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The Comedy of Errors

The Nottingham Comedy Festival Director Helen Stead: "It is important to remember that comedy is an outlet to escape from reality, people like to have a laugh to forget about their troubles."

28 October 19 interview: Ashley Carter
photos: Natalie Owen

Since its inception in 2009, The Nottingham Comedy Festival has been consistently bringing the laughs to our city year after year. With 2019 set to be the biggest and best festival yet, we caught up with co-founder and director Helen Stead… 

For the uninitiated, what is Nottingham Comedy Festival?
The Nottingham Comedy Festival is an annual festival that comes to the city. Established in 2009, it brings together comedians from all over the country, from brand new artists to household names. You will find stand-up, improvisation, sketch, musical, poetry and even podcasts!

What can people look forward to at the 2019 Festival?
This year’s festival is the largest festival yet, with over 125 shows taking place in 23 venues across Nottingham - there is something for every taste. You can watch top names like Rob Beckett, Russell Kane and Gary Delaney; support local acts such as Scott Bennett, Katie Mitchell and MissImp, or see one of the many other great shows. If you can't decide, then there are also a few compilation shows taking place with a few different acts each night. It's going to be a great ten days.

Do you try and find a mixture of local comedians and comics from further afield?
We like to bring comedians from all over to Nottingham - we have such a fantastic comedy scene here. Each year we see a rise in local talent and love to be able to give these artists a platform to perform. We also think it’s important to have a variety of shows, so love being able to bring a selection of shows from across the country to the city. We are an open access festival so everyone is welcome. 

What are some of the challenges you face in organising a comedy festival every year?
One of the biggest challenges is the logistics. We work alongside many venues and promoters across the county so there are a lot of discussions and negotiations taking place with many different people!

Finance is another issue. We like to keep costs down to a minimum for the artists, and we aim to make the festival affordable to those taking part and to those coming to watch. However festivals do cost a lot of money to organise and run so we are always working on a tight budget.

What is the average Notts comedy fan like?
Nottingham has some of the best audiences. We can be tough as we know what we like, but generally we find that Nottingham audiences are very supportive and are great crowds.

It is important to remember that comedy is an outlet to escape from reality, people like to have a laugh to forget about their troubles

During your time with the festival, how much have you seen the comedy scene change?
A lot has changed in ten years. In recent years, there’s been a big push to promote women in comedy. There are some incredible female comedians on the circuit and on TV and we are now seeing this influence new acts, every year we are seeing an increase in female talent coming through. Also, the Nottingham scene has grown rapidly, there has definitely been an increase in local talent.

After Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette came out, a few high-profile publications wrote about us living in the age of “post-comedy” – where stand-up is more about emotional impact than making people laugh. What are your thoughts on that? 
Comedy has always been an outlet for people to share their views  — over the years you can see how comedy has changed depending on what is going on in the world, and these shows do reflect this. I have seen some fantastic shows where there is an important message but it is done with humour; it’s about getting the balance right.

It is important to remember that comedy is an outlet to escape from reality, people like to have a laugh to forget about their troubles. There is a lot of variety in comedy and it is very subjective. If someone wants a show with an ‘emotional impact’ then these are available, but some people just want to watch a show full of jokes.

Are there any topics that you think comedians should stay away from on stage?
Comedians can get away with most things if said carefully, but there is a line. I once saw someone joke about a very recent attack, which was too soon and very ill-judged. They quickly realised and have never done that again!

There have been a few high-profile instances of comedians — like Kevin Hart, Shane Gillis and Hasan Minhaj — losing work due to the ‘controversial’ nature of their past jokes. Is this something you have to consider when booking comics for the festival?
Each venue in the festival does have to consider acts before booking. We aim to be an open access festival, however we do want everyone to enjoy themselves and have a laugh so it is important to consider who is booked.

If you could arrange a comedy night with any four comedians, dead or alive, who would you choose?
I’ve always loved Robin Williams and Rowan Atkinson so I would love to have those on. Locally, I think Scott Bennett is one of the strongest acts around and deserves to be a household name so I would ask him to get involved. And then for the fourth act, I’d ask Laura Lexx. Laura is another act who I don’t think gets the recognition she deserves. I have always enjoyed her shows and she is an incredibly strong MC.

What’s your favourite joke?
Any that make me laugh! My favourite joke from this year's Edinburgh Fringe came from Adele Cliff, who said: "I accidentally booked myself onto an escapology course; I'm really struggling to get out of it."


The Nottingham Comedy Festival is taking place between Friday 1 November Sunday 10 November

The Nottingham Comedy Festival website

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