Sunday, 1 September 2013

What do you mean, women are funny?

Hooray. Last weekend Bridget Christie became only the third female comedian in 33 years to win the Edinburgh Festival Comedy Award. Double hooray because her act (by reports) isn’t a lightweight crowd-pleaser but an hour of hard-hitting and funny feminism.

Why is she only the third? Is it because women are only one eleventh as funny as men? Or is it because there are eleven times as many males as females on the circuit? I’ve just done a rough count of the comics listed in the Chortle website (As, Bs and Cs only. I haven’t got all night) and there are 216 men and 57 women. More men than women, but not eleven times as many. It seems that, simply, there’s an unwillingness to appreciate female comics.

There’s not this problem with sketch comedy. Wood & Walters, Smack the Pony, Katy Brand, Watson & Oliver (they’ve come in for a bit of stick, but their last series had some wonderful moments) – no one would dare argue that they’re not as funny as men.

But in standup women struggle to be recognised. The circuit can be a testosterone-sweaty gladiatorial arena in which most men would wilt. They say that it takes balls of steel to survive on it, which, if true, cuts out half the human race. But women don’t lack courage, talent or determination. The difficulty is that, in standup, they simply have fewer choices.

A comedian’s stage persona isn’t created by force of will. It’s forged over long months through a compact between the comic and their audiences. Laughing at someone involves a degree of acceptance and trust. And at the moment the stock of available routines audiences are willing to buy into is far more meagre for women than it is for men.

The dysfunctional weirdo (Emo Phillips, Paul Foot). The sexual predator (Mike Wilmot). The grossed-out drunk (Carey Marx). The innocent from outer space (Milton Jones). If these comics were women, audiences – male and female - would tend to feel threatened, worried or bemused. They would have to work far harder to gain acceptance.

This is why so many female comedians fall into either bubbly/loveable, sassy/chic, abrasive but likeable/gay categories. There’s so much more pressure for them to be loveable, sweet and attractive.

Hang on. Not all women comics are like that. Jo Brand was magnificently scruffy, grungy and grumpy, not giving a toss she wasn’t going to appear on the cover of “Cosmopolitan”. But notably few have followed in her footsteps. I can’t think of anyone at the moment with the same air of simply not giving a toss. (I’d be happy to be corrected on this)

The solution is for more and more women to get up on the standup stages, to renegotiate the space with audiences and get us used to the idea that they can be whoever they damn well want to be. As Bridget Christie is doing. Let’s hope she starts an unstoppable trend.

Look up Funny Women who are working hard to promote female comedy. 

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