The Melbourne International Comedy Festival isn’t just the biggest laugh in town, it’s a launch pad for local comedy talent.
It’s that time of year again, when the ordinarily stoic Melbourne Town Hall lights up like a carnival, with punters winding around every corner and up the red-carpeted stairs, and comedians handing out flyers for all manner of indie shows on the pavement outside.
The 31st annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival is upon us and like almost every year, it’s bigger than the last. The Festival grows at an astonishing rate, far outstripping Melbourne property prices. Ten years ago the program listed 298 shows; this year there are 620 to choose from. One of the three biggest comedy festivals in the world – the other two being the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Montreal’s Just For Laughs – the MICF has a wide audience in stitches, at venues all over the city, for three and a half weeks every year.
The Festival offers a rare chance for Melburnians to see some of their favourite international artists. This year welcomes back regulars like Arj Barker and Jason Byrne, along with a new crop of comics from Asian and Nordic countries.
It’s also where local comedians often get their first run on the boards, build their audience and establish their careers. Punters can see everyone from comedy legends like Rod Quantock, to the stars of tomorrow at the RAW Comedy Grand Final.
Watching talented comedians grow from strength to strength is one of the pleasures of being an MICF regular. Anne Edmonds’ made her Festival debut as a 2010 RAW Comedy finalist; now she’s all over the ABC with her five-part calisthenics noir mini-series The Edge of the Bush and as Bali-mad fashion expert Helen Bidou on Get Krack!n.
Anne might be making it big on the telly, but all of her work stems from the stage. “Everything I do in comedy is informed by live comedy,” she says, “whether it’s voices in stand-up bits or full characters I play in costume.”
This year Anne is bringing her Barry Award-nominated show No Offence, None Taken back for a limited run, along with her new character show Helen Bidou: Enter the Spinnaker Lounge. The latter runs at 11pm, and Anne loves a late night slot. “I think the audience at that hour is really up for something that's a bit loose,” she says.
Another Melbourne comic making inroads into TV is Sam Taunton. Relatively new to the comedy scene, Sam was a 2015 RAW Comedy finalist, and his first solo show, Taunts Down For What, nabbed him a Best Newcomer nomination at the 2017 MICF. He’s also a presenter on MTV Australia. “I had a big joke about it in my show last year, how being on cable TV is very similar to not being on TV at all,” he says.
By the time Sam launched his first solo show, though, he’d already toured across Australia as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, India and New Zealand as part of the Comedy Festival Roadshow. On the strength of his five minute RAW Comedy routine, he was chosen for the Festival’s Comedy Zone showcase, and then taken on tour.
Performing in places like India, where the comedy scene is still very young, was a bit of a wild ride. “People were falling off chairs and standing up and clapping,” says Sam. “They get into it more than any audiences I've ever seen. I've never seen people more enthusiastic to laugh and get into it.”
Sam credits the festival with propelling his career so far so soon. “The Comedy Festival is the main reason I’m still doing comedy today,” he says. “They really kick-start careers and give us a platform. So many prominent comedians and actors and writers have been involved with the Comedy Festival. It’s an amazing event and we’re very lucky to have it.”
Hoping to follow in Sam’s footsteps is Scout Boxall, who recently won the RAW Comedy Victorian State Final in a tie with Gavin Sempel. Currently working as a court transcriptionist, Scout plans to visit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year and then work on her first solo show in time for next year’s MICF.
Scout developed her five minute routine as part of clowning veteran Tessa Waters’ mentorship program. “She’s been amazing,” says Scout. “She’s been such a good support and put me in touch with a bunch of comedians who have given me advice, and letting me know who to talk to when I’m trying to get gigs and stuff. She’s just a legend.”
She’s hoping that, like Sam, her first foray into the Comedy Festival will be the start of a new career. “[The festival] is the closest thing you get to a golden ticket into Australian comedy,” she says. Watch out for Scout – in a few years’ time she might be another household name on the big chalkboard outside the Melbourne Town Hall.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.