Just for Laughs: the world’s favourite comedy festival has no room for women

Writer and perfromer Maeve Marsden,

Writer and perfromer Maeve Marsden,

This morning I got an email from the Sydney Opera House informing me that I could buy tickets to “the world’s favourite comedy festival.” I love comedy, I thought. Indeed, I perform comedy. This is the festival for me!

Except it isn’t.

Like so many comedy festivals, events, open mic nights and variety shows, ‘Just for Laughs’ has just announced an exclusively male line up. Now, I’m not saying that Bill Bailey, Trevor Noah, Rhys Darby, Jim Gaffigan and Dave Thornton aren’t funny, I am just completely fed up with the exclusion of women in Australian comedy.

Comedian Rhys Darby will appear at 'Just For Laughs'  at the Sydney Opera House.

Comedian Rhys Darby will appear at 'Just For Laughs' at the Sydney Opera House.

Leaving aside the regular uproar over male comedians presenting sexist comedy (rape jokes, anyone?), let’s just play the numbers game. Why did no one in the ‘Just for Laughs’ programming room say ‘hey guys, see this billboard full of dudes, why don’t we chuck a woman on it? We won’t go overboard, we aren’t crazy feminists or anything. Let’s just add one or two.’


Now, ‘Just for Laughs’ is a Canadian festival, one the world’s largest and most popular comedy festivals, alongside Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I did a little research, so you don’t have to, and I was thrilled to discover that the Canadian ‘Just For Laughs’ website has a different headline line up! So clearly it’s an Australian problem, right? WRONG. Also, all men.

I’ve complained about this to friends and online til I am blue in the face. A regular response is that it’s not programmers’ fault that male comedians are more famous, more popular, more likely to sell out. They’re just doing their job – selling tickets.

Well, I call bulls**t.

In May, I performed with my cabaret act, Lady Sings it Better, alongside an incredible all-women line up at ‘Frocking Hilarious’, a comedy night presented by ActionAid as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. It sold out the Enmore Theatre.

The Enmore Theatre seats 1,600. The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall seats 2,100. Are you telling me that, with the increased marketing efforts of Sydney’s most famous entertainment venue, in what they are claiming is the “world’s favourite comedy festival,” they couldn’t possibly sell out a female comedian on the bill?

I was only able to get standing room tickets to see Jennifer Saunders speak in the Concert Hall earlier in the year and she didn’t even tell many jokes, she was just there to sell her book!

In the Sydney Comedy Festival I calculated 22 women performers out of 117 acts on the bill, and my group counted for four of them. I’m not going to work out the ratio for you – I’m a singer, not a mathematician – but it isn’t good. Writer, Alexandra O’Neill, clearly more mathematically inclined than I am, wrote about this problem during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival earlier in the year, calculating a ratio of 3:8, women to men.

“It’s just comedy”, I hear you say. “Chill out.”

Ok, so no one has said “chill out” since 1995, but you get the idea. The thing is, it isn’t just comedy. It’s conferences, arts festivals, radio airtime, TV hosts, the triple j Hottest 100… The arts – which should be progressive, push boundaries, expand our cultural horizons – can’t even manage to get 51% percent of the population represented. Popular culture – which should represent the culture of the populace – is completely dominated by men.

I’ve had enough. I’m not asking for much. Hell, I won’t even ask for equal representation. Let’s go with ABC TV’s #Qanda ridiculous ratio for equality - 3:2. From now on, I refuse to attend any festivals and events where women count for less 2 fifths of the line-up, and I urge you to join me.

To Australian programmers who want my ticket buying cash, here’s a handy list of my favourite female comedians to get you started. They're all funny and a bunch of them have won awards.

  • Hannah Gadsby
  • Stella Young
  • Felicity Ward
  • Justine Rogers
  • Wendy Harmer
  • Geraldine Quinn
  • Catherine Deveny
  • Judith Lucy
  • Magda Szubanski
  • Libbi Gore
  • Denise Scott
  • Gillian Cosgriff
  • Fiona O’Laughlin
  • Anne Edmonds
  • Kitty Flanagan
  • Corinne Grant
  • Celia Pacquola
  • George McEnroe
  • Bec Hill
  • Mel Buttle
  • The Kransky Sisters
  • Me

Maeve Marsden is a writer, project manager, director, producer and performer who lends her passions to the arts, as well as to social justice campaigns and organisations she believes in. Maeve directs and performs in feminist cabaret act, Lady Sings it Better.



  • The organisers of the comedy festival are deliberately reducing their profits by keeping the number of female performers low.

    The other explanation, of course, is simply that there just isn't a big enough audience for female comics.

    But don't let common sense stand in the way of your conspiracy theories. In fact, if you're so convinced that the audience is out there, why not organise and promote an all-female comedy festival yourself?

    Date and time
    July 16, 2014, 4:40PM
    • Comedy is largely subjective, but in my opinion none of the comedians mentioned are particularly funny. Famous female comedians? Ruby Wax - not funny, Saunders and French - not funny, Sarah Silverman - not particularly funny.

      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 4:45PM
      • Couldn't agree more. Female comedians are hilarious, why wouldn't a festival want to include the girls?

        Date and time
        July 16, 2014, 4:57PM
        • Why was there only women performing at your Enmore event?

          The irony, the irony, the irony

          Why can't the organisers make their own choices without having to listen to tripe from people like you who play the woman card every chance they get. No one owes you anything, if you want something, go out and earn it

          Nick from Sydney
          Date and time
          July 16, 2014, 4:58PM
          • So, put on a show. Contact the Opera House... book a room, organize the publicity and the ticket sales and get on with it.

            There's no grand conspiracy going on here. It's just that the comedians that are part of this show don't happen to be female.

            I think it's long past the time when whining about ratios does any good. This show is being put on purely for commercial gain. If the comediennes on this list are able to bring in the same ticket sales, then there's no reason they shouldn't be equally successful.

            Date and time
            July 16, 2014, 5:00PM
            • Yawn - another tired attempt to create a gender issue where there isn't one imo.

              Nobody is 'excluding' women. They're including performers who sell the most tickets; and like it or not, audiences (comprised of men AND women) consistently prefer to watch male comedians and vote with their wallets accordingly. Personally, I've attended dozens of comedy shows over the years, and the vast majority of the time - female performers are relatively terrible. My male friends agree, and my female friends agree. Almost unanimously. They're just simply not as funny. Speculate about the reasons for this all you like, but paying audiences largely agree - this is an observable fact.

              There are of course several notable exceptions around - I find Sarah Silverman hilarious, for example. I love Jennifer Saunders too. But then to assume that their absence is based on their gender is clearly premature - they are the Chris Rock or Louis CKs of the female comedian world - maybe they were just busy, or didn't want to come. Either way, it shouldn't be a surprise that females capable of competing with the big-name men aren't present on the bill, because there's simply not that many of them in the world.

              You sold out the Enmore Theatre because you weren't part of a festival which featured better options. When a comedy festival comes around, most people have limited funds to devote to it, so they'll typically prefer to go see one of the higher calibre names like Bill Bailey, or Rhys Darby that you've noted. That's where my money would be going - because they're *funny*; not because they're male.

              Date and time
              July 16, 2014, 5:04PM
              • Easy explanation - they went with the most popular line up they could afford that would sell the most tickets. Should they put less popular people on there that sell fewer tickets in the name of gender equality?

                Date and time
                July 16, 2014, 5:04PM
                • Great work Maeve, but when I go to recommend on Facebook, it comes with the photo of Rhys. Ironic grrrrrr...

                  Date and time
                  July 16, 2014, 5:09PM
                  • Well Maeve that sucks indeed, however my suggestion is, with this big list of super funny women, why don't you all get together and start your own comedy festival. Perhaps call it "Just cos we can" or "Just for the hell of it" or not - you gals are smart, resourceful and.....funny so can probably come up with a better name. But the point is it would sell and the comedy festival fans get a chance to see awesome comediennes demonstrating that women can be and are funny too. Win/win I say. Just please bring it to Melbourne so I can go......ta!

                    Date and time
                    July 16, 2014, 5:31PM
                    • "Why did no one in the ‘Just for Laughs’ programming room say ‘hey guys, see this billboard full of dudes, why don’t we chuck a woman on it?"

                      Because they weren't looking for funny men. They were looking for funny people.

                      If they decided to swap in two funny women to replace two funny men who, everything being equal, they would have chosen ahead of the two funny women, then they would have been doing so for SEXIST and discriminatory reasons.

                      The two men they replaced would have been dropped simply because they were men. That's sexist.

                      If you want to argue that those two women would have been just as good as the two men, then that's an argument over opinion. And the organisers have every right to their opinion, no matter how much you disagree with it.

                      If you want to argue that those two women would have been better than the two men, and that the organisers didnt choose them because they were women, then that is a much more serious allegation. And one for which you have absolutely no evidence.

                      So until you have more than your bruised sense of injustice on your side, the only FAIR thing to do would be to give the organisers the benefit of the doubt and assume they were looking to put on the best SHOW they possibly could. Not the most representative of whatever social aspect you imagine is important.

                      Date and time
                      July 16, 2014, 5:39PM

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