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Where is the ethnic diversity at Melbourne International Comedy Festival? We went through 600+ show listings so you don’t have to

Written by Kanwalpreet Arora, Edited by Daizy Maan

The annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival is the third-largest comedy festival in the world. Drawing audiences of around 770,000 people, it has grown to be ‘Australia’s largest cultural ticketed event.’ However, when it comes to the ethnic diversity of these comedy acts, very few South Asian or women of colour are present.

In recent decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the visibility of people of colour in the arts and entertainment sector, leading to greater representation of South Asian women across various forms of popular culture. While strides are being made in other areas such as television and film—with shows like ‘Bridgerton’ exemplifying more inclusive casting and storytelling—stand-up comedy still lags behind in embracing diversity.⁵ This disparity highlights the ongoing need for greater inclusivity and representation within comedy clubs and comedy specials.

This year, the month-long event will present over 650 shows¹, with 213 of these featuring women comedians². Despite the growth in women’s representation, a significant disparity remains in terms of the ethnic diversity of performers.

 

Looking across both international and Australia-based acts only 19 women of colour had solo shows. To break it down further, only 4 are South Asian, including only 2 from Australia. This exemplifies the disparity in cultural representation at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), however this isn’t unique to MICF – Brown Women Comedy participated in both Adelaide Fringe & Sydney Comedy Festival this year and there was a glaring lack of ethnic diversity at both. Generally ethnic diversity is overlooked in Australia, we must do better.

 

The lack of South Asian women in stand-up comedy only perpetuates stereotypes that have continued for generations and limits opportunities for aspiring comedians. This year, there are over three times more international South Asian men performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival than Australia-based South Asian women, suggesting that Australia is not making an effort to nurture local talent.

 

A similar issue is present in some of the most renowned comedy festivals around the globe, including Edinburgh Fringe – the world’s largest Fringe festival, where problems in ethnic diversity have sparked a concern amongst the broader community. ³

 

According to data from 2022, 99% of Edinburgh Fringe performers belonged to a Caucasian background. In 2023, a specific theatre show hosted six South Asian performers, who were all international. Three of these were women.⁴

 

When young South Asian women like myself attend “International” events like the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it is disheartening to spot only a couple of familiar faces in a sea of all-white performers. Many brown women feel underrepresented and ignored due to this disparity.

 

Australian South Asian Centre’s very own Brown Women Comedy is a recent addition to the comedy scene: It is the largest line-up of South Asian comedians in the country, and they are actively challenging the prevailing lack of diversity. Now in its third year, the show is breaking intergenerational stereotypes and paving the way for aspiring South Asian comedians. Furthermore, it caters to and reflects the diversity of festival audiences.

 

“Comedy is a powerful vehicle for change. When done well, it has the power to change people’s perspective, to help them feel a sense of belonging and tackle taboo topics. That’s why we created Brown Women Comedy three years ago and now in it’s third year, 2914 people came along to our 31 shows across 3 cities. What’s interesting is that so many people tell me after the show – that it’s their first time watching a show at the festival. Brown Women Comedy is opening doors to new audiences and platforming brilliant yet under-represented talent.” – Daizy Maan, Producer Brown Women Comedy & Founder of Australian South Asian Centre

Australia needs to invest in local diverse talent. Seeing more South Asian women perform will empower young brown women by creating a long-awaited sense of belonging that we have all yearned for.

* South Asian is a term that includes people from present day India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan and Bhutan.

About the contributor: Kanwalpreet is passionate about women’s rights, with a special interest in supporting girls’ education and abuse victims. She is a current high school student and is an aspiring medicine student.

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