In Melburnian lore, April is the funniest time of year. There are over 7500 reasons to laugh, all of which have sweet Fanny Adams to do with the ambush of the Easter bunny, or the retreat of la niña. Nope, the common denominator is a little old thing called the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. And behind those 7500-odd reasons stands our tireless heroine, festival director Susan Provan, who maintains the festival is still “a big adventure for punters". And, it would seem, organisers too.
So, for the woman calling the shots since 1994, how big is big? “For the first time in 15 years, we’ve had to rearrange the layout of the printed program,” Provan beams. “It seems that everybody had such a good time with the 25th year that they’re all terribly optimistic, and even more people want to do shows this time around, which is a bit daunting… at the moment it’s looking like there might be as many as 50 more shows.”
Part of its success as a breeding ground for new comedy is its non-curated formula. “In terms of the Australians and New Zealanders, it’s a completely open program, so anyone who wants to participate can.” Quite a holistic approach for a festival of its ilk, you’d agree. But here’s the kicker – of guaranteeing the giggle factor, Provan simply and unashamedly declares, “we don’t”. To qualify, she says, “the great thing about the festival is the opportunity to discover new performers and to find people that you have never seen before, but whose work it turns out you really enjoy – then you’ll follow them for the rest of their career. You know, Dave Hughes started out in a tiny 50-seater, and look at him now, he sells out the Palais.”
The international line-up is, however, curated, so as to “ensure we get a good balance and aren’t duplicating acts... we want to make sure we’re bringing in shows that have something to offer; shows we can’t find in Australia.”
Someone certainly never before seen traversing Australian soil is outrageous African American comedienne, Wanda Sykes, a huge personal coup for Provan. “She’s simply one of the best American stand-ups, a woman I’ve been watching for many years. I first saw her live at Just For Laughs in Montreal, and she’s extraordinary – she’s got a very strong political sensibility… I’ve been putting offers in on-and-off for more than ten years so it’s fantastic that this has finally come off.”
Comedy aficionados psyched on the Sykes factor will be treated to an up-close encounter with the festival luminary. “It’s going to be a very intimate experience compared to the sorts of live venues that she would usually present to in the United States… she’s doing just ten shows in the Lower Town Hall. I mean, it’s not a teeny venue, but it’s small for someone like her.”
“Most comics, when they come to Australia for the first time, they spend some time working out what Australian audiences relate to… (Sykes) recently did the New York Comedy Festival and I imagine that... because it’s her first time to Australia, she will really call on all of her best material.”
Joining the much-lauded Sykes in spearheading the festival are a band of international funny guys, as well as a slew of prodigal sons and daughters. “I’m thrilled that Shappi Khorsandi is coming back from the UK – she hasn’t been out for six or seven years… Australians Sarah Kendall and Celia Pacquola, who both live in London now, are coming back and doing new shows so that’s really exciting. And Gatesy (Steven Gates) from Tripod and Bob Franklin have written a show together, which will definitely be something to look at.”
After 17 years at the helm, Provan’s tip for a laughter-laden festival is simple. “Go and see at least five things you’ve never heard of, because every year you’ve got the opportunity of finding people who will go on to be the next big thing.”
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs 28 Mar-22 Apr at various venues around Melbourne.