Run the gauntlet that is the footpath in front of Melbourne Town Hall during Melbourne Comedy Festival and you'll be accosted by people with flyers for shows with bawdy and attention-grabbing names: An Inconvenient Poof; Sass Attack!; Funbags; Space Force; Balding Cherub; My Compliments To the Jeff! (Pretend My Name is Jeff), and more. There are hidden masterworks behind these names, labours of love from people who just want to sit you down in a room for an hour and make you laugh.

There are 616 shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), with artists collectively performing more than 7700 times. While the city is dominated by the faces of giants like Dave Hughes, Hannah Gadsby and Wil Anderson, the streets are littered with the discarded flyers of hopefuls. Most comedians join a festival with a dream of making it big, and an expectation of losing some money.

Stand-up comedy makes people nervous. My girlfriend refuses to come with me to see a show because the prospect of it going badly makes her so uncomfortable for the poor performer.

Every comedian has bad nights. Long ago I tried stand-up myself. It started, as all stand-up attempts do, with friends telling me I was funny. I tried out some material at a few open mic nights. The first went okay. The second went great. The third went horribly. As I stared out at a room full of silent, unsmiling faces refusing to laugh, I realised I could never do it again.

It’s a harsh business. If you’re funny, you’re funny. If you’re not funny, it’s devastating. So how do they do it?

Miriam Slater, one half of Canberra’s absurdist sketch duo Sweaty Pits, has been handing out flyers tonight for Pity Party, the pair’s first MICF show. On the flyer, Slater and comedic other half Frances McNair stare me down defiantly from behind painted-on moustaches. They’re wearing shiny one-pieces and hold foam dinosaur heads under their arms.

I catch their show, along with just eight other audience members. Music from the bar next door bleeds in, but the duo keeps the energy up, powering through sketches ranging from “MILF Camp” to a bit where they dance provocatively in lemon costumes. It’s a mix of social commentary and ridiculousness with a liberal dose of nudity. The audience, though small, loves it.

“This is our dream,” McNair tells us at the end of the show. “We’re doing our dream and it’s silly and dumb.”

Afterward I sit down with McNair and Slater at Lucy Liu around the corner for cocktails and a late-night snack. I thought they could do with some nice food after weeks of cheap takeaway and booze.

“You just thought this was a nice place to take some poor comedians, just to remind us that cauliflower can cost $16,” says McNair.

Slater and McNair have been friends since school but only started performing together two years ago. In that time their activities have escalated considerably. Last year they were nominated for Best Comedy at the Melbourne Fringe. They’ve spent the past couple of months hitting Adelaide Fringe, Fringe World in Perth, and NZ Fringe in Wellington. By day McNair is a children’s entertainer in a pediatric ward, and Slater works in hospitality. Any income they can spare goes into their night-time alter egos and lemon costumes. It’s a massive financial commitment and balancing the books is hard.

“I’m doing it because I love the performance side, but that’s 50 minutes a night,” says Slater. “It’s like running a small business. There are so many hats you have to wear.”

From the outside, it looks like an hour of work a day. But that hour takes its toll. Their body clocks are skewed for high-energy late-night shows. Afterward, at their unglamorous Richmond Airbnb, the pair does their washing and, according to their Instagram story, dries their pants on the air-con unit. The next day is full of admin and preparation for the next show.

With the lowest ticket sales of the tour so far, MICF has been a hard festival for both of them. While we’re talking the little pep talks come out, the well-rehearsed lines they recite to keep themselves going.

“Fuck yeah,” says McNair. “I think we’re going to break even.”

“You have to think about what your goals are in doing it,” says McNair. “Sometimes you have a shitty night. You have two people in the audience. Someone’s just thrown your flyer on the ground. You’re tired. You can’t rely on it being a good show. It can’t be financial, because you won’t make money. But I’ve realised if I spend my days being shitty this won’t be enjoyable.”

“Then at 2am we can go to that 24-hour doughnut place,” adds Slater.

But for Sweaty Pits, the show is an extension of their friendship, and a rare chance to show their shared inner world to the public.

“We’re mates,” says McNair. “We can’t switch it off.”

Back at the Town Hall, Anne Edmonds is having a very different festival. Her show *What’s Wrong With You? * is in a 350-seat room. It’s sold out, and Edmonds is rock solid, expertly weaving the personal and the political into anecdotes about road rage and supermarkets, covering her relationship failures and her mental health, skillfully pushing the audience’s buttons.

When it’s over, the guy in front of me turns to his friend and says he “didn’t laugh once”. Having sat behind him for an hour, I can confirm he’s lying.

“When you’re new, every show throws you. Now I can read the audience a bit better,” Edmonds tells me over a pot of Earl Grey in a West Brunswick cafe the next morning. She says a “collective vibe” sets in within the first minute. “You’ll know straight away what you’re dealing with. You can tell if they’re a bit woke, that intake of breath when I say something off.” A Sunday audience might be a different thing. It’s usually an hour earlier, so the baby boomers are in.

We meet at 11am. She’s just got up, and she’s exhausted. Edmonds is on stage until 10.45 every night, and by 2am the adrenaline has barely subsided. During the day she’s mostly dealing with her nerves for the next show.

“It’s like running a marathon,” she tells me. “But that’s the job for a month.”

Though she was a late starter at 28, Edmonds is now a festival veteran at the top of her game. Since making the finals of newcomer competition Raw Comedy in 2010 (beaten by Ronny Chieng and Luke Heggie – a good year), she’s been heavily involved with the festival, from the gala to the travelling roadshow. She’s won the Director’s Choice award and been nominated for the prestigious Barry Award three times.

On top of that, Edmonds created the ABC comedy series Edge of the Bush and appeared on everything from Get Krack!n to Hughesy, We Have A Problem.

But off-duty comedians aren’t the laugh-a-minute life-of-the-party class clowns people expect. Edmonds is tired, pensive and wracked with insecurities. She’s doing well now, but just a few years ago she was playing to minuscule audiences at the Butterfly Room.

“You don’t forget that,” she says. “It took me about six years to write ‘comedian’ on a form as my occupation,” says Edmonds. That was on the immigration forms when she was flying in to London to play a residency at the Soho Theatre. Even then, one bad night could rock her confidence and drive her to the brink of quitting.

I ask her if she remembers the last time she bombed.

“Not long ago. At an open mic in the run up to the festival. You’re frantically trying to break in new material,” Edmonds says. “Sometimes it just doesn’t fly.”

As her profile grows, the job gets easier. Audiences trust her more. But touring to regional spots, where people don’t always know who she is, can be like starting all over again.

And things have changed since Edmonds got into the game. Comedians these days are sassier, more confident, whereas low self-esteem used to be part of the job description. “Please don’t make me be sassy,” she begs the audience.

This is Edmonds’s eighth MICF. She’s on the verge of being every bit the household name like Dave Hughes or Judith Lucy, but she’s only just coming to accept her success. “I kept turning up and it finally paid off,” she says. “It will for Sweaty Pits too. But it’s a long road. The first five or six years? Forget about it.”

“One of the nice things about comedy is that it’s so egalitarian. If you’re funny, you’re funny. We all have to perform constantly and so we all see each other at the open mics, and we’ve all got the same insecurities and worries. There’s a natural bond of insecurity.”

It’s Sweaty Pits’ first MICF. But it won’t be their last. They’ll play to more tiny audiences and they, and Edmonds, will bomb again. But neither of these acts show any sign of stopping.

“It’s funny because it’s gruelling,” says Edmonds. “What’s going to happen when I’m 60? Will I be in the lower Town Hall, hobbling on with my arthritis?”

Want more comedy? Check out what the comedians are seeing at the festival here.