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.