Inside the UK’s first LGBTQ+ comedy festival: ‘We can finally make jokes at our own expense’

The London LGBTQ+ Stand Up Comedy Festival: Rhys Nicholson, Hannah Byczkowski and Dee Allum (Monica Pronk/BBC/Jonathan Kemp Photography)

When comedian Dee Allum performed as part of Clandestina Queer Comedy on the opening night of the UK’s first LGBTQ+ comedy festival last month, it was the first time she had ever been on the same line-up as another trans woman.

“I’ve been gigging in London for two years and that has never happened before,” says Dee, who began her stand-up career around the same time as she came out as trans.

“I know of other trans women who do comedy, but we just don’t get booked on the same night,” she adds, alluding to the fact that queer comedians are still very much used as a tick-box exercise.

The London LGBTQ+ Stand Up Comedy Festival is changing that.

Launched this year by queer stand-up night Comedy Bloomers, the festival gives a platform to established and upcoming LGBTQ+ talent, with three weeks of queer comedy nights across the capital.

It comes hot on the heels of Queer Comedy Club, which became the UK’s first permanent LGBTQ+ comedy club when it opened in May.

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Headlining the closing night on 11 June is Drag Race Down Under judge and Australian comic Rhys Nicholson, who agrees that even today, organisers are reluctant to sign up more than one queer act at a time. 

Rhys Nicholson wears a blue suit and tie with a white flower in the pocket. He is about to clap is hands.
Drag Race Down Under judge and comic Rhys Nicholson. (Monica Pronk)

“A lot of my friends who I started with in comedy in Australia, we never see each other any more, because we’ve never worked together,” says Nicholson, who uses they/them pronouns. “There’s still that kind of mentality of like, ‘Well, we’ve got one of them, and we don’t want more than one of them’.”

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It’s so prolific that it’s become a running joke among their queer comic friends. “If two of us are on the same show, we’ll say: ‘So many gays on this line-up – who’s looking after the airport?’ Because you never see us all in the same room.”

Some of the largest comedy platforms in the world, such as live stand-up comedy specials on streaming services, are being dominated by the likes of Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, who seem intent on punching down against trans people specifically. 

With comedy feeling like a worryingly toxic industry for the LGBTQ+ community, a space for queer comics to work together feels needed.

For Rhys, who started their comedy career 15 years ago, nurturing friendships with other queer comics helped them to not feel like “the token gay in a group of straight people”.

Genderqueer lesbian comedy giant Hannah Gadsby was one of those who helped Rhys’ career take off. “There was a bit of a ‘hey kid, stick with it’ type of vibe to them. They were very patient with me,” Nicholson reveals.

Comedian Zoë Coombs Marr, who married Nicholson in 2016, to highlight the importance of marriage equality in Australia, was another comic who helped them to blossom. 

“Even though I was in a long-term relationship already, I was pretending to be a massive s**t on stage and talking about gagging on d***s and stuff like that,” Nicholson says. Marr sat them down and “brutally” told them to stop. “You’re a lot better than this,” they recall her telling them.

Nicholson used to feel that they had to play up to gay stereotypes to appease a straight audience, but the industry is changing.

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“That’s what I like about these queer shows, as well. I think we’re finally at a point where we can be making jokes at our own expense for ourselves, not jokes at our expense for the straight community,” they say.

They run a comedy club in Melbourne, and say it’s “heartening” to see young queer comics steering away from making themselves the butt of the joke. “There are no jokes at their own expense any more. It’s not currency.”

An LGBTQ+ comedy festival is, unsurprisingly, likely to bring in a predominately queer audience, which has huge benefits for queer comics too.

“I think all good comedy comes from a place of having experienced something that audiences can share,” Allum says. She turns her experiences as a trans woman into comedy, and sharing those jokes is far easier when in a room of people who know a bit about the LGBTQ+ experience.

“It makes me feel just very comfortable as a performer [if]I know that I’m on the same wavelength as the audience,” she says.

It also takes the pressure off. When she’s performing during standard comedy nights, it’s likely that someone in the audience has never knowingly interacted with a trans person before.

During a queer comedy night, “you can just focus on telling the jokes, and not how you’re coming across in the context of some bigger political debate that is incredibly tedious and tiresome”.

While the London LGBTQ+ Stand Up Comedy Festival prioritises queer talent, there’s room for allies, too. Hannah Byczkowski, who won BBC’s The Traitors in 2022, is also a comic. She began stand-up after quitting her role in palliative care during the pandemic.

As someone who has been immersed in the queer community “since I was child”, she was overjoyed to perform at one of the festival’s earlier events.

As a self-declared “boring, straight, white woman,” she recognises the importance of queer-centred comedy events. “In comedy and showbiz, everywhere needs to have their own pocket of safety for people in the community,” she says.

Hannah Byczkowski in a promotional image for BBC reality series The Traitors.
The Traitors winner and stand-up comedian Hannah Byczkowski. (BBC)

Particularly as, in her experience, the industry is still entrenched in lad culture.

“You see it all the time. Even for women, people are just like ‘women aren’t funny’, and that’s it. The problem is, there’s no HR department and no one is policing it [so] it’s something that can’t be addressed.”

It’s a similar story with audiences. “You can’t police what kind of audience comes in and how they’re going to react,” Byczkowski says, adding that queer comics should be able “to go work without fear” of bigotry they might come up against.

As with any crumb of queer representation, there are those who question why such a festival is needed. Allum’s response to the naysayers is simple.

“Anyone who has ever been to a gig, just a regular gig, or just watched any comedy on television, if they feel like they’re not seeing enough straight people doing comedy, I don’t know what to tell you.

“You don’t have to come,” she adds. “You can go to just a regular night, and you will get exactly what I think you want. Which is just straight white men, telling you about their kids or divorce.”

Dee Allum looking off camera wearng blue dungarees and pink top.
Dee Allum at the opening night of London’s first LGBTQ+ stand-up comedy festival. (Jonathan Kemp Photography)

Put simply, queer comedy events are a place for those with a shared understanding of the world to laugh at some of the absurdity they endure.

“Long story short,” Nicholson finishes, “it does feel nice to be able to talk directly to your community and not have to do it through a straight audience.”

The London LGBTQ+ Stand Up Comedy Festival runs until 11 June.

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