A barrel of laughs

By Charlie Bourne

People always need a good laugh. For 25 years, the Leicester Comedy Festival has provided much more than that. To learn more about what goes on away from the stage spotlight, Charlie Bourne spoke to Founder and Director Geoff Rowe.

Geoff with Harry Hill
Geoff Rowe squaring off with Harry Hill before their Q+A interview

From its humble beginnings starting out as a university project, the festival has evolved into a platform for aspiring comedians to be heard, a multi-million-pound boost to the city’s economy and one of Leicester’s biggest entertainment attractions.

This year’s festival held big names in honour of its 25th birthday, such as recent ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestant Shappi Khorsandi, Sara Pascoe, Harry Hill and internet sensation Jonathon Pie.

Attracting household performers is essential for the festival, and takes a combined effort by venues, promoters and the festival itself to get right.

Geoff said: “A lot of people think as a central organisation we book all the shows and do all the promotion.

“But I think one of the great things about the festival is we don’t directly promote most of the events.

“We work really collaboratively with all of our venues like The Curve, De Montfort Hall and Loughborough town hall that are more likely to attract big names.

“We have an ongoing dialogue with them to say okay well, Katherine Ryan is touring a show could you try and get her in the festival.

“The other way we do it is through what we call our special events so the Q&A with Harry Hill and Sara Pascoe we did this year, the Gala Preview show we did in January.

“They are our promotions and we produce them directly, so we work to get headline acts to come to the festival every year.”

Geoff rowe with Sara Pascoe
Geoff pictured interviewing Sara Pascoe

While the big crowds are often drawn to the headline acts, in the past, the festival has offered more intimate viewings where comics share new material that has often never been heard elsewhere.

“Some acts do us favours almost by trying out new material in smaller venues.

“Sarah Millican has come and tried out new shows in venues that hold just 80 people and that creates and different kind of buzz and excitement.

“These things happen because we’ve run the festival for such a long time and now we have direct relationships with comedians, agencies and managers that help make it what is today.”

However, an immense part of the festival is dedicated to the next generation of comics just waiting for their chance to burst into the competitive comedy industry and with prestigious awards up for grabs, a comedian’s value can quickly rise.

Geoff said: “We’ve had numerous examples over the years of new comedians that have come and won some of our competitions like the Leicester Mercury comedian of the year for example

“They’ve gone on to become hugely successful and famous because people pay attention to those kind of things.”

Jason Manford, Romesh Ranganathan, Johnny Vegas and Josh Widdicombe are just a few of the past winners to the Leicester Mercury’s star-rising award, and this year’s winner Jack Gleadow was also a hit.

“Jack, I think is absolutely fabulous, I really enjoyed seeing him, he was absolutely brilliant.” Geoff said.

With that said, it’s the festival’s task to create a supportive atmosphere for them to thrive in.

“This year we did a new project called circuit breakers. Where we bought six new comedians to the festival and looked after them. We gave them hotels, covered their transport, gave them meals and introduced them to new people.

“That was a very supportive thing we did and I think the Leicester Comedy festival is a very supportive place for emerging comedians to come. When you go somewhere like Edinburgh, you’re often performing to industry people or others also waiting to perform in the same venue as you.

“I think with Leicester, generally speaking, your performing to members of the public who have decided to take a chance in some instances to see new and emerging comedians. In some respects, they get more genuine feedback from the audience as they want to be there.”

“So I think for comedians starting out it’s a good entry point too the comedy industry.”

If you thought the comedy festival was just all about stand up, you couldn’t be more wrong.

With outdoor comedy events like Dead Leicester, the quirky tours and the secret tours. As well as other events like the Ultimate Comedy Championships, there is a wide range of events running over the three-week period that everyone will enjoy.

“There is a big diversity of acts that help spread the festival further than it might do.

“This year we did an event in Leicester cathedral which attracted around 300 people who probably wouldn’t go to a stand up gig in a bar in town so it’s all about getting different sorts of people to come and enjoy the festival.” Geoff said.

Not long after the annual festival finished, dates for next year have already been set but before that commences on 6th February, there is still a lot to be done to ensure the festival returns for another year.

Geoff said: “The main priority is to keep it going, I want to keep the momentum we’ve gathered going, there are comedians that I would love to come to the festival and I wont give up on that.

“It’s important to get a good mix of events, to get big names in and find new talent, but the important thing right now is to keep it going.”


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