The 14th annual Sydney Comedy Festival will be returning to venues across Sydney from April 23rd to May 20th, with a star-studded line up of the funniest people this generation has to offer.
Australian favourites headlining the festival include performers such as Kitty Flanagan, Aunty Donna, Matt Okine, Tom Gleeson, Cal Wilson, Fiona O’Loughlin, Joel Creasey and Lawrence Mooney.
Joining them is a whole host of international talent, with a smorgasbord of overseas comics washing up on Sydney’s shores. With UK acts Ross Noble, David O’Doherty, Jason Byrne and Daniel Sloss joining US comic Ari Shaffir, the Sydney Comedy Festival is sure to provide the laughs you need to get you through the working week.
The Sydney Comedy Festival Gala will open the festival on the 23rd of April at the Sydney Opera House, whetting the appetite of audiences with a taste of all the side-splitting fun of the comedy month to follow.
The opening weekend will also play host to a children’s program at the Factory. With acts such as Nikki Britton as Grandma, Madeleine Culp and Shane Matheson’s Aunty Plop Plop’s Useless Shop and Kid/Dub (a PG dance party brought to you by Hot Dub Time Machine); even the youngest comedy fans can have a hilarious day out.
Other notable events within the festival line up include the Frocking Hilarious night featuring an all-female line up; the FRESH emerging comic event exhibiting some of Australia’s best up and coming comedians, and the South African All-Stars night featuring Tumi Morake and John Vlismas.
Backyard Opera had a chat to Sydney Comedy Festival director Jorge Menidis about the history of the festival, controversies associated with the festival and the 2018 seasoahead.
BYO: How did you start directing the Sydney Comedy Festival?
JORGE: I ran a couple of other festivals, one being a multicultural arts festival called Carnivale for the NSW premier, and I met with Century Venues, and we chatted about festivals, and what a good idea it would be for Sydney to have a festival like Melbourne; at the time Melbourne had already established its comedy festival. 7 months later we had our first festival!
We ran the Cracker Comedy Festival first, and then that morphed into the Sydney comedy fest shortly thereafter, and now we’re up to season number 14! So I’m excited about it.
BYO: Describe your role as the Festival director?
JORGE: I’m the boss! So, basically I put together the program. It’s a curated festival, so unlike an open festival, people apply to be part of the festival. We also invite comedians and artists to take part. I work across sponsorship and some of the other aspects of the program, and oversee all the programming, technical and marketing stuff; but my fundamental job is to piece together all the artists into a festival.
BYO: What goes into choosing a line up? How do you curate the performers, and what are the guidelines?
JORGE: First, you’ve got to watch a lot of comedy, and get out there as much as possible, and see live comedy as much as you can. As well as seeing comedy in Australia, we’ll head overseas, hit a couple of big festivals; there’s one in Montreal and one in Edinburgh every year, that’s where a lot of the comedy is performed. We get down to Melbourne and Adelaide and Brisbane comedy festivals as well. But mainly Edinburgh in August and Montreal are the two big festivals we visit. We watch a lot of comedy and we get to learn who’s up and coming, and you’re looking for the next big thing more than anything else.
You get to see what works for different audiences; some acts that are hilarious overseas just don’t work with the Australian context, so you’ve got to be able to work that out. You get that with time and experience.
BYO: Who is the intended audience for the festival?
JORGE: I created the program with a fairly broad brush in mind; I think comedy is one of those art forms that appeals to pretty much everyone. I put together a kids program at town hall every year, and that is aimed at little people, and then we have a very broad brush for the adults. Some acts are more cutting and aimed at a younger audience, and then others are more mainstream and may appeal to a slightly older crowd. But anyone looking for an opportunity to get out and about is what we’re looking to cater to.
BYO: Do you have a background in comedy? Have you ever tried to be a comedian?
JORGE: No no no no not at all. My background is in running festivals and events, and that’s what I like doing. I think the people that do comedy, the artists that do comedy are very brave and talented and very very bold, with a very unique view on the world. I’m not one of those, I’m project driven.
BYO: What’s the history of the Sydney Comedy Festival; how has it grown from its early beginnings as the Cracker Comedy Festival?
JORGE: The first festival we sold about 5000-6000 tickets; and we’re going to clip over 140,000 this year. Its grown in audience size, its grown in corporate sponsorship. We have company’s like Coopers and Optus and HCF; big big sponsors now. Regarding the program itself, we have a lot of people that want to come and play Sydney, internationals and locals that all wanna come and help. Our office has grown too, there was 2 or 3 of us running it in its first year, and now we have a large dedicated staff who run it.
I guess, the most interesting thing is the growth of the festival to be honest. It’s that it’s identity has grown in Sydney; we sell tickets purely because we’re on. We know people will buy tickets to the galas without us announcing one act. They’re buying off the back of the brand, and that’s really pleasing. It’s also pleasing that Australian acts are by far the largest part of our content now.
BYO: What is the comedy scene like in Sydney?
JORGE: I think it’s pretty buoyant, it’s pretty healthy; it’s definitely developed in the last 14 years. There’s lots of opportunities for comedians to get up on a number of stages, and I think that comedy audiences have become a little more sophisticated as well. The festival is more in line with what’s going on than some of the other comedy hotspots that are going on. I think Sydney has become a far more important player in the world of live comedy.
BYO: Has the festival helped the comedy scene grow?
JORGE: It definitely has. I think that what it does is create noise and buzz one time of the year that exposes new audiences to the art form, and die hard’s get to relish it with multiple shows.
BYO: Is the comedy festival about more than making people laugh? Are there underlying messages and themes within the show, or is it just about a good time?
JORGE: There’s always an underlying theme, because these artists aren’t just entertainers. Entertaining is an important part of what comedy is, but comedy going back to ancient times is an ancient art form; it’s one of the oldest art forms. So, it’s really about commentary of what’s going on around us, and unique perspectives into the life we all live. There’s definitely messages there but it is also about having a good time.
BYO: How do you choose acts for these non-conventional programs like the FRESH program and children’s comedy festival?
JORGE: With children, they have to be an appropriate acts for kids. There are quite a lot of things that we have to make sure that they do deliver, and we make sure of that. FRESH is a program that we’ve designed to make sure we give a leg up to comedians that are doing their first full hour of comedy. So, people like Matt Okine and Ronnie Chen who are playing big big venues have all come through FRESH. We hope that people can look at FRESH and say ‘wow they’re the next big thing, and they’re playing in their own first show’. We have some criteria that we use; you can’t have performed a full show before, you have to have written the show and be presenting that show for the first time to be a part of fresh.
BYO: Do you ever get backlash about controversial acts or topics discussed?
JORGE: All the time. We get a lot of backlash, and people can be controversial, there’s no question about that. We get a lot of pressure about the number of women in comedy, as though we somehow have something to do with not programming more women. There’s definitely more women coming through, but there’s not enough women in comedy and we’d like to see some more. But it’s okay, I appreciate people having opinions, and I respect their right for both parties to express themselves in those ways.
BYO: In light of the #metoo movement happening, and the pressure to focus on women’s experiences and women’s voices, how will the Comedy festival be reacting to these social movements?
JORGE: We run a couple of things every year; we run a program called ‘Frocking Hilarious’ which is an all women gala to highlight that women can be very fun on the big stage. We encourage as many women as we can to apply and be a part of the program. But the reality is, there isn’t nearly enough women in comedy, and we understand that, and there’s a number of programs around the world who try and encourage it. It’s not just an issue in Sydney, it’s an issue that occurs everywhere.
The whole issue of #metoo I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot of in this year’s cohort of comedians. I’m sure we’ll come across it again and again and I have faith that the comedy body is going to be able to handle and flesh out those issues a lot better than a lot of the commentators out there.
BYO: What’s your favourite performer on the line up this year?
JORGE: I will not answer that. I can’t. Comedy is subjective, and sometimes the comedian I love is not necessarily the comedian other people love. I think there’s some excellent talent in this year’s festival, I’m really excited about seeing some of that talent for the very first time.
I will say this, if people are looking for a recommendation, I always recommend 2 things. 1 is either see a gala or a showcase, or a multi-bill line up. The reason I say this is if you’re not sure about seeing a particular comedian, go to one of the showcases, and you’ll see up to 12 acts; and you’ve got to like one! And then you can go and see the full hour show. The other thing I tell people is to go and see a FRESH act, we produce 14 or 15 FRESH shows every year. They are very funny and are cutting their teeth in their first year. We cap the pricing for FRESH, so they’re cheap tickets, and we always encourage people to go and see a FRESH show if they can.
There are 210 hilarious shows and a variety of different programs running throughout the festival, so be sure to check out the Comedy Fest website www.sydneycomedyfest.com.au for all the details. Tickets are on sale now.