Are female comedians still a 'niche genre'?


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

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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.