Are female comedians still a 'niche genre'?

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

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Movie of Your Life: Sarah Kendall

Comedian Sarah Kendall reveals which 'Roberts' she'd like to see play her in the movie of her life.

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Reginald Blyth – novelist, literary commentator and British chinless wonder – wrote fervently on the subject of women’s humour. ‘The truth is’, he sniffed, ‘women have not only no humour in themselves but are the cause of the extinction of it in others.’ Like flora and fauna (also distinctively unfunny) women ‘correspond with nature’ he wrote. ‘They are the unlaughing at which men laugh.’

Unfortunately the erudite Blyth was not some nineteenth century aristocrat studiously ignoring the wit of writers like Jane Austen. He published on women’s humourlessness in the 1970s. And judging by the present status of women in comedy, his views are still pervasive.

The upcoming Sydney comedy festival has only eight women performing solo shows compared with forty-five men.  And the festival headliners do not feature one woman. The festival homepage has plenty of Steves, Marks, Daniels and Franks, but not a single satirical siren to speak of. The Melbourne comedy festival, by contrast, looks like a feminist utopia in its active promotion of women comedians. But while the Melbourne festival organizers should be applauded for their wonderful efforts, we’re still left with the troubling figure of 179 male solo acts compared with 65 women (by my counting).  

Sarah Silverman ... Do women really lack the ‘genetic ability’ to be funny?

Sarah Silverman ... Do women really lack the ‘genetic ability’ to be funny?

And it's not just because Australians seem to prefer their humour served up by ex-footballers HILARIOUSLY dressed as women. The global picture looks equally grim. In the thirty-one year history of the Edinburgh comedy award, there have been only two solo female winners. In England, a 2010 poll conducted by Channel 4 found that 94 out of the 100 greatest stand-ups were men. As Tina Fey put it: ‘Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.’

For some these figures raise the possibility that women are just not as funny as men. Christopher Hitchens has argued that women lack the ‘genetic ability’ to be funny. Clearly, in some primordial time, we must have gained a rib and lost a funny bone. Or is it that our culture has a problem with witty women? Do our ideals of attractive femininity prohibit savage intelligence, bawdiness or ribaldry?

For stand-up comedians the problems can begin with the event organizers. Comedian Lara King complains that ‘the people who book the comedy nights tend to think that one woman on the bill is really quite enough.’ Women comedians are treated as a genre. Forget the diversity of performances that you saw at last Thursday night’s Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala with Hanna Gadsby, Cal Wilson, Fiona McLoughlin and Sarah Kendall. According to some that pesky Y chromosome dooms all women to make the same jokes. And of course they’re jokes based on life’s trivialities – like birth, sex and relationships. Unlike men’s mastery of the universals – like, um, sport.

Wanted ... Jill in the box.

Wanted ... Jill in the box.

But before we engage in a collective tsk-ing of comedy organizers, perhaps we need to think seriously about our own laughter. As an audience member at comedy gigs do you feel slightly more nervous when a woman steps on to the stage?

Palestinian-Canadian comedian Eman Hussein says that when women perform, ‘the audience immediately thinks she is not half as funny as men. So we have to work thrice as hard just to get them to listen to us.’ When the standard template for a standup comedian is a straight white man with neurotic tendencies, audiences can get a bit panicky at the sight of difference. Certain men may think that they won’t be able to relate to the jokes. But it rarely works the other way around. Women are expected to sympathise with what Sarah Kendall calls ‘manstuff.’ ‘Women don’t see a man walk out on stage and say “Oh great, he’s going to be talking about his dick for an hour. I’m not going to get this.' As dutiful women raised in a patriarchal society we’re taught to find tales of Bazza and Gazza a source of WILD HILARITY.

And if a woman fails to make people laugh, female audience members often panic. The entire gender has suffered a setback. As Kendall puts it: ‘If a guy goes out and does something badly people don’t say: “Oh my god, white men can’t do anything. Whereas if you’re a woman and you do something badly then it’s like, ‘I don’t think women are very good at this.’ The same applies to all minorities.

But these obstacles that funny women face don’t start on the comedy circuit. They start when you’re given a pink jumpsuit instead of a blue one. They come from a lifetime of seeing men in films seducing women through killer lines while women giggle along adoringly. Sexually attractive women, we are told, are ladies who laugh at men’s jokes and who can see the funny side of misogyny. They don’t make clever witticisms or rude jokes.  And there are not many punch-lines that erupt from indiscriminate niceness.

Humour has always been a potent weapon in challenging authority. It's aggressive, unapologetically clever and points to another way of seeing the world. No wonder women have been told to keep away from it.

But according to Kendall things are looking up. There are more women comedians than ever before and festival organizers like those in Melbourne are giving them a well-earned break. Miranda Hart has also shown that loud, funny women can now get sumptuous men with Italian heritage.

The question is no longer whether women are funny. It’s why some people just can’t get the joke.

18 comments

  • As a male, in my experience, I've found females not to be as funny as males.
    I have an abundance of female friends and I personally think they're my friends because they have the ability to make me laugh.
    I also think that my female friends find other male friends funnier than they do their own female friends.
    If you imagine a girl that is self-absorbed and perhaps this is a male term for it, but is "high-maintenance", you would be hard pressed to find someone that would observe her and then give her a chance to make them laugh (regardless of the other person's gender). I think the same goes for a male that you look at and think, "what a wan***".
    People that are self-aware and good at observing those around them are the funniest people to know. Perhaps females are starting to become more self-aware of the positive contribution their personalities can be on others and worrying less about whether their lipstick is on straight.

    Commenter
    L
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    April 05, 2012, 9:23AM
    • May God have mercy on your soul for socialising amongst such unfunny women.

      Commenter
      Sheba
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 10:31AM
  • I think we are suffering a little from comedy overload.Everyone wants to be a comedian, only very few of the ones making money at it are genuinely funny. My view is that men have over many generations found themselves in incredibly trying and dangerous circumstances, e.g hunting, dying in tribal dispiutes, wars etc. Humour was a distraction and a way of dealing with nerves. It's quite amazing how much some people can laugh in the face of difficult situations! If I look at my own father, his response to a crisis was to laugh or shrug it off, mum's was to fall to pieces. Dad could laugh at himself, whereas mum couldn't. In womens comedy there is often an undercurrent of real hostility towards men, that comes out in exploiting their weaknesses. I don't need to pay money to feel ridiculed when I can pay money to have a light hearted giggle about bums. There are exceptions, and the highly generous, self-effacing comedy of Whoopi Goldberg springs to mind.
    By the way, Billy Connolly's humour is very personal, but he cherishes the people in his life, no matter how cruel some were to him, that makes you laugh at the situations he finds himself in and love the guy at the same time...

    Commenter
    canbefunny
    Location
    Melbs
    Date and time
    April 05, 2012, 9:28AM
    • I've been a TV gag writer for a number of years (yes, times are pretty lean for people like me right now). I have worked on a number of shows that went out of their way looking for women to join the writing team. The door was wide open to any woman who could write a gag. I am aware of just one woman who came on board any show I worked on. It's not that women aren't funny. It's that fewer of them choose comedy. Women need to ask themselves why there are so few of them in comedy, not play some kind of cultural blame game.

      Commenter
      Zigster
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 9:32AM
      • I don't think anybody is playing a blame game. I think that women are simply not encouraged or, socialised, if you like, to be funny. The question is not "why aren't women funny?" but "why aren't women ALLOWED to be funny?"
        Think about this - there is such a term as "Dad's Jokes", right? Why doesn't anyone roll their eyes and say "Mum's jokes"?
        It's because comedy - which is essentially criticising people - is viewed as a male trait. Men are *allowed* to make jokes - even if they are bad. Right now in my office a nice old man has made a bad joke and us ladies have laughed politely.
        Do you think an old woman could approach a group of young men and bank on the same response? Neither joke is funny but think about it - who would laugh loudest?

        Commenter
        Susan
        Date and time
        April 05, 2012, 10:18AM
      • Comedy is not 'criticizing people'. Comedy can be all kinds of different things. There are different forms of comedy, different mediums.
        Sometimes it's making fun of a person, but sometimes it's satirical commentary on politics or religion. It can be about anything, as long as it gets laughs.
        And men laugh at funny women. What a ridiculous idea, that men wouldn't laugh at a funny woman.
        If you are saying that comedy exists because women politely laugh at bad jokes, I think you must have missed out on some great comedians. You think great male comedians exist because some woman were polite and laughed at some bad jokes of theirs? You think if an older women made a bad joke to a group of young men they wouldn't laugh politely? What do you think they would do? Stare coldly at an old woman? Tell her to hit the road?
        What a strange premise.
        And if this bugs you, stop laughing politely.

        Commenter
        Jon
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 05, 2012, 10:43AM
      • I would say that my mum makes plenty of really bad "mum" jokes. My dad at least can crack a good gag.

        Commenter
        Jez
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        April 05, 2012, 10:47AM
      • @Jon. I think you may have missed my point. I am not saying that comedy exists because people laugh politely at jokes - I am not taking anything away from male comedians.

        I was talking about the way women are socialised to laugh at jokes while men are socialised to make jokes. Women can be funny - look at Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig - of course they can!  Men can be funny, too - there are loads of great male comics - Louis CK is my favourite! But generally, men feel more comfortable as they grow up to make jokes, whether they are funny or not.

        Women are socialised into acting as audience members. Re: my earlier point -No, the men would not stare coldly but they would not laugh as loudly - they may banter with the old woman. Women would not banter as much. I am not saying it because it bothers me.

        Think about radio shows, variety shows, morning TV in this country -the man is the focus - he makes the jokes while the woman's role is to laugh or tsk tsk at his jokes - whether they are funny or not. I think most people would agree it's not funny but this is the narrative that exists.
        Also, comedy, (stand up comedy) is about criticising. Satire = criticising. You are making fun of something - you are observing something and pointing out how funny or absurd it is - that is a criticism.

        Commenter
        Susan
        Date and time
        April 05, 2012, 11:07AM
      • Ok, maybe I was a little harsh.
        Perhaps there's something to what you're saying.
        Perhaps socialization does lead women to be the spectator, the audience.
        Perhaps it's a variety of things though. As you say comedy is vitriolic, critical, it comes from a questioning, critical mind.
        Another factor (I don't know if this is nature or nurture) is that men are simply much more brutal to each other, for comedic effect. As i said further down, I would never talk to women the way I talk to my male friends. From experience they'd be horribly offended by some of the things me and my male friends say to each. We don't get offended, we think it's hilarious to brutally take the p*ss out of each other. Almost nothing is off limits for us. The closer to the bone, the better. it's never meant to be insulting, but Ir arely find a woman who sees it that way. Perhaps this is reflection of cultural and social attitudes.
        Also, as Kris down the bottom here said, comedy is usually from an outsiders perspective. Men are more likely, and more comfortable taking that perspective. Men are not as good at socialisation and don't care as much about it, in my opinion. It is easier for them to be on the outside looking in.

        Commenter
        Jon
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 05, 2012, 11:38AM
    • I'm afraid the premise of the article is a bit askew.
      There's no conspiracy to suppress female comedians.
      When female comedians are funny, people laugh.
      Tina Fey is hilarious, so she's successful.
      It's a market economy, those principals apply to comedy.
      If someone is funny, and people want to see them, they get more bookings. When they get more bookings, they get more fame, and start winning awards and getting tv shows. It's all market forces.
      If something is in demand, it will get more recognition.
      Blaming patriarchy (which frankly is a term too often used in a manner to suggest some grand conspiracy) in what is a distinctly unfunny article, is excuse making.
      Comedians of every stripe start in small clubs and bars. If they get some success there (ie people laugh), they get booked for bigger shows. If they get laughs there, they get booked for the biggest shows, and start winning awards. From there the really popular ones might get a tv show or a HBO special.
      And it's all based on the response they get from the audience. If people laugh, and buy tickets to their shows, they become more successful. There's nothing more to it.
      You can't rail against that from a feminist perspective and be taken seriously.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 05, 2012, 9:41AM

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