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A bit (well quite a lot…) of History

Leicester Comedy Festival is produced by registered charity Big Difference Company – see below for more information about the charity.  The festival started in 1994 with 40 events programmed into 23 venues over 7 days throughout Leicestershire. In 1994 it attracted an audience of 5,000 and enjoyed a modest amount of media attention and a high profile within the community.

Since then we have featured top stand-up names such as Roseanne Barr, Jo Brand, Paul Merton, Jack Dee, Dave Gorman, Tony Slattery, Rory Bremner, Barry Cryer, Alan Davies, Jeremy Hardy, Bill Bailey, Garth Marenghi, Rhona Cameron, Ross Noble, Lee Hurst, Johnny Vegas, Simon Day, John Shuttleworth, Daniel Kitson, Rich Hall, Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Russell Brand, The Mighty Boosh, Dara O' Briain, Simon Pegg, Lee Mack, Dave Spikey and Harry Hill.

The festival also incorporates comedy film, poetry & spoken word, comic theatre, photographic and art exhibitions, and children's shows.

Here’s a run down of some of the highlights:


First Leicester Comedy Festival takes place featuring Matt Lucas, Harry Hill and John Shuttleworth.


Leicester Comedy Festival features The Comedy Store Players, Felix Dexter and George Melly.  The programme also features a Disability Comic Workshop led by Johnny Crescendo and a performance by Khel Rangara.  First Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Competition takes place; Stevie Knuckles wins.


Emergency Exit Arts launch festival with amazing pyrotechnic performance through the streets of Leicester.  Programme also includes Mark Lamarr, Linda Smith, Julian Clary, Jon Pertwee and Russell Peters.  A live production of Fever Pitch takes place in a conference room at Filbert Street stadium and an education programme tackles issues linked to racism and sexism in football.


Craig Charles, Alan Davies, Barry Cryer, Bobby Davro, Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey, Graham Norton and Jack Dee perform at the festival whilst Johnny Vegas wins Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year.  A bumper year!  The Guardian said the community programme helped create “a pretty broad grin”.


David Baddiel, The Deaf Comedians, Mark Little, Phil Jupitus, Ken Campbell and Bernie Clifton perform at the festival.  Vintage Theatre Company, set up for those aged over 50, perform The Spotted Chameleon.


The Funjabis, Stephen K Amos, Andy Parsons, Heart n Soul Roadshow and Goodness Gracious Me perform at Leicester Comedy Festival.  Also featured are a special live tribute to Graham Chapman and an interview with Alan Birchenall by Alistair McGowan.


Stewart Lee, Lee Hurst, Mighty Boosh, Jo Brand and Reginald D Hunter perform at Leicester Comedy Festival as well as the first Leicester charity gig in aid of Amnesty International, hosted by Jo Brand.  The creator of “The Weakest Link” Cathy Dunning performs at 27a Access Artspace.


Paul Merton, The Philharmonia Orchestra, Daniel Kitson, Rich Hall, Ross Noble and John Hegley perform alongside Charnwood Community Theatre.  BBC Light Entertainment organise a writing comedy for radio workshop.


Tim Vine, Brendon Burns, Pam Ann, Gervase Phinn and Men In Coats perform. The first ever Gala Preview Show takes place at Haymarket Theatre and is hosted by Lee Mack. 


Tina C, Dave Spikey, Mark Thomas, Jimmy Carr, Omid Djalili perform alongside Doug Stanhope who flies in from the U.S especially for the festival.  The festival also hosts the first (& last) National Chortle Comedy Conference at Phoenix.  The first Summer Raspberry festival takes place in July featuring Jimmy Carr, Count Arthur Strong and Daniel Kitson.


Dara O’Briain, Charles Collingwood, Barry Cryer perform and the first Festival Fringe takes place in pubs across Leicestershire. Crowds gather in Braunstone Park to watch the outdoor spectacle Blast!


Jason Manford, Phil Cool, The Umbilical Brothers, Jason Byrne and John Otway perform.  The first Chortle Comedy Quiz takes place as well as the first festival performances by Gujarati Comedy Group.  BBC Radio 4 record The News Quiz and young people from Bosworth Community College perform sketches.


Roseanne Barr makes her first ever UK stand-up performances at Leicester Comedy Festival.  Stewart Lee takes part in a debate about Jerry Springer the Opera in Leicester Cathedral.  Lee Mack, Jeremy Hardy and Ben Elton perform shows.  Performer Rob Gee was adopted into the welcoming arms of Eyres Monsell Primary, Sparkenhoe Community Primary and Mellor Primary School.  Soft Touch and Refugee Housing joined forces with Leicester Comedy Festival on a cartooning project for new arrivals to Leicester.


Russell Brand, Paul Merton, Josie Long, Arthur Smith and Tim Minchin perform.  John Ryan performs his Hurt Until It Laughs show in 2 Leicestershire prisons, and some of the inmates move to the back row in case John picks on them……  A special event takes place to honour writer and Leicester lad Joe Orton, featuring Sue Townsend, Joe’s 2 sisters and Simon Fanshawe.

First Best of Leicester Comedy Festival tour visits Derby, Nottingham & Leicester.


Pappy's Fun Club, Michael McIntyre, Frankie Boyle, Mark Watson and Jon Richardson perform at Leicester Comedy Festival.  We develop the first Hotel D’Comedie performances in the beautiful Hotel Maiyango.  Captain Carrot performs to young people from schools from across Leicestershire, spreading a healthy eating message.  Hathi Productions perform The Rise and Fall of Chugenal Patel and we premier our Those YoungMinds performance focusing on issues connected with young people and emotional health.


Gilded Balloon set up camp at The City Rooms for duration of festival.  They feature over 30 shows in 3 venues.  Ed Byrne, Clive James, David O’Doherty, Hans Teeuwen, Mark Thomas and Shazia Mirza perform.

Young people from across the East Midlands perform as part of the Pieces project, a partnership with Nottingham Playhouse.  The Best of Leicester Comedy Festival tour has grown to 14 venues across the UK.


The festival gets extended from 10 to 17 days! Festival acts included Adam Buxton, Julian Clary, Rhod Gilbert, Stewart Lee, Lee Mack, Shappi Khorsandi, Jimmy Carr, Sean Lock, Sarah Millican, Robin Ince, Tim Vine and Jenny Eclair. 

Josh Widdicombe won the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year and special festival shows included Blind Tiger Meal, Charity Shop DJ, and Comedy in the Dark. 

The Best of Leicester Comedy Festival tours to venues across the UK and we present Comedy in the Dark as part of the Edinburgh Fringe...

The festival took place across 50 venues with 370 shows and boasted sell out shows from David Morgan, Asian Persuasion, Idiots of Ants, Jimmy Carr, Micky Flanagan, Mark Thomas, Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Competition, Kitty Cointreau’s BraHaHa, Jon Richardson, Sarah Millican, Milton Jones, Mark Steel, Ceri Dupree, Chris Boyd, Josh Widdicombe, Comedy In The Dark, Iain Stirling & Sean McLouglin, Foolhardy Comedy Showcase, Mark Smith & Rhys Jones, John Robins , Andi Osho, Isy Suttie, Alun Cochrane, Andy Zaltzman, Simon Evans & Bottle Rocket at Loughborough Town Hall.

We received a letter from The Queen wishing us luck.

We renamed the festival as Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival as we enter into a partnership with TV channel Dave. The festival took place across 50 venues with 410 shows and performers included Sarah Millican, Arthur Smith, Greg Davies, Russell Howard, Pam Ayres and Shappi Khorsandi. The festival had a new venue in the form of Dave's Curry House which hosted performances across the 17 days. The festival launched on 3rd February with a Guerrilla Knitting attack across the city centre and Shelly Bridgman won the first Silver Comedy Competition for comedians aged over 55.


An enormous 530 events took place in around 50 venues across the city & county with appearances from Milton Jones, Arthur Smith, Russell Kane, Daniel Simonsen, Russell Howard, Jon Richardson, Josh Widdicombe and Johnny Vegas.  Special events included Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year (won by Romesh Ranganathan), Comedy in the Dark, Comedy Tourist, Dave’s Curry House (with a surprise visit from Al Murray), Comedy Cook Off and Hotel D’Comedie.  We also hosted a seminar focusing on the last 20 years of British Comedy with panellists Nica Burns, Kate Copstick, Don Ward and John Fleming.  Throughout the festival we hosted a photographic exhibition at Leicester train station featuring comedians who had performed in the festival over the past 20 years.  Our Silver Stand Up competition was won by Marc Lucero and we recognised Sir Norman Wisdom (patron of the festival since 1994) with the new Legend of Comedy award.


Well, if we thought last year’s festival was huge, this year we had 627 events across the 17 days. Highlights included Russell Kane, The Inaugural UK Pun Championships (hosted by Lee Nelson & won by Darren Walsh), Alan Davies, Chris Ramsey, Dominic Holland, Gary Delaney, Hal Cruttenden, Robert Newman and Lucy Porter.  We opened up a load of venues not usually open to the public, including the incredible Hansom Hall, taken over by Heroes of Comedy.  We had loads of exclusives: Jasper Carrott hosted our Preview Show at De Montfort Hall, Alexei Sayle delivered the first “I Say” comedy conversation, Jason Manford was interviewed live on stage and Ken Dodd turned up at our Awards Ceremony to accept his Legend of Comedy Award.  Our Silver Stand Up competition was won by Peter Callaghan, and the winner of Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition was Kate Lucas. 


The Festival featured over 630 events in 47 venues across 19 days - yep, we extended the festival by 2 days and ran for the full period from 4-22 February.  Highlights included The UK Pun Championships, hosted once again by Lee Nelson and won by Leo Kearse, The Preview Show (hosted by Alan Davies), an exclusive live interview with Sarah Millican, and gigs by Johnny Vegas, John Thomson, Milton Jones, Nina Conti and Jimmy Carr.  Just the Tonic Comedy Club took over Hanson Hall for the full festival, and comedy legend arrived to collect the Legend of Comedy award on behalf of his friend Rik Mayall.  Our Silver Stand Up competition was won by Ed de Cantor, and Tom Little won the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition.  We were proud to host an exhibition celebrating the life of Festival Patron Sir Norman Wisdom, curated by his son Nick.


The Festival featured over 780 events in 65 venues across the 19 days.  Our Gala Preview Show was hosted by Lee Nelson and featured acts including Jen Brister, The Boy With Tape On His Face and Nish Kumar.  Our UK Pun Championships was hosted by Lee Nelson and won by Masai Graham, and was supported by the first ever #UKPunDay campaign on twitter.  We hosted original comedy events including live Q&A's with Johnny Vegas and Nicholas Parsons, Silver Stand Up Competition, Comedy in a Car, Hotel D'Comedie and new shows Odd Couples, Paul Foot's Game of Dangers & Euroversity Challenge.  Tom Lucy won Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Competition.  We also hosted events across Leicester & Leicestershire as part of the Tiger Roar With Laughter Fringe and the BIG Weekends in Melton & Loughborough


In 2017 we became the official comedy party for the UK!  The festival included over 800 events across the 19 days; the biggest since the event began.

Sell out shows included: Adam Buxton, Johnny Vegas, Jimmy Carr, Sue Perkins, Stewart Lee, Ken Dodd, Stuart Goldsmith, Sooty, Mark Watson, Dane Baptiste, Tony Law, Tom Allen, Joe Lycett, Ed Gamble, Jamali Maddix, Robin Ince, Paul Foot, Joel Dommett, Lloyd Griffith, Andrew Ryan, James Acaster, Paul Sinha, Abandoman, Norman Lovett, Paul Currie, John Shuttleworth.

Exclusive shows at the festival included a sell-out Q&A with Romesh Ranganathan, the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Competition (won by Alasdair Beckett-King) , Silver Stand Up Competition (winner: Pete Teckman), The UK Pun Championships (won by Lovdev Barparga) Comedy in the Dark for Kids, Hotel D’Comedie & the @deadmonarchs exhibition.

Sell out shows as part of the BIG Weekends, as the festival expands into Leicestershire towns Loughborough & Melton, including Seann Walsh & Jon Richardson.

The festival created #UKPunDay which ended up generating over 30,000,000 impressions on twitter and was trending nationally throughout Monday 13th February


Leicester Comedy Festival 2018 included over 847 individual events in 69 venues across the city, over the festival’s 19 days. Ticket sales increased by 8% and many, many people attended free events throughout the event.  We received an increase in donations as performers and audience members support the charity (Big Difference Company) that produces the annual event.  The programme included performances and appearances by comedians such as Harry Hill, Sara Pascoe, John Cooper Clarke, Griff Rhys Jones, Paul Chowdhry and many, many more.  We set up the Laugh Term Comedy School to train young people in stand up comedy and comedy performance, and we also launched our Circuit Breakers development programme for new & emerging comedians.  Our LCFTV broadcasts took place throughout the festival, featuring many comedians and supporters of the festival. 

We hosted a few events and shows to help celebrate our 25th anniversary, including the ridiculous ’25 Acts for £25’ which featured 25 comedians performing one after the other (& went on for many hours) and our “25th Birthday Party” which took place at The Little Theatre.


Leicester Comedy Festival 2019 included over 870 individual events in 72 venues across the city, over the festival’s 19 days. We continue to receive an increase in donations as performers and audience members support the charity (Big Difference Company) that produces the annual event.  The programme included performances and appearances by comedians including Jo Brand, Johnny Vegas, Zoe Lyons, Jason Manford, Nish Kumar, Dave Gorman, Henning Wehn, Jason Byrne, Paul Sinha, Rich Hall, Shazia Mirza, Hal Cruttenden and Gary Delaney and many, many more.  Our Laugh Term Comedy School ran for the 2nd year, training young people in stand up comedy and comedy performance.  We also continued our Circuit Breakers development programme for new & emerging comedians. 6 comedians attended the festival and received support and advice, a professional photo shoot c/o Festival friend and amazing photographer Andy Hollingworth, and performed at the 2 Circuit Breakers showcases.

Tom Allen, Jo Brand, Andy Hollingworth and David Benson were interviewed live on stage, following in the footsteps of Johnny Vegas, Sarah Millican, Romesh Ranganthan and Jason Manford.  We hosted a special show to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Competition, which featured winners and nominees from the last 25 years and was headlined by Romesh Ranganathan and Josh Widdicombe.

For the first time Leicester Comedy Festival was commissioned by BBC local radio to produce 3 live comedy shows which were broadcast by BBC Radio Leicester, and BBC Sounds.

We launched the very first UK Kids’ Comedy Festival which featured shows, workshops and events aimed at children under 12 years of age, including Loving Laughing, a project teaching joke telling to Primary School children.  The festival will include shows from James Campbell, Funz & Games, Comedy 4 Kids Comedy Club, Bec Hill, Jarred Christmas and Bring Your Own Baby Comedy.


Leicester Comedy Festival 2020 was one of the only live arts/cultural festivals to have taken place in the year due to the Coronavirus lockdown which impacted on many, many other festivals planned to take place.  Our festival included almost 900 individual events in 90 venues across the city, over the festival’s 19 days. The main festival programme included performances and appearances by comedians including Stewart Lee, Shappi Khorsandi, Fascinating Aida, Paul Sinha, Josie Long, Jason Byrne, Angela Barnes, Griff Rhys Jones, Andy Parsons, John Shuttleworth, Dane Baptiste, Rhod Gilbert, Mark Steel, Flo & Joan, Reg D Hunter and many more.  We also produced our Laugh Term Comedy School, Circuit Breakers, an Older Persons Fringe, events in Leicester Children’s Hospital as well as the expanded BIG Weekend programme in venues across Leicestershire.  The festival was also featured in a special BBC Radio 4 Front Row programme which came live from Leicester and the entire programme covered various parts of the festival programme, plus our UK Kids’ Comedy Festival which took place for the 2nd year.


Leicester Comedy Festival 2021 was the first of our festivals to be held entirely online, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The programme included over 1678 hours of comedy, which was viewable thanks to a deal with NextUp Comedy, as well as events that were streamed on Twitch, Facebook Live, Youtube and other online platforms. Big-name comedians including Tom Allen, Ed Byrne, Nina Conti, Stewart Lee, Al Murray, Zoe Lyons appeared, as well as stand-up comedy shows, a seminar discussion programme, a series of special festival podcasts, kids and family shows and exclusive interviews with comedians. The festival producers also raided their archive and made available footage of comedians who had previously been in the festival over the last 28 years. Interviews and footage included appearances by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Nicholas Parsons, Jimmy Cricket and many more. The festival sold over 20,000 tickets to comedy lovers around the world, including in Australia, The USA, Sweden, Cyprus, Belgium, Belfast and Berlin, with 86% of audiences being entirely new to the festival.


All lockdown measures disappeared across the UK and Leicester was particularly ready for a celebration given it was the place with the longest lockdown anywhere in the UK.  Our programme featured over 560 shows, over 800 performances and 64 venues.  The line up included acts such as Angela Barnes, Ahir Shah, Catherine Bohart, Ed Gamble, Henning Wehn, Katherine Ryan, Maisie Adam, Mark Watson, Nabil Abdulrashid, Johnny Vegas, Nick Helm, Ria Lina, Richard Herring, Rosie Jones, Ross Noble, Seann Walsh, Simon Brodkin, Stewart Lee, Suzi Ruffell, Tim Key, Tony Slattery & many many more.  We continued our partnership with NextUp and streamed loads of comedy shows to a global audience.

The festival began with our Gala Preview Show at De Montfort Hall which sold out and featured an amazing line up, hosted by Rosie Jones.  Rosie returned to the main festival with various shows and was interviewed live on stage by Founding Director Geoff Rowe.  Other acts to be interviewed included Pam Ayres and Rachel Parris.

Our new festival venue The Big Difference hosted shows for the first time, and we continued our BIG Weekend programmes at venues across Harborough District, Blaby and The National Forest.  The UK Kids’ Comedy Festival, which runs alongside Leicester Comedy Festival, featured more shows and events than ever before, as well as projects such as Loving Laughing, Joke Spot, Laugh Term Comedy School and a new partnership with Leicester City Football Club.  The Kids’ festival was supported by a range of partners, including NHS England which funded the event for the first time.

Firuz Ozari won Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Competition and Nik Hill won our Silver Stand Up Competition for comedians aged over 55.  The UK Pun Championships winner was Richard Pulsford.

We celebrated the festivals at our Awards Ceremony, where we awarded Stewart Lee with our Legend of Comedy Award.  Stewart said “Leicester Comedy Festival itself is uncharacteristically and inherently worthwhile” which was really lovely.

Our festivals were featured in The Guardian, The Sun, BBC Radio 2, The Observer, Metro & ITV News.


In 2023 we celebrated 30 years of Leicester Comedy Festival and at the same time said a BIG thank you to our founder Geoff Rowe, who after 30 years, decided it was time to try something new. Amazingly, it wasn’t just Leicester folk who turned up for the party. Attendees travelled from Cardiff, Belfast, Liverpool, Vienna and Rotterdam! We had a whopping 630 events and 870 performances for our 30th birthday – one fan told us that they enjoyed over 77 shows in the 19 day period. We’re super impressed.

Comedians such as Stewart Lee, Scott Bennett, Seann Walsh, Rosie Jones, Nish Kumar, Nina Gilligan, Eshann Akbar, Stephen Bailey, Jessica Fostekew, Simon Brodkin, Alfie Moore & Ignacio Lopez performed. Rosie Jones show sold out in under 4 hours making it perhaps the fastest selling show! Our competitions, which are becoming an annual event on the calendar for many of you, were back. Lee Brace became the UK Pun Champion on 13th March, Celia Delatori took home the Silver Stand Up Trophy and Daniel Petrie was crowned the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year.

To celebrate our big birthday we worked with friend of the festival, Paul Banks to put on an exhibition featuring a selection of photographs and memorabilia from our 30 year history which was held at the Leicester Adult Education College. We invited our close friends to a special anniversary reunion show where founder, Geoff Rowe, was interviewed by the 2023 Legend of Comedy, Arthur Smith.  If you want to learn more about our fabulous history, you can check out our brand new documentary all about 30 years of Leicester Comedy Festival which was created by Crosscut Media. You can watch it here.

Our little Sister, The UK Kids’ Comedy Festival turned 5 this year and celebrated with a BIG birthday bash featuring Jarred Christmas and the Hobbit, Bec Hill and Kwame Asante. Altogether, there were 74 events in 29 venues. Loving Laughing and Laugh Academy returned; two of our unique comedy projects that engage young people comedy to help develop confidence, performance and improve mental health. The UK Kids’ Comedy Festival engaged 14 schools, over 550 primary school children for Loving Laughing and 16 11-18 years old took part in Laugh Academy. The Joke Spot returned as well and we anticipate that approximately 100 children performed 2,000 jokes.

In March we held our 16th annual awards ceremony which honours the Comedians, venues and promoters who make the festival a success each year as well as people from the community who go the extra mile to make it special. Winners included Stuart Goldsmith (Best Show), Fatiha El-Ghorri (Best Debut Show), Bethany Black (Best Debut Show) and Geoff Rowe took home the Lifetime Contribution Award.

About Big Difference Company

About BDC

Big Difference Company is the registered charity which has produced the annual Leicester Comedy Festival since 1994.  The charity is based in Leicester and has a small core staff team and volunteer board of trustees.  Big Difference produces Leicester Comedy Festival and the UK Kids' Comedy Festival, as well as a year round programme of comedy shows and community projects.  The charity’s vision is “to engage, excite, educate & entertain creating positive wellbeing and memories” and our mission is “we produce and deliver ambitious festivals & projects which improve social, economic & cultural wellbeing.”


Examples of projects that we've delivered include:


  • Delivering workshops with older people living with dementia

  • Producing projects engaging with children and young people teaching them the basics of comedy performance

  • A heritage project archiving the history of comedy since 1979

  • Producing a series of seminars and debates exploring the social impact of comedy


Any financial surpluses generated are reinvested in the annual programme of projects.


We work with a series of partners to sustain and develop our work.  Each year we entertain and engage with thousands of people yet less than 5% of our income comes from regular public funding.  To support our work, and find out more about what we do, visit or follow us on twitter @Bigdiffco

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