Learning with TBOE

How the Melbourne Comedy Festival improved after becoming international

Posted on November 8th, 2018 in Event News, Industry Insight, Leadership, Speaker Interview

There’s often a fear with any business that once it starts to grow and expand that it becomes a shadow of its former self. With the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, in adding focusing on the ‘international’ word in its title added a new perspective to help it to grow into a bigger and better version of where it started.

Damien Hodgkinson, the festival’s executive director talked to us about how expanding into new markets helped the comedy festival develop into something better both home and away.

In the early days

When the Melbourne International Comedy Festival first started touring in Asia, it was much a case of showing what was happening in Australia to a new audience. As the festival developed roots overseas, it began to form strong bonds with those on the ground and it soon began to incorporate local comedians as well and some of those have gone on to perform at the main event in Australia.

Looking back, Damien can see the benefits that came from involving the local venues and performers. He said, “For a long time that was a one-way commitment; we were touring product of Australian and international artists with our Melbourne Comedy Festival Roadshow touring product into those communities. Over the time we’d formed many strong connections with the local comedy industry, and over the past five or so years it’s very much a two-way cultural exchange.”

Ensuring cultural sensitivity

Although laughter is a universal language, comedy appreciation can vary dramatically from one country to another. For example, while Australia, the UK and the USA have similar cultures in lots of ways, our comedy styles are often hugely different.

While taking the show on tour, performers were made aware of cultural sensitivities to make sure that they were tailoring their material accordingly, while different types of comedy became important – firstly overseas but also back in Melbourne.

Damien noticed that non-verbal comedy was a great way to unite crowds and appeal to large audiences. He said, “One of the things that we are also mindful of is non-verbal acts. We are increasingly working with China and Korea, various events in those countries, where the kind of acts that we’re programming are non-verbal.”

“We have a very large program as part of our festival that is called The Very Big Laugh Out, which is our free family outdoor program. We present free performances at Fed Square across weekends and school holidays. What we found is that a huge proportion of our audience, more than half of the audience for those Very Big Laugh Out performances, were first timers to the festival, and there were over 30 different countries represented within the audiences. So, those performances are largely non-verbal, they’re very visually spectacular, and they do engage that street performing and clowning.”

As well as becoming more accommodating by offering non-verbal shows, the festival has also started putting on shows in local languages. This year there was a show in India in Hinglish, and past festivals have included shows presented in Cantonese and Mandarin.

Bringing that back home

By working more closely with venues and performers in Asia, the festival organisers have been able to find comedians that otherwise would have been off their radar. These acts have now started coming to Melbourne to perform their shows, almost in a reversal of the original intentions of the roadshows.

Damien commented, “We’re going to see further growth in the number of Asian artists in our program. It’s grown significantly over the past couple of years, and I can only see that continuing to grow and alongside that, growing diversity of our audience base.”

“The Indian Comedy Showcase over the past couple of years has been huge in the way it engages really strongly the traditional Melbourne International Comedy Festival audience, but also building new audiences with Melbourne’s Indian community.”

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 on the Park, Sydney.