Someone at a gig once asked me, is it harder to be a female or non-white comedian? While this hasn’t always been an easy answer, the truth is that right now, it’s a thrilling time to be both.
Comedy was, until not too long ago, predominantly created and performed by people who were one, some or all of the following: straight, white, cis, male. I usually find the D-word difficult to discuss as it’s a strange catchall that encompasses everyone else as a monolith: women, BIPOC and LGBTQI+ individuals. But after lockdown (number three) lifted in Melbourne, opportunities expanded for diverse comics in the city thanks to two main developments.
One, comics from various backgrounds opened a slew of regular comedy nights across the city, meaning that diverse line-ups happened in the best way: naturally. “When you’ve got women as bookers and they’re queer or BIPOC, the line-ups are diverse as a happy accident because they reflect the network that they have,” says Token’s newest artist, Jordan Barr.
Two, audiences hungry for live comedy after a bleak lockdown, armed with increased awareness of the diversity issue – following movements like Black Lives Matter, #OscarsSoWhite and public conversations like this one about inclusive casting – have contributed to the success of new rooms.
When you’ve got women as bookers and they’re queer or BIPOC, the line-ups are diverse as a happy accident because they reflect the network that they have.
As a rookie stand-up comic, the only way to improve is by gigging. The way it works is that someone sees you somewhere and books you somewhere else. Thanks to these developments, I suddenly have a host of new places to practice, to be seen and to collaborate with other performers.
These opportunities supplement showcases like the Breast of the Fest, Lemon Comedy and Ethnic City that highlight diverse performers. When I performed in them, I was surprised and heartened by the audience’s appetite for our content, as well as the producers’ dedication and the strong involvement of high-profile comics whose support give the shows legitimacy and exposure. Most mainstream, established rooms are also making ever increasing efforts to vary their line-ups and now have more avenues to track when searching for new talent.
“These places are becoming talent pools for bookers from mainstream rooms,” says Scout Boxall, nominee for ‘Best Newcomer’ at MICF 2021. “They’re also showing that there’s a commercially viable market for performers with diverse content.”
Having people like you in a show brings a sense of relief in not being the only other. If you’re the only woman in a show, you suddenly represent all women, and there’s pressure to smash it. You can’t have an average night because someone will go home thinking I knew women weren’t funny. More often than not, that pressure is now diffused. I’d love to comment on whether the same changes are taking place outside Victoria. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of the last 18 months locked in the state for the greater good.
The momentum is also creating an opportunity to grow the audience for live comedy. “I always watch the people who watch the show,” says Diana Nguyen, creator of Snortcast Comedy. “People come back when they see themselves in a line-up and they bring their friends. We’re expanding live comedy to communities who didn’t previously feel included.”
It’s not just stand-up comedy that’s changing. I take classes at the Improv Conspiracy Theatre on a diversity scholarship. Over the last three years, I’ve seen many more diverse faces in improv teams and shows. Once you see more people who look like you on stage, you’re more comfortable and confident to get involved.
While it feels like these changes happened suddenly, I’m aware that they are building on the hard work of the many who came before us. “Some of these changes were created by the lobbying, advocacy and failures of people we will never know the name of,” says Vidya Rajan who joined Token in 2020 and recently performed with Hannah Gadsby to a crowd of 3,000 people.
But it’s not all sunshine and unicorns, and not everyone is on board. Three people walked out of the Breast of the Fest one night because there was too much “lady content”. I could dwell on their expectations for a show that had five women on the poster and “breast” in the title — but let’s move on. There are still many conversations that need to take place around diversity issues in terms of accessibility and class.
What these changes translate to in terms of increased diversity on screens or radio, I don’t know. But the speed of change in live comedy is an exciting thing to experience in real time. I believe it is giving a whole new cohort of comedy creators and performers the confidence to present new storie and fresh perspectives, and know that they will be welcomed. All I can say is, there’s never been a better time to be different.