Vale Cal Wilson

New Zealand-born, Australian adopted comedian Cal Wilson was one of the kindest and most genuine people in comedy, and will be much missed.
Cal Wilson. Image of woman with short red and black hair, wearing pink jumper and clasping hands.

Much-loved and admired stand-up comedian Cal Wilson died today (Wednesday 11 October) after a short illness, surrounded by family and friends at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.

She was 53 years old.

Wilson’s death was announced this morning by her management company, Token.

Originally from Christchurch in Aotearoa New Zealand (where she was part of the New Zealand team that won the World Theatresports title in Los Angeles in 1994), Wilson was the inaugural winner (with Ewen Gilmour) of New Zealand’s most prestigious comedy award, the Billy T Award in 1997.

She moved to Melbourne in 2003 to appear in the Network 10 television sketch comedy series Skithouse and quickly became a mainstay of the Australian comedy circuit.

Paul Horan, co-founder of the New Zealand Comedy Festival and now an Australia-based producer and media professional, told ArtsHub: ‘A key thing about Cal was that she had many tribes. The Australian world knows her as a stand-up and as someone on TV, but she started in improv. She founded the Court Jesters in Christchurch and they won the world championships in ’94: unheard of for improv people in this part of the world.

‘There is also her recent involvement in [storytelling community] The Moth. She knew that there were different ways to be funny and wanted different types of people to get on stage. Although she loved stand-up and was amazing at it, she saw its limitations. She was always a great mentor to young women in particular and was a true believer in shaping the comedy industry with quiet, considered steps. I have known her for 30 years and although we were never close, I am going to miss her terribly,’ Horan said.

Wilson was the co-winner of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Best Newcomer Award in 2001 for her show Hello Kitty, and went on to appear regularly on television programs such as Spicks and Specks, Good News Week and Would I Lie To You as well in her own Netflix stand-up special. She also performed regularly at festivals and comedy clubs around the country.

Wilson was a passionate advocate for comedians and their craft, taking up a position on the Board of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, as well as being a writer, actor and a kind and generous colleague.

Susan Provan AO, Festival Director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, told ArtsHub: ‘We are all so deeply shocked and saddened by the passing of our dear friend Cal Wilson. Cal has always been a beacon of joy and smiles in and around the Festival – a dedicated Board member, fearless, funny and a loved and loving advocate for her creative world. We will miss her greatly.’

Similarly, comedy doyen Janet McLeod said: ‘You will hear the word “loved” repeated again and again – there was nobody in the comedy industry as loved as Cal. She shone so brightly with warmth, joy and abundant kindness. [With her death] it feels like all the colour has drained from the world.

‘Cal was a champion of the comedy scene. Utterly fearless and so funny. We are all utterly heartbroken,’ McLeod said.

Wilson’s stand-up-career included 14 appearances at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, including her most recent show Supposably in April this year, which critic Stephen A Russell praised as ‘a real good time’.

‘Wilson is a rare comedian who can work a room without making folks feel super-awkward… But even when miffed, you get the sense Wilson’s never anything but incredibly kind,’ Russell wrote in The Age earlier this year.   

Wilson’s friends and colleagues paid tribute to her warmth, wit and professionalism on social media this morning.

‘It was an honour to share the stage with you, and my heartfelt condolences go out to your family. Your departure is a real loss to the arts community. Vale Cal,’ said comedian Steph Tisdell. 

Similarly, comedian Tom Ballard wrote on X/Twitter: ‘Describing someone as “the nicest person ever” is cliched, but with Cal, it was the truth. She loved people, and life, and she loved making people laugh, and honestly it seemed like she was on some kind of lifelong, inexhaustible mission to spread kindness and joy to everyone.

‘I am so deeply grateful that I got to know her, gig with her, and come to consider her a friend. She made me laugh so much, and she was there for me during some tough times – I only wish I had more time to be as good a friend to her as she was to me.

‘(I think the only truly solid thing I ever did for her was show her how to use Uber; which, to be fair, she did consider to be quite a big deal),’ Ballard wrote.

In lockdown, Wilson made elaborate and ridiculous headdresses that she shared with her online community; a painting of her wearing a headdress made of doll parts and Christmas baubles featured in the 2023 Archibald Prize, taking out the Packing Room Prize.

Cal Wilson  is survived by her husband Chris and son Digby. The family are asking for privacy at this time.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts