Sexism does funny things to comedy

With the regularity of autumnal leaves changing colour, articles about women in comedy are published.  They begin in the pre-Edinburgh Fringe season, as comedy and discussion of who will be the ‘next big thing’ comes once again to the fore.  What will the new voice on Radio 4 panel shows sound like?  Will they be posh, like Miles Jupp or Jack Whitehall?  Will they be Northern, like Jason Manford?  Will they be Irish, like David O’Doherty or Ed Byrne?  Will they be black, like Stephen K Amos or Reginald D Hunter?  Or – most unlikely, everyone agrees – will they be women, like Gina Yashere, Sarah Millican, Jo Brand, Ronni Ancona, Holly Walsh, Josie Long, Katherine Ryan, Andi Osho, Shappi Korsandi or any of the other women comedians currently working on television and radio today?

Perhaps it’s a mistake to start an article about women in comedy by being facetious. There is something ridiculous about the seriousness with which writers furrow their brows and consider whether women can ever, really, be funny – and you know, properly funny, not just making jokes about being women and periods and stuff.   Many people will look at the opening paragraph and accuse me of cherry-picking, object that I have deliberately implied that there is not a disproportionate number of successful male comedians compared to female counterparts, and that I’m ignoring the imbalance between those who get occasional spots on panel shows and those who become household names.  (I have, but only because I thought it might be funny. )The comedians who have reached the top of their profession do seem to be mostly men and perhaps restrictions exist in the popular consciousness in what women can do to be funny.

In early television and radio shows, there are two main types of female character.  The first is the dowager.  The job of this matriarch character is be routinely appalled by the actions of the lead male comic. Early examples are Margaret Dumont, who was the regular foil of the Marx Brothers, and Hattie Jacques, who formed a key part of the Carry On team.  The second type is the sex kitten, the female character who is sought after, who is the co-conspirator with the male character but never getting more punchlines than him.  Examples include Carol Cleveland’s characters in Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Betty Marsden’s on Round the Horne.  These personas existed for men as well – the cheeky working-class chap, the sneery upper-class gentlemen and the put-upon husband have informed British comedy for decades.  We can even see these standard character types cannibalised into traditional stand-up personas for men.  The traditional comic personas for women can be used as a part of a stand-up set, the outraged dowager becoming angrier and wittier, turning into our stereotype of the man-hating angry female comedian. To try and re-purpose the sexy kitten is to alienate the female half of your audience and for stand-up comedy to work, the audience must be engaged with what you’re saying.

But women have always been pushing against these ideas – Connie Booth worked alongside Carol Cleveland as a comic foil in Flying Circus and then went on to co-write Fawlty Towers with John Cleese – and to say that this binary is still in operation in comedy today would be ludicrous.  The great female comedy characters of the last thirty years have been varied, exciting and hilarious – Daisy in Spaced, Queenie in Blackadder the ThirdGreen Wing’s Sue White, the chorus of dating website girls in Smack the Pony.

But is this reflected in stand-up comedy or we still trapped in the past? Lets not avoid the truth that it is rare for two women to be on a panel show at the same time – not unheard of, not extremely rare, but rare. Are women then simply less interested in comedy? I spoke to Will Truefitt, president of the Oxford Revue.  “We had slightly more men applying for the Revue, a 60%, 40%.  The new troupe is five people, two of which are women.”  When asked where he thought that slight imbalance might come from, Truefitt said “Humour is a happy demonstration of a known weakness.  Modern society has trained many girls to think that they can’t look stupid, which is saddening.”  Dylan Townley of the Oxford Imps said “Our company is a fifty-fifty split.  However, improvisation is free from gendered constraints because its about support and sympathy, in a way stand-up isn’t.  Its not a reflection of ability, but what you need higher up in the industry is mass appeal and maybe there are some lingering cultural preconceptions that prevent women from reaching that.”

This would suggest people are still digesting the idea that women can be funny without being either desexualised nightmare mother figures, or hypersexualised comedy glamour girls.  But there are simply too many varied, exciting and successful female comedians working in the industry for that to be wholly true.  Maybe we can see stand-up comedians as the kamikaze pilots of the sisterhood, isolated in front of an audience but breaking the most walls down for the rest of us, as we slowly work our way up.

See Flanigan’s  own crack at the comic cherry, The Get-Out at the O’Reilly in 6th Week.

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