HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CANBERRA: HERE, HAVE A COMEDY FESTIVAL
For two people responsible for starting a comedy festival, Tim Duck and Jay Sullivan are very serious people. They inspire hyphenated adjectives such as ‘business-like’ and ‘no-nonsense’. Their conversation is peppered with boardroom phrases like 'personal development' and they say things like 'going forward' un-ironically. Maybe this is a side-effect of bringing the laughs to the seat of parliament – or maybe they just take their comedy really seriously.
Their favourite word, when it comes to talking about the inaugural CANBERRA COMEDY FESTIVAL, launched in the middle of the centenary celebrations, is curated. Duck, the festival director, says it with conviction: 'We are curated,' he says, 'and we are going to stick to keeping it curated.' As artistic director, Sullivan utters it in more hushed, reverent tones. 'It's the only curated comedy festival in Australia,' he says, quietly proud.
It doesn't sound like much, but Sullivan's carefully selected line-up is something of a revolution in how Australian comedy festivals are run. Both men are critical of how other festivals – like the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – make it harder for new acts to break into the international circuit. 'I don't know if you've ever been to the Melbourne one,' says Duck, 'but it is massive. And it is cool, but also there's like 150 shows a night, and there are pros and cons that come with having something that size. We don't ever want to be that thing. We don't want to be that big, massive monster; we just want to have a quality festival that puts on a good amount of shows for the size of our community.'
Sullivan agrees, saying the boutique nature of the Canberra Comedy Festival will give local acts an opportunity to see how festivals work. 'They're not just going to Melbourne and just losing heaps of money. Because that's a reality for a Canberra comedian. "Oh yeah, go down to Melbourne and do a show where nobody knows who you are, where you've got to pay money to get into the festival in the first place, where you're away from your home for four weeks so you've got accommodation and all the expenses that go along with that." Just to chance your arm as a comedian down there, you're competing against hundreds of other shows. So with our festival the audiences are better off because the quality is there; the comedians are better off because they're not competing with every man and his dog that's putting on a show.'
Purposefully slotting their festival in between the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the guys hope future festivals will attract some of the bigger names that often skip over the capital. 'Stephen K. Amos has never been here; he's an internationally recognised performer, he's well respected in the industry and, you know, big tick in the box, he's never been here. Akmal [Saleh] hasn't been here for three years, [and] this will be the first time he's done his full-blown proper theatre show in Canberra. And that's what it basically came down to: looking at quality performers who we knew Canberra would be hungry to see ‘cos they weren't here five minutes ago.'
For every out-of-towner act in the inaugural Canberra Comedy Festival – from Tripod to Stephen K. Amos – there is an equal and opposite local support act. 'It's one of the things I'm probably happiest with in terms of my artistic direction for the festival,' Sullivan says. 'Every show has got a local supporter – even the local shows have had to go and find someone else who’s not doing a show.' The local emphasis benefits the audience as well as the performers, Sullivan argues. 'It happens with me all the time; because I'm based here, and I actually live here, I don't write the usual Canberra jokes about roundabouts and fireworks and Fyshwick and whatever. I write jokes about actual, specific Canberra things that you have to be a local to get.'
Both Duck and Sullivan are passionate defenders of the Canberra comedy scene, which they know firsthand – Duck has been running the Comedy Club at the Civic Pub for three years, having been hooked into doing sound for them nearly six years ago by Canberra-based stand-up Sullivan – to be a thriving one. Tickets to the opening night gala sold out in under a fortnight.
'The hardest thing has been just getting people to believe that we're serious about what we're doing and that we know what we're doing,' says Sullivan. Duck and Sullivan's curation of the festival has been carefully calculated, and drawing on their industry expertise and contacts, they've endeavoured to create a festival good enough to guarantee it will become an annual event. 'There's definitely an audience for comedy in Canberra, there's definitely the need to have a comedy festival here; but I figured that people wouldn't just come and if they got burnt, and it was an awful show, then they might not come back, so we had to make sure we had quality acts.' Ultimately, Sullivan just wants to make sure that 'Canberra knows we're not going anywhere.'
The Canberra Comedy Festival 2013 runs Tue-Sat March 19-23 across various venues. Tickets and more info can be found at canberracomedyfestival.com.au.