distance’, Age, 6 November, 2010.
  5. Reflections on the history of the Pram Factory, http://www.pramfactory.com/.
  6. Rod Quantock, Talking Heads, ABC1, 24 October 2005. Transcript online, http://www.abc.net.au/talkingheads/txt/s1486592.htm.
  7. ‘What’s a nice paper like ours doing in hands like these?’, Age ‘Diary Column’, 16 March 1987.
  8. Miss Itchy also won the inaugural Piece of Wood Award. Known as the award for the comic’s comic, the prize is a piece of wood. Given to Miss Itchy by Greg Fleet, it has been passed from comic to comic ever since. When presented with the Piece of Wood Award, tradition dictates one must bite it.
  9. Melbourne International Comedy Festival media release, ‘Record attendance for major Melbourne event’, 11 June 2010.
  10. New Zealanders and Australians with citizenship or permanent residency can apply. International guests require the approval of the festival director.
  11. Gabriella Coslovich, ‘Funny money only for jumbo acts’, Age, 9 April 2006.
  12. Daniel Ziffer, ‘Laughs dry up as gloom hits festival’, Age, 2 April 2008. See also the cancellation of The World’s Funniest Island Festival in Sydney in 2010: Louise Hall and Samantha Selinger-Morris, ‘Cockatoo Island festival of comedy falls flat’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 2010.
  13. Robin Usher, ‘Kennett’s art legacy’, Age, 12 October 1999.
  14. Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson ‘Turning Victoria into Cultural Capital: Victorian Arts Policy 1992–1999’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 90 (2007), pp. 123–32.
  15. Glow and Johanson, ‘Turning Victoria into Cultural Capital’.
  16. Glow and Johanson, ‘Turning Victoria into Cultural Capital’.
  17. See for instance http://supportthearts.co.uk/economy.
  18. Charlotte Higgins, ‘In the complex ecosystem of British arts, weeds are as important as trees’, Guardian, 28 September 2010.
  19. John Kelly, ‘Do hard times equal good art?’, BBC News Magazine, 6 October 2010.
  20. Raymond Gill, ‘Labor pledges stronger creative-industry links’, the Age, 26 November 2010.
  21. On the early days of the festival, Martin has written: ‘Or, as we called it, “The Night of a Thousand Catchphrases”, probably because we were the only act left off the poster (“Don’t worry, we’re there,” Tom Gleisner reassured me. “We’re ‘and many more’ ” ’). Tony Martin, ‘Party like it’s 1991’, Scrivener’s Fancy, http://thescrivenersfancy.com/scarcely-relevant/2010/03/31/party-like-its-1991.aspx.
  22. Lyn Gardner, ‘Open season for the arts festival’, Guardian, 19 April, 2010.
  23. Interview with Susan Provan, December 2010.
  24. To register to have a show in this year’s festival cost local participants $500. The fee for international applicants is $650. The cost of producing a show generally runs into the thousands.
  25. In 2011, the festival-managed venues are Melbourne Town Hall venues, Forum Theatre venues, RMIT Capitol Theatre, HiFi Bar, Victoria Hotel, Portland Hotel, Swiss House, Imperial Hotel, The Bosco, Roxanne, Arthur’s Bar (at Rosati) and Trades Hall.
  26. The agreement includes a ‘Venue Guarantee fee’ (25 per cent of the net box office generated by the production or a set fee per venue, whichever is greater). The production gets the use of the venue, a basic lighting rig, sound equipment, theatre infrastructure, one technical stage manager, a front of house manager, box office management, technical rehearsal time and access to high-exposure marketing opportunities. These details are available on the festival’s website within the application period or afterwards, if you are registered: http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2011/registration/login/.
  27. Mel Campbell, ‘Bella Union to Surrender Comedy @ Trades’, Enthusiast, 24 November, 2010, http://www.theenthusiast.com.au/archives/2009/bella-union-to-surrender-comedy-trades/.
  28. Karl Quinn, ‘ “Broken promises” anger Trades Hall comedians’, Age, 6 April 2010.
  29. Karl Quinn, ‘Festival rejects Trades Hall claim’, Age, 7 April 2010.
  30. Many shows in festival-managed venues are professionally managed. Almost all the acts represented by Token in 2010, for example, were in festival-managed venues.
  31. Due to the timing of the American pilot season, procuring guests from the United States has been difficult in recent years. Daniel Kitson, the Pyjama Men and Maria Bamford are just a few previous festival guests whose influence on comedy in Australia can still be felt.
  32. I spoke to a handful of festival participants while researching this essay. None was prepared to speak on the record.
  33. Gabriella Coslovich, ‘Funny money only for jumbo acts’, Age, 9 April 2010.
  34. Radio station 774 ABC Melbourne was also a sponsor, although it didn’t review shows, whereas the Age did.
  35. The cost of putting on a comedy show at a festival is rising everywhere. See Eleanor Turney, ‘Who can afford to perform at the Edinburgh Festival?’, the Guardian’s Theatre Blog, 26 April 2010.
  36. There was speculation the anonymous advertiser was Daniel Kitson, whose appearances at the festival were once produced by the festival but are now presented independently. Kitson has never claimed the advertisement as his own: the Age blog, http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/the-winners-of-the-comedy-festival-are-133/2008/04/11/1207856836953.html?page=2.
  37. When questioned on this, Susan Provan said, ‘We basically just have a new media partner’, citing the broader readership of the paper as a reason for the change.
  38. The (Melbourne) Magazine, April 2010
  39. Treleaven has been nominated twice for the festival’s Barry Award and, for Secret Door, he won the Age Critics Award.
  40. The Birdmann (Trent Baumann), Birdmannia.
  41. Andrew McClelland, Andrew McClelland’s somewhat Accurate History of the Fall of the Roman Empire.
  42. Poet Laureate Telia Nevile, While I’m Away.
  43. Damian Callinan, The Merger: Sportsman’s Night 2.
  44. The Last Tuesday Society is the brain-child of Bron Batten and Richard Higgins.
  45. http://lasttuesdaysociety.com/
  46. Thomas Henning, ‘Saturday Special: Last Tuesday Society’, Spark Online, http://sparkonline.com.au/?p=2472.
  47. Henning, ‘Saturday Special’.
  48. Henning, ‘Saturday Special’.
  49. Jemima Kiss, ‘Will Ferrell’s comedy website raised $3m funding’, Guardian: The Digital Content Blog, 23 December 2008.
  50. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFHmNrxkuFU
  51. ‘Ross Noble fans bombard “Twitter tsar” ’, Chortle, http://www.chortle.co.uk/news/2009/12/10/10164/ross_noble_fans_bombard_twitter_tsar#ixzz16jyao1bz.
  52. http://vimeo.com/9205930
  53. These podcasts are as popular as some radio shows. Michael Lallo, ‘Trawling for the best pod stars’, Age ‘Green Guide’, 15 July 2010.
  54. Nancarrow, ‘Moments in Time’.
  55. http://www.edfringe.com/participants/faq
  56. The Edinburgh Festival and Just for Laughs are attended by talent scouts and television producers from across Europe and America: Gina Piccalo, ‘Comedy talent scouts get the joke’, Los Angeles Times, 21 March 2010; Colin Anderson, ‘Comedy of errors’, Guardian, 19 August 2002.