Leicester Comedy is 25. Well, 24, if you’re a pedant, as Great Central’s Editors can attest your author is, from the tedious Facebook messages I’ve sent them about this. But forget that – the important thing is, as of February, Leicester’s home-grown extravaganza of laughter will be happening for the 25th time! It’s a huge milestone, and the Great Central team think that’s just one of a multitude of things worth celebrating about it.

Neatly dodging out of the shadow of Edinburgh by describing itself as “England’s biggest comedy festival”, the Festival has in fact blossomed into a perfect middle ground between Scotland’s grandest stage and its smaller contemporaries – the myriad daily shows (29.8 per day on average, this year) providing a guarantee you’ll find something interesting with minimal effort, but without the rammed streets and scramble for tickets that come with the territory up north. It’s been a long journey to get to that point, filled with twists, turns, and curiosities. Join us for a stroll through some of them, and find out how Leicester Comedy Festival became the staggering sprawl of joy and creativity it is today.

The Festival’s inaugural outing in 1994 was not as different from today as one might think. Smaller, yes, and shorter – 40 shows across 23 venues in the space of a week – but the spirit of splitting acts between conventional venues (the Haymarket Theatre, DMU Students’ Union, various pubs) and whatever other spaces could hold them (Snibston Discovery Park, several Age Concern centres) was established from the off. The name acts from that year – a fresh-onto-TV Harry Hill, and Matt Lucas, a year short of breaking out on Shooting Stars – are certainly more “names” now than they were then, but were staples of the alternative scene at the time, and marked Leicester’s new festival out as something fresh and different.

It’s now 2018, and as we approach the big 25, the length has quadrupled, the shows number an astonishing 835, and the venues range from the 2,000-capacity De Montfort Hall – almost halfway to accommodating the entire 1994 audience – to cocktail bar basements, a pizzeria, and a few literal hotel rooms for Miyango’s Hotel D’Comedie project. Hill, now a household name, is back this year for a sit-down interview with festival ringmaster Geoff Rowe, two figures from the very beginning reuniting. It’s a nice full-circle moment for Rowe, who delights that his baby has “grown incredibly over the years”, and is clearly thrilled to bring back one of his first headliners for an interview slot previously graced by Tony Slatterly, Paul Merton, and Nick Park.

Indeed, the Festival has a track record of drawing big acts – the last two decades-plus have also seen bona-fide stars like Jimmy Carr, Roseanne Barr and Alan Davies stop by – but it’s also staked out a reputation as a platform for alternative acts to build themselves into big-deal main events or solidify their folk hero status. Stewart Lee regularly risks his indie street cred by coming ever closer to filling De Montfort Hall. Proto-surrealist Johnny Vegas has popped along most Februaries to to gradually climb the ranks to headline act, taking the featured interview slot in 2016 and packing an intimate show at Hansom Hall to the rafters last year. Lefty agitator supreme Josie Long is rarely absent, and is always at home in whatever size venue makes itself available.

Nik Sharpe, promoter at key venue The Cookie, is bubbling with enthusiasm about this upward mobility. “Every year we have so many emerging talents. We’ve had acts like Romesh Ranganathan, Joe Lycett, and Jon Richardson go on to be huge stars.”

Dig into the Festival’s lineup every year and you will, without fail, find a show or two by Matt Hollins. He’s a Leicester scene staple in all 12 months of the year, but his relationship with the festival is an odd one. In 2004, with just his 25th gig, he landed the relatively prestigious Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year award, following Rhod Gilbert the year before and beating Russell Kane to the prize. But unlike his contemporaries, Hollins’ fame has been restricted to the heartfelt respect of fellow acts and local scene die-hards.

“Winning it meant everything,” Hollins tells us. “It made little difference to my expectations because everything was new to me. When I got into stand-up I wanted to do it full-time, and when I won, a non-comedian friend said “well, you’re going to turn pro after that.” But I remember having doubts about how hard it would be, the pressure, the lifestyle.” He mentions opportunities that came from the award, but also the difficulties of being “inexperienced and a slow learner.” He recalls telling his agent, who pursued him after his 2nd gig, that he wanted to stick to stand-up, an alien and refreshing concept amongst a sea of clients who were targeting sitcom vehicles. He did keep doing stand-up, and has standing paid gigs across the country from the award victory to this day, but compared to Kane or Gilbert, his mark on the industry has been modest.

And yet every year, Hollins is back at Leicester for more. More to the point, there’s often a local flavour in the veins of the material. Hollins has graced the Festival with a Leicester-flavoured Pete Doherty send-up as part of the exquisitely-titled Blabyshambles. He’s split a room of mosh-pit-weary fans at Handmade Festival – one half utterly bewildered, the other half in streams-of-tears hysterics – with a rambling shaggy dog routine about Wigston Swimming Baths. Hollins says this is “on a subconscious level”, noting that only 2 of his solo shows have had local-themed titles and that much of the “local feel” of 2017’s LE8 State of Mind could be applied to “any small group of villages”. But as universal as the material is, the context of Leicester is where it was birthed. All year round, but especially in February, Hollins goes to arguably greater lengths than anyone to celebrate our city and its culture, and we say that as a magazine about the place staffed by writers who are willingly paid with a quarterly curry because we’re so bloody glad to just be involved.

It would be oversimplifying – and ignoring a lot of other tireless contributors – to suggest that Hollins sums up everything great about the Festival, but he’s an outstanding example why it’s thriving in its 25th year. The programme has enough star power to grab attention, but the fridge backing it all up has found so much health and energy in its diverse embracing of the city, you could make a case for it being studied as part of evolutionary science. The Festival has become an animal perfectly attuned to its environment, building off the established patterns of its species but learning to feed off, and make a feast of, the fruits surrounding it.

Hollins enthuses about the local scene as much as anyone, too. Working through mental health issues (he was an inpatient when he got the call notifying him of his award nomination) and related medication, he’s found a home in the left-field troupe of creators that make up the city’s regular nights, and is full of praise for his contemporaries. With audience numbers “looking better in the last year or so”, mirroring his health situation, Hollins is “enjoying my comedy a lot more since 2013. The creativity has been flowing.”

Hollins’ cult status is far from unprecedented at the Festival, too. Rowe, when discussing acts that should’ve broken out big, cites Chris Lynam – “an amazing act who combined comedy with melted chocolate and fireworks” – before conceding that such an act simply wouldn’t have worked in larger spaces, his shows being “so dangerous he was limited in terms of venues that would book him!”. Multi-festival fringe legend Bob Slayer reveals that this penchant for left-field material is a habit of Rowe’s – “my running around the De Montfort Hall balcony naked caused the venue to have heart attacks, which Geoff had to deal with, but later that night at the after-show, instead of reading me the riot act he offered to support us running our own venue. I like someone who can put creativity first.”

Acts like Lynam and Hollins raise a fascinating artistic point (basic health and safety aside). Would the appeal of such left-field material translate to a bigger stage in a meaningful way? Chances are it wouldn’t, but in many ways, isn’t that its biggest strength? Isn’t there inherent artistic worth in seeing Lindsey Warnes Carroll, as Hollins puts it, “always doing something different”, such as slathering a Y-fronted Graham Milton in baby oil for a live-action remake of Top Gun in terrifying proximity to an audience packed into the Criterion’s side room? GC is biased as the day is long, but we’d put that at the foreground of any future City of Culture bids. It’s a vital element of the Festival, adding enormous legitimacy and merit to a whole which is more than the sum of its parts – not to mention ever-growing.

Honestly, though, even if your preferred metric of success is cold hard cash – which we’ll assume you settled on out of concern for artists’ wellbeing – the Festival’s niches have their value there too. 2017 saw what can only be described as a cacophonous buzz surrounding one particular show. Rob Kemp made the short trip from West Midlands to bring his Eastern neighbours The Elvis Dead, a retelling of The Evil Dead through the medium of reworked Elvis songs. Played out to the Soundhouse’s tiny gig room as part of the Leicester Fridge lineup, Kemp blew audiences away, necessitated a sell-out second night, and following a year of national acclaim will bring the show back to the comparatively cavernous Y Theatre for 2018.

“That’s what the Festival can do for a comic,” enthuses Dave McGuckin, former promoter of the Fridge and its sister pay-what-you-want mini-fest Jokes on Us. “Rob took a ludicrous concept which could have gone over everyone’s heads and put together a smash so almighty we had to run a second date.” Slayer, who went on to promote the show’s Edinburgh run, calls Kemp “without a doubt the biggest talent I first saw at Leicester.”

“These days I’m delighted that audiences try stuff out. They go across the festival, not just sticking to the big or famous names.”

Head honcho Rowe is, of course, thrilled to champion the vibrant Fridge that produces such wonders. “These days I’m delighted that audiences try stuff out. They go across the festival, not just sticking to the big or famous names. Being the start of the year for the comedy community means we get acts trying out new material and shows, so if you want to see that before anyone else, Leicester’s the place to be!”

Slayer, now as much a part of the Leicester Fridge furniture as he is in Edinburgh, is in firm agreement – “All hail the Fridge! The amazing collection of really talented local acts gives the festival its unique heart.”

“Acts get the opportunity to be part of a wider comedy family,” enthuses Warnes Carroll, evangelical about the spirit the Festival affords. She gleefully recalls medicine-sharing solidarity among gangs of comedians who’ve all lost their voices mid-run and “a Beyonce dance-off with Adam Larter who was dressed as David Bowie.”

But the best thing about the compendium of unique and brilliant stories written at the Festival? It’s nowhere near finished. 2018 promises a fresh cornucopia of comedy, with the undeniably legit parade of big names supplemented by red-hot acts ready to break big – Sharpe tips Jamali Maddix, while McGuckin is “consistently amazed” that Sarah Keyworth isn’t on TV already – and a cult scene ready to reinvent itself in its own image all over again. Leicester Comedy Festival is 25 years young, and is showing precisely zero signs of slowing down.

Leicester Comedy Festival takes place from the 7th to the 25th February at venues across the city. Find out more at comedy-festival.co.uk

Charles Wheeler is a writer, performance poet and shameless cultural hanger-on. In his spare time, he can be found refereeing pro wrestling and looking after his pet rats. He is ambivalent about Marmite.

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