RAW Comedy

Eight years ago, Celia Pacquola was nervously waiting for her turn backstage at The Evelyn in Fitzroy. She was about to perform stand-up comedy, in front of a full room, for the first time ever. She had only two weeks to prepare for Australia’s largest, preeminent open mic comp – RAW Comedy – a rite of passage for Australian comedians run by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival which provides a platform that allowed talents such as Chris Lilley, Hannah Gadsby, Josh Thomas, Peter Helliar, Claire Hooper, Ronny Chieng, and Tim Minchin to launch their comedic careers. With so little time to prepare, what gave her the courage to enter?

“I was dating a comedian who entered me without telling me, so nothing gave me the courage,” she laughs. “It was not my decision. At uni I’d done some sketch comedy but that’s where my stand-up started. This was eight years ago; I did it the year Hannah Gadsby won, and that’s where we met, and Tom Ballard I think was also in our year. I loved it – it really helped me to no end in terms of getting runs on the board and to have the opportunity to perform to a crowd as well. When you’re new, often you’re playing open mic kind of rooms, it’s not a real crowd, so to have the opportunity to play a gig that’s well run, and it’s got a big crowd, and it’s got a professional MC – well,” she chuckles, “which is why I’ve put a lot of pressure of MCing it myself because I know how important it is that you want to give the new comics a level playing field and a kind audience to come out to. It’s their first time onstage, you don’t want them to have a bad time and thinking, ‘I’m never doing it again’.”

RAW Comedy kicks off this weekend with the first of many qualifying heats in Melbourne, and anyone over 17 who has earned less than $500 from performing comedy is eligible to enter. All you need is five minutes of original comedy and the cojones to give it a go. Pacquola herself is not only a graduate of RAW but also has returned to MC in previous years. Her familiarity with the format grants her insight knowledge as to what the judges desire in RAW comedians.


“I think originality is important, and potential. They’re not looking for people who are completely polished. Sometimes there’s people up there and the jokes are not quite right but you see what they were trying to do and it’s interesting. That’s what I feel. It’s partly performance and confidence onstage but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a combination of things, but I think originality and something interesting. You just gotta do whatever you wanna do. I like seeing stuff I’ve never heard before, something new and interesting.”


The audiences at RAW, as Paquola points out, are “incredible” and generally very receptive and warm. She fondly remembers receiving her first ever laugh during RAW but refuses to tell me the gag despite my pleading and subsequent threats. She does, however, recall how helpful her MC was.


“Rachel Berger was my MC. She helped me, she was really supporting and told me, ‘They want to love you. They don’t want you to fail. They want you to go well’ which was really good advice. As advice, be prepared as you can be. Know your stuff and that’ll just take the nerves away if you know it. Time it, because you get a certain time and the light goes on and if you go over time, the judges will mark you down if you disregard the rules. Don’t panic, just wrap up. It’s totally fine. I remember I got the light and I wasn’t prepared.


“This is something I do before gigs now: try wanna go out there. It’s scary but once you’re up there it’s happening. Your mind goes, ‘I could run away right now’ but as soon as you go, ‘No this is happening, we’re doing this’ and think, ‘I can’t wait to go out there’. Hold the mic near your face. You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen.”


When her boyfriend signed her up for RAW, Pacquola had two weeks to write and prepare. For her upcoming show, Pacquola wrote it over two years, and returning to MC at the venue that somewhat changed the trajectory of her life brings upon strange feelings.


“It was my first gig ever. I got to the national final and I won Best First Time Entrance, which was called the Raw Recruit, and that was the first time they did that award. They did it for two more years and then they stopped doing it – which wasn’t my fault,” she laughs. “It was actually at The Evelyn as well, where I’ll be MCing next week, is where my first ever stand-up gig was. I’ve MC’ed there a couple of times. It’s always a bit surreal.”



The first RAW Comedy Melbourne qualifying heat is on at The Evelyn this Saturday January 11 from 1pm and will continue throughout January, February and March in venues across the city. Check out comedyfestival.com.au/raw for full dates and to register.