To begin, here are a few quotes which made me laugh and I hope will make you laugh too.
‘I was not a particularly small child. I was the one who always got picked to play Bethlehem in the school nativity.’ (Jo Brand)
I hate when women compare men to dogs. Men are not dogs. Dogs are loyal. I’ve never found any strange panties in my dog’s house. (Wanda Sykes)
‘I lost my virginity very late. When it finally happened I wasn’t so much deflowered as deadheaded.’ (Holly Walsh)
‘My boyfriend had a sex manual but he was dyslexic. I was lying there and he was looking for my vinegar.’ (Victoria Wood)
I’ve wanted to write a post about women and comedy for a while. When doing a bit of research the cliché still seems to exist that women aren’t funny; there is certainly huge disparity between the number of successful male and female comedians. In this post I want to celebrate the new wave of comedians who are changing the way we see humour. I love comedy and I love that we have moved on so that we are starting to see a more balanced and inclusive reflection of our society.
I want to add I also love male comedians. I love all kinds of comedy, anything that makes me laugh. I am focusing on women in comedy as I feel we still have a way to go to ensure full equality. Bearing in mind I began writing this to recognise how great it is to see brilliant funny women talking about their vaginas in mainstream media, I was shocked to see we still have a fair way to go before everyone is fully represented.
My detailed and in-depth research (Wikipedia and Google) revealed that in 2014 the list of the top 10 highest paid comedians (in USA) was exclusively male. One woman joined that list at number 2 in 2016 – Amy Shumer. Go Amy! But still, only one woman in a list of ten men?
In UK panel shows, a study revealed that women made up 31% of the contributors. Doesn’t sound great but at least it is better than it was in 1989 when it was 3%. 3%!! If you google ‘top hundred jokes’ you will find about three women represented. Usually white women. The usual line up at Comedy Stand-Up shows is 80% male to 20% female.
I know this is slightly skewed as I am talking about stand-up here, but why don’t more women do stand-up? We need to look at the kind of environment we are creating for our daughters if they think they cannot get up on stage and make people laugh. Through Wikipedia I found a link which discusses how stand-up is seen as a masculine art form. I was interested to read this:
‘The words that are used to describe success (in stand-up) are often violent, such as ‘killed’ or ‘annihilated’. The performer must take charge of the stage, claiming it as their own via the phallic symbol of the microphone. The structure of joke is often centered on an attack on another party. The aggression that such an art form necessitates is encouraged in males but discouraged in females.’
Hmmm. I don’t like this kind of stereotyping; perhaps it’s time to change or certainly develop the world of stand-up? It’s not right that often women in stand-up will wear baggy or gender neutral clothes to take the issue of their gender out of the relationship with the audience. In the words of Caitlin Moran – would a man do that? Of course not!
(Can I just, as an aside, put in this great quote from Caitlin…
You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’.’
― Caitlin Moran,
Inequality continues, of course, in all areas of comedy – not just stand-up. There seems to be a lot of thoughts (from men) that women cannot exist in the world of humour alongside their male counterparts. If that’s the case maybe we should change the forum? I am glad to say it is happening, women like Bridget Christie and others are challenging and pushing at the boundaries of what it meant by stand-up. Isy Suttie wrote a very funny show which isn’t centered around ‘an attack on another party.’
I stumbled across an article by Christopher Hitchens entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny‘ in Vanity Fair. I was expecting the usual claptrap about woman not having a sense of humour but to be fair he did acknowledge there are funny women out there: Lucille Ball, Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres are some he names.
But still, this article really annoyed me. It was written in 2007 and I wonder if he would have written the same thing now (if he wasn’t dead). What got my goat about this article was his hypothesis that women ‘are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter.’
What a load of bullshit!
The idea that women are on some kind of lofty pedestal (because they can give birth) which raises them above immature and superficial things such as comedy is absolute nonsense. Hitchens argues men are ‘childish’ and competitive and that is why they dominate the world of humour and comedy.
To me, humour is much more complex than a competitive race to the punchline. I don’t like the way he differentiates men and women, it’s not helpful. OK, men and women are different, but all of humankind, regardless of gender/sexuality/race/culture, is perfectly capable of bringing high quality, laugh-out-loud funnies to the comedy table.
At one point Hitchens writes:
‘And when the [baby] is finally delivered, the funny side is not always immediately back in view. Is there anything so utterly lacking in humor as a mother discussing her new child? She is unboreable on the subject… And as the little ones burgeon and thrive, do you find that their mothers enjoy jests at their expense? I thought not.’
Argh! What an irritating thing to say. He clearly has not spent any time with the kind of women and mothers I know. I accept that most mums are guilty at some point of boring on endlessly about their own child, but it won’t be long before someone cracks a joke and everyone falls about.
Once in a hospital canteen, the day after giving birth to my nephew, my sister-in-law told the story of her Caesarean in such a way I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack.
Funnily enough, my husband and brother just looked horrified at the descriptions of epidural needles, frozen claw hands (from being gripped around the gas and air handle) and blood, lots of blood. Her story left them slightly pale and sweaty. Not me. The way she told her tale was hilarious. It still makes me chuckle thinking of it now. They could not understand why she and I were roaring with laughter, wiping away tears and nodding in recognition at each other.
THAT’S WHAT WOMEN DO!
The idea that women are too ‘lofty’ to joke about silly things is rubbish. Everyone is familiar with the raucous table at a restaurant filled with young, old, and in-between women throwing their heads back and shouting with laughter at something their friend has said.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is making my women friends laugh. They do it in such a generous way. Women are a generous audience. It is a rare man who can laugh at a woman’s jokes with the same generosity. (And I married one of them.)
Hitchens is wrong to think that women don’t laugh about silly things – or horrid, tragic things. Trust me I have laughed with women about every topic under the sun. From swapping stories of ‘great food binges I have known’ to ‘getting a smear done when the GP couldn’t find my cervix.’ Stories that continue to make me giggle years done the line.
One of my friends told me a story of the worst day of work of her life. I remember vividly the evening she told me this. Four of us, gathered around the table, three bottles of wine in. Waiters yawning and leaning against walls. My friend described how she had just started teaching at a new school when one day she was struck down by an awful case of gastroenteritis. After an unfortunate incident in the bathroom she had to make an emergency call to her parents to bring fresh clothes.
Parents arrived and a colleague collected the bag of clothes which were duly passed onto my friend. She changed clothes and packed her dirty clothes into the bag. She then popped out of the school to meet her parents to return the bag of soiled clothes. Just before she handed them over she looked down and was so revolted by the smell coming from the bag she threw up into it before passing it over to her Dad who was waiting in the car park.
This story had the whole table in stitches. Don’t tell me women are too superior to laugh at themselves and a nasty bout of diarrhea, Christopher Hitchens!
Being funny is a very important aspect of any relationship for a woman. Hitchens said in his article ‘Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.’ The implication being we don’t need to make our men laugh – we just use out bodies to get their attention.
This is a rather lazy point, but I agree with him that impeccable comic timing in a woman is perhaps not the number one thing a man may look for. The fools. When I was growing up and starting to date I realised early on that the guys I was meeting were expecting me to laugh at their jokes, not the other way around.
I first became aware of TV comedy in the 80’s. Living in the Middle East until 1982 meant I didn’t have much knowledge of comics before then. To reflect my experience I put together a collage of all the funny TV stars I could remember from that time. I found I could think of the names of lots of men: The Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise, Little and Large, Russ Abbot, Hale and Pace, Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson, Billy Connolly… these were names that immediately sprang to mind.
These were the names of stars who dominated UK TV screens during the 80’s and 90’s. However, when I tried to think of the women who featured on 80’s TV in leading roles it wasn’t so easy. Tracy Ulman, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters and Maureen Lipman. Later I remembered French and Saunders. (Who said in an interview they acted as the ‘token’ women in a number of comedy groups in the 80’s)
Six women. Six. I could remember the names of 20 male comics without even thinking.
Any women who appeared in mainstream comedies, during the 80’s in particular, generally played roles secondary to the men.
Now, nearly 50, I am delighted to see how much the world has changed. Of course we still have a huge way to go; woman, especially black and Asian women, are nowhere near represented proportionately. But my daughter will be growing up in a world not the same as the one I knew.
When I tried to name 20 current comedians off the top of my head it was a very different story to the results I got when thinking about the 80’s and 90’s. Then, I struggled to think of 6, now I could fill a whole collage just with women.
These are some of the women who are revolutionising the world of comedy. They are taking the things that women laugh about and dragging them into the mainstream arena.
All of these pictured women have at some point reduced me to tears of laughter.
It hit home to me how much comedy has changed in 2011 when I watched Bridesmaids. For the first time in my life I saw a real, honest and true portrayal of the conversations I had with my friends.
Kristen Wiig miming an inquisitive penis, with her arms circled to represent balls, had me spitting out my coke with laughter and shock. EVERY woman knows exactly what she’s talking about. I had never seen that humour on the screen before. It was a revelation to me and brought home how far we had come from the ‘Nick Nick’ jokes of Jim Davidson.
Comedians like Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy, Rachel Bloom, Sharon Horgan and many, many others have brought a different kind of comedy to the one than existed before. It’s a tricky thing to define as what they bring is so diverse I hesitate to reduce it by pigeonholing it as ‘female comedy’. But it does stem from a perspective which is driven by being a woman.
Here Melissa McCarthy seduces her man by opening the flaps of her giant subway; it is not something I could ever imagine a man thinking up (I may be wrong).
Earlier she stops her target man by throwing her leg up on the door and whispers ‘You feel that steam heat comin? That’s from my undercarriage.’ Her utter confidence and ultimate success in winning her man is one of my favourite things about this film.
What I love about all these women is they are unapologetic. My generation is made up of the daughters of the feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. We were told we could have it all. We were strong women and equal to anyone.
I internalised that message but it was contradicted by the world in which I lived. Women I knew to be feisty, funny and forthright stayed mute in work meetings; listening quietly as their male colleagues contributed. If they did speak they were talked over.
It saddens me to hear Wanda Sykes (American comedian, writer and actor) saying of the industry ‘men don’t hear women’ and ‘sometimes the women writers will pitch something and I’ll hear it, but the men will keep talking.’
I LOVE that women on our screens and in our cinemas are no longer apologising for not fitting into a cookie cut out mould. I love that they talk about messy periods (Sarah Millican), Anal Sex (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the effects of childbirth: ‘My fanny looks like it stepped on a landmine.’ (Catastrophe), relationships: ‘I tried extending the olive branch to you and you just took those olives and you plucked them and you chopped them up into a tapenade of reproach.’ (Crazy-Ex Girlfriend), the list goes on.
I am so pleased that despite the flaws and problems and on-going sexism and racism, my daughter will grow up in a world where women are representing themselves, rather than through the filter of a male gaze, and representing themselves with honesty, integrity and always with great humour.
There are four comic pieces I particularly adore at the moment. Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Grace and Frankie, ‘Catastrophe’, ‘Fleabag’ and ‘The Heat’. I have ranted on long enough on this subject for now so I am hoping to write some individual posts on each of them so if you haven’t seen them I hope I encourage you to have a look!
What stories have your friends told you that you still giggle about now? Let me know. Stay funny, my warriors!