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Where do the funny women go?

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Karen Whiteley
WVoN co-editor 

Where are the funny women?  We all know the answer to that one, don’t we?

They’re nowhere.  Because women aren’t funny, amirite?

Speaking as a women who is generally considered by friends and co-workers to be utterly hilarious, I’m not sure where this leaves me.

Equally, I’m not sure where it leaves Sarah Millican, Victoria Wood, Jo Brand, Miranda Hart, Tina Fey, Catherine Tate, Andi Osho, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ruby Wax, Rhona Cameron, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Josie Long, Sarah Silverman, Kirsten Wiig, Ellen DeGeneres, or the woman down my local pub whose running gags about her Swedish boyfriend can leave me immobilised by excessive guffawing whilst simultaneously making me need to make a run for the toilet.

Because despite all these wonderfully funny women the stereotype persists.  Men are funny, women aren’t. Men’s job is to cause the laughter.  Women’s job is to provide it.

Yet whilst the existence of the stereotype is universally acknowledged, there are still many people who deny that it has an effect on the success and visibility of female comedians.

Steve Lount runs The Comedy Box club in Bristol, and while acknowledging that ‘anecdotally [he's] heard that some audiences don’t respond well when a female act is announced onto the stage’, he  nonetheless expresses the views of many when he says:

‘There are so few female acts out there, and fewer still who are any good in my opinion.’

And he’s adamant that sexism against female comics plays no part in his view.

‘Stand-up comedy is a meritocracy. Yes, some personal taste does come into who you book and there are plenty of male comics who I also avoid booking. But my aim has always been to book the most interesting and best acts my budget will allow, disregarding their gender, disability, race or creed.’

But are there really ‘so few’ female acts around?

Not according to comedian Kate Smurthwaite, who also teaches stand-up comedy:

‘There is absolutely no shortage of funny women. At workshop and open mic level there are honestly more women in comedy than men. When I teach, I often have classes with only one or two guys in.’

Fellow comedian Josie Long agrees:

‘There’s not fewer women than men. If you go to open spot clubs, it’s at least 50/50. It is, it really is. If you go to workshops it’s half and half.’

So what happens after a comedy course or an open mike night?  Where do all these women disappear to?  Are they really just not funny enough to make it?  Is the stereotype about funny women a stereotype because it’s true?

But stereotypes are funny things.  They don’t persist because they’re true.  They persist because every time we encounter behaviour that matches a stereotype, we nod our heads sagely at how true that stereotype is.  When we encounter behaviour that runs contrary to a stereotype, we quietly ignore it.

If you don’t believe me, consider another one: women are no good at maths.  Higher exam results, especially among Anglo-American populations amongst whom the stereotype seems strongest, seem to bear this out.

But when women taking a difficult calculus test were told beforehand that, despite testing on thousands of students, no gender difference had ever been found in the level of achievement on the test, they outperformed a different group of women taking the test who hadn’t had the stereotype challenged.  More interestingly, they also outperformed the men in both groups by a good margin.

This is just one of many examples you can find in Cordelia Fine’s book, ‘The Delusions of Gender’, on the amazing power of stereotypes.

And we like to cling to them at all costs.  When we’re forced to acknowledge something that doesn’t fit – like a person who’s clearly female making us rock with mirth – we don’t challenge the validity of the stereotype.  We simply mark it down as ‘The Exception’.

All the women listed above are ‘The Exception’.

At least one male comedian seems to get it. Chris Coltrane says:

‘I always hear female comics tell stories of audience coming up to them after a gig to say: “I don’t like female comedians, but I like you”, as if that female comedian were somehow an exception, a blip that science can’t explain.

‘Rather than just judge each individual person on their merits, they’ve decided they don’t like all women comedians, and then are surprised and astonished when they’re proven wrong. But even when they are proven wrong, they won’t adjust their beliefs.’

I don’t personally find Al Murray remotely amusing.  I actually find him so unamusing that when I see him on TV,  I always ponder setting up some kind of charitable fund to provide him with comedy-assistance therapy.

If he’s going to persist in trying to be funny in front of a national audience, I think it’s only fair we help him if only to avoid my own embarrassment at his efforts.

What I don’t think, however, is well, there you go; men just aren’t funny.  What I don’t think is well, that’s it for half the world’s population; they just cannot make me chuckle, I must banish Mock the Week from my television forever.

When a man’s not funny, he’s just not funny.  But when a woman fails to raise a laugh, she’s exhibiting a genetic flaw shared by half of the world’s population.  When she does raise a laugh, she’s a biological mutant.

And we’re supposed to think that this attitude doesn’t affect female comedians?  It seems absurd to even suggest it.  Funny is the thing for a comedian.

Try being funny when your whole industry and your whole audience is starting from a presumption  of unfunny.  How much harder do you have to work to even begin to challenge that presumption and actually get to the laughs?  Try being a rocket scientist when people presume you can’t count down from ten.  These things matter.

Comedian Lara A King, says:

‘Just because there are more men doing it, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are better at it. I think they get given the breaks a bit more, and they get given a little bit more slack. I think women are less encouraged and less supported.’

And there you have a definition of sexism as it relates to the world of stand-up comedy.

Other comedians however, don’t see the problem.  Depressingly, Sarah Millican, currently the most successful female comic in the UK, is one of them. She’s content to have female comedians lumped together as one homogenous mass:

‘Bookers will spread [women] out,’ she says, ‘a bit like they might spread out the one-liner guys. You’re kind of a bracket on your own – which is fine. I understand that people want variety on a bill.’

One woman on the bill at any time is thus considered enough.  We can’t have too many exceptions, after all. We might start thinking they’re not exceptions at all.

This is what happens to that 50% of comedy courses and open mic nights.  They are reduced by both club bookers and the audience to a ‘lump’.

And if they’re not being booked at clubs, they’re not getting exposure.  They’re certainly not getting on TV in any significant numbers as even a passing glance at comedy panel shows will tell you.

In February this year, the BBC at least admitted that this was true and even accepted that it was – gasp! – a problem.

‘BBC’s Controller of Entertainment Commissioning Mark Linsey said: ‘We don’t have enough female comedians on television – that’s something we are aware of and trying to do something about.’

According to The Independent, Linsey ‘accepted more progress should have been made in the years since Victoria Wood appeared to have made a breakthrough in gender equality by achieving television success in the 70s.’

However, even within the BBC, Linsey’s comments don’t resonate with everybody.

BBC comedy controller Cheryl Taylor is completely relaxed about the dominance of men in comedy:

‘I’m aware that if you tot things up numerically, there are more male comedians around than female comedians, and probably more male comedy writers, but it doesn’t strike me that it’s a crisis.’

It’s arguable that the small representation of women in comedy isn’t a ‘crisis’. What’s not arguable is that sexism and negative stereotypes about women don’t play a significant part in it.

And even if a woman does manage to be seen as funny, the sexism still doesn’t stop there.  Because ‘women’s problems’ just aren’t considered to be a proper subject for comedy.

Lee Aronsohn, the co-creator and executive producer of the ode to misogyny ‘Two and a Half Men’, was the latest to make this point last week.

Referring to the fact that there are a number of female-driven sitcoms currently running on US television, Aronson commented: ‘Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.’ And this from a man responsible for a show which consists almost entirely of ‘fart and dick jokes’.

Because that’s what women comedians do, isn’t it? Waffle on about their periods and ‘lady bits’. And how could men possibly be interested in that?

Well, as Sarah Millican said, ‘if you’re funny, they laugh’ but the final word should go to US comedian and comedy writer, Jen Kirkman:

‘I hear guys talk about their dicks nonstop. No one is saying anything new about their dicks.’

And yet still we get the endless stream of penis-related gags from swaggering, self-satisfied male comedians all over the television. Dicks, it seems, never stop being funny, as long as it’s the holder of one telling the joke.

Penises are funny, periods aren’t.  I think, finally, that’s something we can all agree on.

  1. Sarah Millican just went way down in my opinion. Women are only there to provide variety? What? “One-liner guys” get spread out because they have a particular style of comedy. Women are not a style of comedy, they are half the population. Despair…

  2. It is depressing; you don’t have to think very hard to find two female comedians who have nothing but their femaleness in common.

  3. Heather Kennedy says:

    Very disappointing words from Sarah Millican there. Loved this piece, thanks Karen. If the job of comedy is to challenge taboos, then all women everywhere have a mandate to talk endlessly about periods. Sorry Lee Aronsohn.

    The super flow non applicator tampon walks into a bar…

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