Melbourne International Comedy Festival Debriefing

Posted on 10 August 2010

Participating in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is a significant committment of time, money, and personal resources. This is not for the faint of heart.

Last year I attended the Jeez Louise Funny Women’s Conference. One of the attendees to that conference was the charming Claire Hooper. She gave me the advice that it’s perhaps best to start off by doing a show for Melbourne Fringe before hopping into the Comedy Festival. This seemed like sound advice. However, I had just missed Fringe when I moved back to Melbourne and was keen to make myself known.

Given what a large endeavour doing a solo Comedy Festival show was, I feel it’s important to share what I learned.

The Organisers

You are expected to pay a hefty fee up front in order to participate in the Comedy Festival. With this fee you are guaranteed that your picture and blurb will be in the Festival programme. The programme goes out to hundreds of thousands of people, through The Age and cafe and venue drops. Given the cost of advertising, with this alone you have your money’s worth.

Their marketing company also keeps your press release in a “bible” which can be used by media to determine the shows that interest them for articles and reviews. Then, the festival offers workshops in understanding the Festival process, finding venues, marketing, etc. Finally, they issue comedians a “participant pass” which gives them free and half price access to many shows, and free entrance into the festival club.

The organisers do their best to be of help, but they are run off their feet. So, if you need personal attention, it’s worth being part of groups like The Skirt Network for women. Even just turning up at the workshops is worth the networking, because many of your questions can be answered by the people around you.

Be warned: not all advice is equal. The organisers are very familiar with what does and does not work for the acts they manage. That advice does not always scale down to the newcomers. This may be because 1) it worked in the past when the festival was smaller, and 2) we were contending with a global financial crisis.

I really feel it would be worthwhile having a mentoring program available to first-timers.


Several sets of venues are available to performers: festival managed, community/arts organisation managed, and willing restaurants/cafes/pubs/etc.

A festival managed venue is not automatically a better space. Some of the spaces are poky and no more central than a number of the “willing”. The advantage to applying for a festival managed venue is that you won’t have to negotiate the contractual agreement with the venue, you will be assigned door staff, and you will be given extra marketing support. If you are lucky, you could score a space within the Melbourne Town Hall. That is the one location which does give you more audience pull. However, you will be required to perform six days a week for the whole festival. This is great when things are going well, but it’s still gruelling.

The other big venues that will offer extra support include Bella Union (Trades Hall), Northcote Townhall, Malthouse Theatre, etc. These community performance spaces can be very well appointed with sound and lighting equipment, front of house staff, and extra marketing. Sometimes they are significantly more expensive as well and may require larger audiences to be worth their while, but this varies. The main issue is whether you can draw a crowd without being in the central festival area. Bella Union has succeeded in becoming its own hub. Others may require more marketing, and appealling to the local audience.

Certain of the “willing” spaces have a good reputation and are well located: The Butterfly Club, Young and Jacksons, Toff in Town. Others have proven problematic for the performers for a variety of reasons. I would strongly suggest finding a good quality venue of this sort BEFORE sign-ups begin for either festival managed or community managed venues. If the others fall through, you will want a back-up that still represents you well.

Do NOT put yourself in the position where you feel you have to take anything in order to proceed in the festival. Give yourself the time to find a place that has friendly management with whom it’s easy to communicate. Make sure the style of the venue suits the style of your act. It’s not worth your while doing a family act at a seedy pub. Put together a clear written agreement with your venue where fine details are thought through such as bump-in and bump-out times, access to a dressing space, etc.

My biggest piece of advice venue-wise is go smaller rather than larger. A venue with fewer seats will look fuller faster and thereby make your audience feel more comfortable that they’ve found a winner. This also influences reviewers who report not only on their assessment of a show, but how popular it seems to be with the general public. Yes, if you are a big success then you might lose a few dollars, but you are still better off leaving people wanting more.

Dates & Times

Because I was set to perform for a Festival managed venue, I continued to think in terms of a six day week when I had to find other performance space. In the end I performed a Tuesday to Saturday week for the entirety of the Festival, but as a newcomer, it was a mistake.

Tight Arse Tuesdays exist for a reason. Attendance during week days is low. If you’re working on a budget, save your money and perform only Friday, Saturday, and possibly a matinee on Sunday. This will force people who are interested in your show to bunch up on those days, providing a fuller venue.

Equally as low is performing on a holiday weekend. This year Easter landed in the middle of the Festival and downtown Melbourne was nearly silent as everyone left town. I attended a performance on Easter Saturday by one well known comedian who attracted only eight people that night.

Hour of the day also affects audience attendance. Festival wisdom says, “If you are good, the audience will find you.” This only works if you have sufficient friends, word of mouth, and reviews for people to make the effort. Even my friends weren’t keen to come to a show that started at six thirty in the evening. It seems like a good hour for families, but most people want to go home and freshen up before going out or at least have a meal first. For newcomers I would say any showtime before eight pm is going to be a waste of your time and money. You have to make it easy on your audience before they are going to give you the odd chance.

Marketing & Reviews

You will be encouraged to spend a LOT of money on advertising.

The street press will be knocking hard at your email door to get you to spend money on space in their Festival inserts. They will even make special offers where you will be spending less during Festival time. Don’t buy into this unless you know the street press readers are your demographic.

Rule number one for marketing: nail your audience. You CAN’T say, everyone; you CAN’T say, people like me. Are you appealing to men or women? Are you dealing with people 18-34, 35-49, 50-64, or children? Is your material aimed at people with a university education? What sorts of jobs do they have? What sorts of hobbies or interests? What movies, books, TV, comedians, etc are similar to your material and who enjoys these? If you are aiming at thirty-something year old rev-heads, the street press will be a waste of your money.

Marketing can do much to sell a show. It can’t work miracles. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival attracts somewhere between 300-400 shows in a period of around four weeks. How do people choose which shows to see? They start with what they are familiar.

Ross Noble, Adam Hills, Paul McDermott, these are all people who sell out instantly. Then come the comedians who people have seen on television, even though they may not be considered A-list: Akmal Saleh, Justin Hamilton, Felicity Ward. Next are the comedians who have gained good word of mouth through local venues or even busking (how the Doug Anthony All-Stars got their start). Then come the people who win awards or get good reviews in the media. They can have a dreadful turn-out to begin with until the media attention fairy hits. Finally, you have the odd individual who just thinks the show sounds like fun from the Festival programme.

Advertising helps to remind people to buy tickets for the “A” and “B” list comedians. Advertising can help “C” to “Z” list comedians seem more important and a viable option for a fun night out. However, general placements are going to be a waste of time for these. If you have a show about plumbing, advertise in a plumbing journal.

Many comedians work hard handing out flyers to their shows in front of Melbourne Town Hall. The hope is that by making a personal connection on the street, people are more likely to turn up to one of your gigs.  I have found that most people felt annoyed at being accosted. I also get the feeling that it makes those comedians seem needy and therefore probably not very good. When the public feels it needs to tighten its purse-strings, you become one more person trying to take their hard-earned money, rather than a good night out.

The most effective means to interest people in an up-and-comer is through publicity, reviews, and Facebook. When people hear you outside of advertising being funny on the radio, television, or print media, that’s when they make the personal connection. To do this you will need to source your media early, write sharp shiny press releases, and learn how to have a pleasant manner on the phone.

Do not be shy about handing out free tickets like a mad person to all and sundry of the media. I would suggest even handing out extra tickets for competition give-aways. Newcomers rely on word of mouth. Let me say that again, NEWCOMERS RELY ON WORD OF MOUTH! Do NOT worry about losing ticket sales. You have to build a reputation first. Though, I will say that it is better to give tickets out as part of a competition, rather than a strictly free give-away. People value a prize more and are more likely to use the tickets.

Facebook is probably one of the cheapest and most effective means of starting up your career as a comedian. Though, this could be done equally well through mailing lists, blogs, and the like. The point is mostly to build up your network of friends, family, workmates, and supporters, then direct that network to come to your shows. If you can get them to write about you in their blogs, even better. This works best among people in their twenties who aren’t as encumbered by life obligations such as family. I also worry that we are turning into a Tupperware sales generation where friends are merely sales opportunities. Nevertheless, the people who love you really are the best place to get a boost.

Festival Pass

The Festival pass is an amazingly important aspect of any comedian’s participation. It is pure gold for developing your career, do not waste it.

As mentioned earlier you get free entrance into the Festival club. Go to the club, buy a glass of mineral water (keep your head sharp), and chat with other comedians. Don’t just network. Just networking is boring and doesn’t get you the support of MAKING FRIENDS. I was actually offered a gig once because a venue manager saw me walk in and all the major comedians said “hi”.

Go to as many shows as possible, from the famous to the not so famous. You’re getting in free or at least at a discount, so why not? Use the opportunity to analyze what works and what doesn’t work with audiences. Pay especially close attention to people who are clearly rising stars and pinpoint what is drawing people’s attention. These are the people who will be showing you what the next wave of comedy needs to look like. Go to other newcomer shows, they need your friendly support and who knows, they may be the next big thing.

If you get nothing else out of the Comedy Festival, you should at least learn something in order to improve. The Festival pass is your magic ticket to a superb education.


For any newcomer wishing to put on a solo show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival: start by building a fan base and think modestly.

For the year before trial bits of your show at a diversity of venues. Put on a solo show in an outer suburb and make sure a local reviewer turns up. Offer your services to charities.  Melbourne Fringe is an outstanding place to develop a reputation. Collect email addresses on a clip board you always have on hand.  Carry cards/flyers on you and don’t be shy about talking yourself up.

Don’t expect to make money. I know, that’s a heartbreaker. But your first time is likely to be more of a learning experience than anything. That shouldn’t put you off, because every step is valid. And if you do break even or make a profit, be sure to celebrate.

Set an achievable goal that helps you to grow as a performer and feel good about yourself by the end of the Festival. These can be goals such as: better able to interact with the audience, improved improvisational skills, keeping energy levels up.

The piece of advice I would like to push most strongly is form a team of comedians. You can do sketches or just divide an hour in four or five pieces. You then get Comedy Festival visibility while spreading the load and learning at a less costly rate. Think about all the groups that went on to form television shows. Cooperation will move your career forward faster than anything else I know.

Repeatedly thank everyone who helps you with your show: crew, venue, Festival organisers, audience. They need to know their presence meant something. Feel free to throw out all my advice, if you have a strong sense something else would work better for you. Finally, be good to yourself and have fun!

Peace and kindness,


Responses are closed for this post.

Recent Posts

Tag Cloud

constitution environment human rights united nations


Katherine Phelps is proudly powered by WordPress and the SubtleFlux theme.

Copyright © Katherine Phelps