Pandemics aren’t the only punchline in Melbourne

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival returns.

Performer Sam Taunton. Photo courtesy: Grant Gibbins

For the past three weeks, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival has heralded Victoria’s return to live arts. An array of local acts and international headlines have taken to the city’s stages in one of Australia’s first international events since the start of the pandemic. Local acts like Wil Anderson, Tom Gleeson and Gen Fricker were joined by international comics freshly out of quarantine like Daniel Sloss.

For many Victorians, the festival provided the first chance to see a live performance since Victoria’s 102 day lockdown. Opening the Oxfam Gala, host Becky Lucas caused an eruption of sound as she asked the crowd who hadn’t had a big night out in the last year. Audiences flocked to buy tickets, with artists like Nina Oyama and Aaron Chen selling out early in their runs. Producer Ryan Lisson told Honi: “the biggest thing this year was that audiences were so much more receptive. Melbourne is eager to get out and support the entertainment industry.” Several shows have sold out multiple times as restrictions have changed, progressively increasing venue capacity throughout the festival. 

The opening few days were a rough ride for many of the 300 acts as they readjusted to the stage. However, not all shows were just about the pandemic. Lisson said that “Lockdown and Covid content is being treated by many as a no go area.” Sydney Comic Frenchy told a sold-out crowd on his opening night that “this show represents the past three years of my life”, after he, like many comics, were forced to dump their 2020 tours. Some acts like Joseph Green used their extra time off to try something different and planned shows that pushed the very form of stand up itself.

Australian border restrictions provided a challenge to the festival’s producers, with the high cost of quarantine turning away many regular international acts. The presence of Arj Barker, Ross Noble and Jimeoin, former internationals who now reside in Australia, and recently arrived Daniel Sloss and Melanie Bracewell secured the festival’s international feel.

While audiences have been eager to buy tickets, multiple comedians reported that crowds initially felt more reserved in comparison to previous years. Canadian comedian Evan Desmarias said that Melbourne audiences were a bit more unsure about being out and about compared to the Perth and Adelaide Fringe Festivals. Yet, this still hasn’t put a damper on the mood, with Desmarais telling Honi: “For me I feel blessed, even if I’m playing to just five people, it’s incredible to think that an international comedy festival is going ahead after the events of the Pandemic.”

In order to entice acts to perform at the Festival, registration fees were lowered to $350 and sign-up times were extended. This made it easier for a range of up and coming comedians like Sydney’s Bec Charlwood to launch successful first runs at the festival. While ‘establishment’ comics dominate the Festival’s website, internet comedians and live podcasts have also been wildly successful this year. Acts like Frenchy, Luke Kidgell and Lewis Spears have been able to convert their large online audiences into ticket sales, selling close to over a thousand tickets even with sub one hundred seat venues. 

The death of Prince Phillip provided many comedians with an injection of fresh material. The Chaser’s Andrew Hanson said on Twitter that after the introduction of a new verse, his infamous eulogy song was “so long it requires four lighting states A clip of comedian Lewis Spears finding out that the Prince had died, as he was halfway through a set lampooning the royal family, received over half a million views in 24 hours. Lewis told Honi that “it was exciting  to see just how many people across the globe disliked the royals.” with many comments touching on the allegations around Prince Andrew and how Australian venues had largely returned to normal.

While the Melbourne festival is out of the way for most USyd students, a range of international and local artists are gearing up to continue their shows at the upcoming Sydney Comedy Festival in May.