If you ask a female comedian for her opinion of the often heard jibe that “women aren’t funny” or “aren’t as funny as men,” you’ll be met with a sigh of exasperation. “I don’t even answer that question any more,” says Lynne Parker, the founder of “Funny Women,” an annual UK female comedy competition, “Of course women are funny”.
Stand-up comedy has its roots in working men’s clubs and has traditionally been perceived as a male dominated arena, but if you attend an open mic night in London this weekend, you’re more likely to find a fairly even gender balance on the bill as more women take centre stage. But while more women are entering the profession, many female comedians still report hearing the line “Women aren’t funny” at comedy clubs.
This sort of generalization persists despite the long history of funny women who have graced the screen and stage such as Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, French and Saunders, Rosanne Barr and more recently Tina Fey and Sarah Millican.
Elf Lyons, a 22-year-old finalist in this year’s Funny Women competition, points to such remarks as the key difference between her experience and that of her male peers. She often has patrons approach her after the show to say ‘Normally I don’t find women funny, but I thought you were really funny.’ “But it’s a minor thing,” she says.
At a professional level, the sentiment is strikingly similar. In 2007, Vanity Fair published Christopher Hitchens’ controversial essay “Why Women aren’t funny” and there are numerous other online blogs and articles expressing similar views.
In 2011 David Letterman’s chief comedy booker, Eddie Brill, justified booking only one female act for that season with the remark “There are a lot fewer female comics who are authentic. I see a lot of female comics who, to please an audience, will act like men.” His comments drew a barrage of criticism on social media and he was dropped as the show’s booker shortly afterwards.
More recently Jerry Lewis, asked at the Cannes film festival this year who his favourite female comedians were, replied “I don’t have any”.
It’s a debate that most female comedians are keen to leave behind. In her book “BossyPants”, Tina Fey said of the issue, “It’s an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”
Fey’s remark gets to the core of the issue. Comedy is subjective and while the “women aren’t funny” view is both a sexist stereotype and a sweeping generalization, it is also based on personal opinion and taste, so asking female comedians to debate the issue isn’t necessarily going to change men’s minds.
Moving on, it’s interesting to look at how females are faring on the wider comedy scene.
In 2010, Channel 4 TV ran a poll in the UK asking its audience to vote for the 100 greatest comedians of all time and disappointingly only 6 female comedians made it onto the list.
This year, no American women made it onto Forbes 2013 top 10 earning comedians list and only one woman made it onto the British top 10 list, Sarah Millican at number nine.
It is also surprising to learn that in the 33-year history of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, only three women have taken the top prize. The first was Jenny Éclair in 1995, followed by Laura Solon in 2005 and this year Brigit Christie, taking the prize for her show “A Bic for her.”
It raises the question of whether festivals and competitions should be doing more to improve the situation? Edinburgh Festival awards event director Nica Burns doesn’t think so. In an interview with the Guardian she said, “Women have as much opportunity to perform as men do now, which wasn’t true when I started running the awards back in the eighties. It was much harder for women to cope with the environment that was the club. The environment has softened a great deal. The comedy industry is quite dominated in other places by women – just look at the number of television commissioners who are women. Personally I don’t think the “no women in comedy” story runs. You have to look at what is beyond the stage’.
‘Funny Women’ founder Lynne Parker agrees. She started the FunnyWomen competition in 2002 in response to clubs’ reluctance to book female acts for comedy nights, but she believes the situation has improved significantly. “I ask myself whether I still need to do FunnyWomen, but this year I’ve had more entries than ever.”
Brigit Christie was a Funny Women finalist in 2004 and her recent Edinburgh success also marks a new trend, a rise in feminist comedy content. “A Bic for her” is a 60-minute show that lampoons misogynistic media commentators, Page 3 girls, lads’ mags and sexist advertising campaigns. Brigit is also known for her popular BBC Radio 4 show “Bridget Christie minds the gap”, a comedy that looks at the state of feminism in Britain today.
Several other comedians at this year’s Edinburgh festival also covered feminist themes, including Sara Pascoe, Kate Smurthwaite, Nadia Kamil and Mary Bourke, while Adrienne Truscott’s show “Asking for it”, which won the panel prize, tackled the use of rape jokes in comedy.
Comedy has also been used as a platform by feminist organizations. Last year “The everyday sexism project,” a website that documents women’s experiences of sexism, and the “No More Page 3” campaign, which calls for an end of the use of topless models in the UK newspaper “The Sun,” joined forces to create the comedy night fundraiser “Stand up to Sexism,” which featured prominent male and female comedians ridiculing sexism.
Whether using comedy as a vehicle for feminism, or simply to make people laugh, female comedians are on the march, demolishing male myths in the best possible way – with a sense of humour.