When the pandemic first struck back in 2020, North Melbourne’s The Comic’s Lounge undertook an (unsuccessful) crowd-funding exercise to help pay for rent and other amenities. Backlash was swift and fierce.
Empowered female leaders in comedy took to Twitter to air their concerns and what followed was a maelstrom of shared stories, recounting shocking experiences of harassment and mistreatment.
Geraldine Hickey, winner of the 2021 Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Most Outstanding Show Award, took to social media pulling no punches: ‘Personally I don’t feel safe at The Comics (sic) Lounge. Lots of women don’t feel safe there. If you think Melbourne needs a laugh more than women feeling safe at their workplace then donate away. Personally, I don’t think the comedy world would suffer if they didn’t survive.’
What followed was a Twitter thread featuring the older (Tony Martin, Anthony Morgan) and new guard (Anne Edmonds, Kirsty Webeck, Rose Callaghan) of Australian comedy noting their agreement, alongside a range of punters and members of the local community, voicing their grievances and nasty experiences from the venue, ranging from blatant misogyny on-stage to sexual assault backstage.
For anyone involved in the Melbourne comedy community, sadly, none of this came as a surprise. As Melbourne’s largest and longest-running venue for stand-ups, the larrikin boys club on Errol Street has gained notoriety for both its treatment and utter ignorance of female and non-binary artists, creating one of the last bastions of mediocrity for the repugnant blokey-esque humour and attitudes that are reminiscent of Comedy Central in the ‘90s.
But two years on – with as much feedback as they’ve received – have things changed at The Comic’s Lounge? A look at the lineups promoted on their website and social media delivers a resounding: not a fucking chance.
‘I deliberately didn’t want to get gigs there for years, not that they’d ask,’ says Annie Louey, who has shot to prominence over the past two years with acclaimed performances and two coveted spots at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. ‘It’s just another reminder that in Australia we’re still behind and there’s a lot more work to do.’
Several other female comedians, who asked to remain anonymous due fear of commercial repercussions within the industry, recounted the parasitic culture that permeates the venue.
‘I’ve performed there a few times. It’s not a good vibe, particularly not for women,’ recalled one. ‘They absolutely do not have enough women on their lineup.’ They recounted several stories of unsolicited flirtation at The Comic’s Lounge and unwanted sexual advances that were shrugged off as a normal part of being a woman in the industry.
‘It’s really frustrating because I’d love to be honest and speak out about it. But at the same time, I don’t want to burn any bridges.’
‘It’s a poor commitment to comedy, not enough representation for women, people of colour (POC) or non-binary folk whatsoever.’
Sexism and a lack of diversity in the comedy industry has, obviously, been rife for decades. However, the tide seems to be turning. Venues and regular nights such as Comedy Republic, Hairbrush Comedy, Catfish Comedy, Rochester Comedy and Raise The Bar are all actively trying to create safe, inclusive and diverse spaces.
But these efforts are constantly thwarted by the behemoth stature of The Comic’s Lounge, who to this day remains unrepentant about its lack of diversity and seems unfazed by its historic reputation of being a rowdy boys club that relies on dick jokes and falls back on the tired refrain of ‘nice tits’ to the occasional female act (which apparently is meant as a compliment).
A solution? As the pandemic and the venue’s GoFundMe proved, the only thing that The Comic’s Lounge seems concerned about is money. If high profile acts – and more importantly punters – began to abandon the venue due to its malignant practices, you can almost be guaranteed those who hold the purse strings would act in accordance.
If you want to support the growth and diversity of comedy in Melbourne – and most importantly, female, trans and non-binary acts – it’s simple: stay the fuck away from this cesspit until something changes.
Note: The Comic’s Lounge was reached out to for comment multiple times; they did not respond.