The other day, a flyer fell out of a local listings magazine advertising a comedy club. Of the 24 events being profiled on this flyer, only one featured a woman.
This in itself isn’t news. The absence of funny women on TV screens and on the comedy circuit is well documented, with a recent resurgence of articles about this (including my own). Yet still there are no conclusive answers as to why female comics are continually being overlooked.
The trite answer could be, well, women just aren’t very funny. But that’s not true. If it was, Victoria Wood, Sarah Millican, Miranda Hart, Jo Brand, Catherine Tate, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Shappi Khorsandi, Ruby Wax, Rhona Cameron etc would have been forced to sign on a long time ago. As comedienne Kate Smurthwaite confirms: “There is a long, long history of awesome funny women: Lucille Ball, Hattie Jacques, Joan Rivers… But the truth is sexism in comedy is getting worse, the door doesn't seem to be truly open to a new Victoria Wood, Jo Brand or French and Saunders.”
And they’re only a few of the women who have made it as comediennes.
While comedy is of course subjective, I think we can agree that of the endless male comedians doing the rounds, many of them simply aren’t very funny. So are they there just because it’s safer to have an unfunny man than a funny woman? Are comedy bookers and TV producers threatened by intelligent and witty women, so much so that it’s easier to book Russell Howard again and hope for the best?
“It’s such a shock"
Comedienne Josie Long, who says if she talks about sexism she’s accused of “moaning”, opens up about the problem in this YouTube clip. Josie says: “[We’re] brought up to believe you’re on a level playing field, and as an adult you’re suddenly brought up to date with how much you’re going to be affected by sexism, and it’s such a shock… About once a day, someone says to me ‘There aren’t any funny women’, or ‘Women aren’t as funny as men’, or even, ‘I like you but I don’t normally find women funny’. Something to say they’re judging men against women in the arena of comedy, which is ridiculous.”
[We’re] brought up to believe you’re on a level playing field, and as an adult you’re suddenly brought up to date with how much you’re going to be affected by sexism, and it’s such a shock…
Chris Coltrane is a stand-up comedian whose biography lists these three things among his loves: comedy, socialist politics and feminism. So Chris seemed like someone to ask what he thought was behind the lack of women on the comedy circuit – and his answer backs up what Josie says: “The interesting thing is the amount of self-denial people have. 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. They're like True Believers in that respect, and that makes it incredibly hard to reason with them to prove them wrong, because for the True Believer, no amount of evidence can change their mind.”
However, Steve Lount, who runs The Comedy Box club in Bristol, disagrees that there are many funny women to choose from and says that if more existed, he’d gladly book them: “There are so few female acts out there, and fewer still who are any good in my opinion. Promoters and club owners want to see good acts on their bills and they also want to offer variety, so it isn't in club owners’ interests to deliberately avoid booking female acts - although anecdotally I have heard that some audiences don't respond well when a female act is announced onto the stage. But that has never been the case at any of my shows. We have never set out to create some kind of anti-female mentality in our venues.
“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.”
‘It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy’
One of the two stock answers from anyone trying to defend the dearth of female comics is that women aren’t very funny. And Chris thinks this attitude extends to many in the audience, too: “As you say, the number of people who genuinely think women aren't funny is shockingly high, and you can imagine that illiberal club owners will run their booking policy accordingly. Of course, this means it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. So that then raises a new question, of whether clubs should always cater to the perceived desires of their customers, or whether they have a responsibility to try to liberate their minds and make them less sexist. I'm sure you can guess what I think!”
Josie stresses: “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. Then what happens is I think people genuinely get ground down, and in my own experience I’ve had jobs that I didn’t get but then a model or a presenter does get. If you look at a panel show, it’ll be male comedian, male comedian, female presenter… If you look at Mock The Week, the people who got really famous off that were all men. And all the people doing arenas now are men. The only person who’s touching that is Sarah Millican, or possibly Shappi Khorsandi. There’s not that many women who’ve been allowed to break through in the last few years.”
If you look at Mock The Week, the people who got really famous off that were all men. And all the people doing arenas now are men. The only person who’s touching that is Sarah Millican, or possibly Shappi Khorsandi.
Kate, however, thinks that the culture of high street misogyny has a lot to answer for: “It might sound strange but I think the so-called lads’ mags have to take some of the blame. They’re just soft porn, but in order to get themselves off the top shelf they had to present themselves as ‘men's lifestyle’. But what the hell is that? There are already tons of sports mags, gardening mags etc so they're about ‘funny stuff’. So this perpetuates the myth that funny is a male preserve, and of course the two get mixed together, so now funny equals sexism in a lot of cases.”
The recent C4 Mash Up of 8 Out Of 10 Cats with Countdown (broadcast on January 2) showed that the all-male comedians from 8 Out Of 10 Cats desperately struggled with the idea of the two intelligent Countdown women, so instead the men quickly resorted to sexually objectifying the women to belittle their obvious intelligence and put them in their place – as totty. It was embarrassing to watch, for the men who were shown to be nothing more that misogynistic cowards. But it did add some weight to my thoughts that men are frantically clinging to their funny bones as some kind of power struggle – as if by allowing women a platform to make others laugh, then women will make even more headway towards one day achieving gender equality. It’s pathetic.
‘There is absolutely no shortage of funny women’
The other stock answer in defence of why there are so few successful comediennes is that, apparently, there just aren’t as many women as men trying to make it as comedians. Something Kate, who teaches on a stand-up comedy course, disproves: “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.”
But what about the promoters and TV producers who mostly book male comedy acts? “There are definitely promoters out there who will only book one woman per night,” says Chris. “I've heard people say that the reason some clubs deliberately book less female comedians is because they don't think the audience will react well to more than one female comedian, as if the audience will patronisingly let one woman give it a go, but no more than that. I can actually imagine that this is true, sadly.”
Comedy promoter Steve is less convinced that female comedians face as many barriers as have been suggested, and he believes it’s more down to many women being less suited to the lifestyle of a professional comic. He explains: “There is no bar to female stand-ups at club level. Female acts decide themselves if and when they want to perform, in exactly the same way a male act will. But, as with live music, I don't believe live stand-up is that appealing a lifestyle to female performers, which can be quite a lonely and depressing existence – lone writing, travelling and hotels.
There is no bar to female stand-ups at club level. Female acts decide themselves if and when they want to perform, in exactly the same way a male act will.
“Whereas there is a surplus of female talent in acting, dance and comedy improvisation, I also believe there might be a more equal representation in sketch comedy. But what do these other performance arts have in common over stand-up? Human and group interaction, which females are generally better at than their male counterparts. This might explain why you see more females at comedy classes and open mic nights. These events are a lot more sociable than actual professional nights. But this is just a theory and probably not worthy of academic scrutiny.”
Kate can identify a deeper sociological problem behind the gaping void of women performers: “We've always bewailed the dull, repetitive stand-up pointing out the difference between men and women. But even ‘cutting edge’ acts like Chris Rock do it. And there are a huge number of comedy shows that are marketed on it: Men Behaving Badly, Two and Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Friends, Coupling, How I Met Your Mother… all of those shows are more or less EXCLUSIVELY about jokes about men and women and their cliched differences. The men are always horny, the women easily shocked. Speaking as an unshockable horny woman, I don't get it!”
She continues: “But also it perpetuates itself. If the clubs book lots of male acts doing sexist material, then they'll attract audiences who appreciate that. Comedy does become something that is generally perceived as by and for men. It's tough to challenge that: clubs will lose audiences in the short term if they buck the trend, but in the long term they'll benefit because more women will want to come and there'll be more variety among the acts and more great talent to choose from. I think to be honest, some of the guys currently doing well are very, very afraid of clubs booking more women because they're not sure they'll be able to compete.”
Promoter Steve adds: “There aren't that many female stand-ups who I think are worth booking but I'm always on the look out for new talent. No good promoter/producer worth their salt would stop looking for new people.”
“The fact is we do book female acts”
The Comedy Box in Bristol is the comedy club I’m referring to in the opening paragraph: the club with only one female comedian on the 24 in its programme (and only one woman headlining a show until May, according to its website). The club is run by Steve Lount, who tells me: “The fact is we do book female acts. Last week, we had Sally-Anne Hayward, next weekend we have Mary Bourke, the weekend after we have Katherine Ryan, a couple of weeks after that we have Nat Luurtsema. Our print always features the headline acts or touring shows plus support or guests, which we don't name. As it happens, this season we only have one female headlining act, which is Isy Suttie.”
Steve adds: “There are only a few female acts that I think are worth headlining. Headliners at The Comedy Box have to be experienced at doing 45 minutes plus and yet we do book female acts who are capable of doing these ‘extended sets’. These acts we have booked in the last 12-18 months include Josie Long, Jo Caulfield, Sarah Millican, Zoe Lyons, Shappi Khorsandi, Lucy Porter and Andi Osho. Recently, we tried very hard to book Roisin Conaty who we think is an act who is definitely one to watch but she wouldn't take the booking.”
There are only a few female acts that I think are worth headlining. Headliners at The Comedy Box have to be experienced at doing 45 minutes plus and yet we do book female acts who are capable of doing these ‘extended sets’.
I contacted Off The Kerb Productions, too – which also runs the aptly named Laughing Boy Comedy Clubs. Off The Kerb is one of the biggest comedy promoters in the UK, and after more than 30 years in the business it boasts acts as huge as Jonathan Ross, Michael McIntyre, Dara O’Briain and Alan Carr on its books. But despite having just under 40 artists listed on its website, Off The Kerb promotes just three (THREE!) women: Jo Brand, Shappi Khorsandi and Suzi Ruffell. I asked Off The Kerb for a comment, and they replied to say someone would get back to me… but nearly a fortnight later I’m still waiting.
It’s impossible to reach a conclusion to this big issue in one blog post, but the volume of interest and range of theories expressed about the dearth of women on the professional comedy circuit does prove this is an issue that inspires a lot of emotion and demands more attention. As Kate Smurthwaite says in her closing comment below, if you see a good female comedian doing a show – email your local comedy club and ask them to book her… create the demand!
Kate concludes: "The good news is clubs are all about their audiences. If you see a great female act, please, please contact your local comedy club and request them by name. Just a 10-word email might make the difference between getting that spot when that TV producer happens to be in the third row that changes the face of comedy forever… ideally to mine!"
What The Frock! a comedy night for women comedians is on Friday 18 May, Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol
You can buy tickets here
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