Learning with TBOE

How the Melbourne Comedy Festival developed into an international staging

Posted on November 29th, 2018 in Event News, Industry Insight, Leadership, Speaker Interview

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival began on a small scale in 1987 but over the following three decades has grown to include more than 500 events, more than 7000 performances in more than 150 venues across the city.

Along with its peers in Edinburgh and Montreal, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of the biggest comedy events in the world and has now spread internationally with regular touring shows in Asia. We spoke to the executive director Damien Hodgkinson about the major growth factors that have taken the festival to such heights.

Developing venues

Once the festival started it was evident that there were not enough affordable venues in Melbourne. Taking inspiration from the festival in Edinburgh, the organisers developed a string of non-traditional performance spaces.

Then and now, there is a wide range of venues available, some with as few as 30 seats and others with almost 1500. Some of these venues are long established on the festival scene and much of that is because of comedy. The Melbourne Town Hall, for instance, is one of the major spaces that has been used for decades by the event organisers and acts as a hub for the festival.

Damien said, “Some of the key elements that have really supported our growth has been firstly our venues strategy. What we create in the venues we operate in is a real mix of what an audience is going to experience at part of Melbourne Comedy Festival. It’s a way that we can ensure the future growth of the festival by offering artists that affordable access to venue spaces.”

Broadcasting events

The difference between the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and other festivals is that important word ‘international’. While other cities might be incredibly proud of their own shows and festivals, few have the appeal of Melbourne’s festival outside their own borders.

From early on, the festival has worked with Australian broadcasters which has helped promote its reputation. This has helped attract leading comedians which drives attendance.

Damien attributes part of the festival’s global appeal down to these broadcasts. He said, “Another really key factor that has built our global reputation and helped us grow to be one of the largest cultural events in the country has been broadcasts. We’re quite unique in the Australian landscape for the amount of broadcast television that we produce, and have done for over two decades. Our broadcasts and digital channels afford us is the ability to broadly promote the artists that are in our festival to a really wide audience, there are millions of people who tune into our broadcast programs.”

Nowadays, these broadcasts go out on social media to help audiences keep up to date more easily.

Building the industry

Obviously, the better the shows the more likely people are to buy tickets. With no national program for comedians to hone their skills, Melbourne International Comedy Festival has played an active role in developing Australia’s comedy industry and supports emerging talent.

Almost all of the major names in Australian comedy have been involved with Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s development programs at some point, and the results are that the industry and the festival have benefited.

Damien said, “A very key part of our purpose is around building the industry. There is nowhere you can study comedy. Comedy is an artform that is largely developed on stage and we run a number of national development programs, and mentorships, and support programs, to really help build careers for Australian artists.”

“You’d be hard pressed to identify any Australian comedian who hasn’t connected with our development programs at some stage in the early parts of their career.”

As well as this, the festival has created programs to help develop new talent. RAW Comedy is the country’s largest comedy open mic competition, Class Clowns aims to help school students get an experience on the big stage and Deadly Funny is a competition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians.

Building communities

As the festival has grown, it’s moved into new areas. At first, it put on a roadshow across Australia, but then it looked to go overseas and started putting on tours in Asia.

It isn’t unusual for the large festivals to go outside their own cities, but Melbourne took a different approach to where it spread than others. Looking at the makeup of Melbourne’s population, the organisers have pushed out to Singapore, China (Hong Kong), Malaysia and India to reflect those communities in the city. There is a growing program to present comedians from across the region as part of the annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival. There are more than 350,000 members in Melbourne’s Chinese community, 34% of Australian’s Malaysian migrants live in Melbourne and 3% of Melbourne’s population is of Indian descent.

Damien said, “It’s a real opportunity for the festival to more deeply engage with the burgeoning, growing comedy communities across the region. Now we find a number of the artists who were first presented in Melbourne as part of Comedy Zone Asia now participating at the festival independently. ”

To hear more from Damien Hodgkinson and his work at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, book your ticket to The Business of Events, 7- 8 February 2019 at Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park.