Funny business: Meet the women running comedy

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Think comedy’s a man's world? You must be stuck in the 1980s, says Holly Williams

Comedy has been a famously blokey scene, from the clubs – hard-nosed promoters and confrontationally laddish audiences – to the more rarefied world of broadcasting, dominated by competitive chaps showboating on series run by a Cambridge-Edinburgh-BBC old-boys network.

But look a little closer, and you will spy scores of women not only smashing it as performers – take a bow, Sarah Millican, Miranda Hart, Julia Davis, Isy Suttie, Jessica Hynes – but also behind the scenes, where they're literally running the show: women have set up some of the most important venues, prizes and festivals in the live scene; look at many recent TV and radio hits, and there'll be a woman commissioning, producing or editing; and when it comes to management, women dominate the sector.

Which is as it ought to be: we do make up half the population, after all, and are quite capable of holding positions of, y'know, power, influence and creative control.

So let's not even bother rehashing the old "women aren't funny" debate, because the truth – clearly – is that they are. But the increasing number of women behind the scenes does raise other, interesting questions: do we need women in crucial commissioning and booking roles to help shift the old gender bias, or do we now have an equal playing field? Do women have a unique ear for the female comic voice (if such a thing exists)? Could the number of female agents really be attributable to their greater nurturing instincts? And do they have a responsibility to promote their sisters, or should it only ever boil down to what makes them laugh?

We brought together 12 of the brightest women in the industry, who have spotted, promoted, commissioned, booked, edited, managed, supported and awarded the biggest names in comedy, from Stewart Lee to Miranda. Their thoughts on all these vexed questions were, naturally, varied and nuanced – but no one was in any doubt that women are now a major force within the scene. As Radio 4 commissioner Caroline Raphael commented, "If this building collapsed [during this photography shoot], comedy would be in a sad state! It is astonishing how many women there are in these kind of roles – but then, there should be."

Nica Burns

Edinburgh Comedy Award director

In 1982, Burns set up one of the first stand-up venues, at the Finborough Theatre in London; on becoming artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse a year later, she introduced late-night comedy. In 1984, she took over running the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. She also owns six major London venues as chief executive of Nimax Theatres

"I go right back to the birth of stand-up comedy. There were fewer women in TV then, and far fewer in comedy management. When I started, I got a phone call from one promoter who said, 'What are you doing promoting comedy, Nica? It's a man's game!' He thought he was being helpful.

"There are a lot of women in decision-making positions now. And there are far more women going to comedy, too – now, comedy is where it should be: open and enjoyed by everybody."

Caroline Raphael

Radio 4

Formerly a theatre director, Raphael joined the BBC as a script reader, before moving to radio as a commissioner. She is now commissioning editor for comedy and fiction for Radio 4 and 4Extra, responsible for cross-over hits such as 'Little Britain', 'The League of Gentlemen' and 'I'm Alan Partridge'

"My job is to provide the greatest variety of top-class stuff for the Radio 4 listener, so I want people who come from as many different worlds with as many different voices, who tell me lots of different stories. This year, there seems to be more women at Edinburgh – or I'm picking more women to see. But I don't box-tick when it comes to commissioning; it's got to work.

"I can't think of anything worse than standing on stage, but the vicarious pleasure I get from seeing someone I commissioned get an award… I get a huge pleasure from watching other people move on and grow and develop. Is that a woman thing? I don't know."

Karen Koren

Gilded Balloon

Koren founded the Gilded Balloon, the first venue to focus on comedy during the Edinburgh Fringe, in 1986. Two years later, she set up the legendary talent-breaking competition So You Think You're Funny?

"There's been hardly any women on the organisational side, running venues. My reputation is that I'm loud and hard, but I'm not really – well, I am loud, but I'm not hard!

"Women can't really dress sexy and be funny on stage because men get embarrassed to laugh; their girlfriend will be like, 'You're laughing because she's got big tits.' All these sexist things are still there.

"Comedy isn't any different to business: women just have to work that bit harder and believe in themselves. The opportunities are out there. We've got two women in every single heat of So You Think You're Funny? [this year], which is the most we've ever had."

Hannah Begbie

United Agents

After producing comedy at Cambridge University, Begbie took a sketch group to Edinburgh and was employed by the agency that signed them. She now works at United Agents, where her clients include Tim Key, Adam Riches and Lady Garden

"I expect there is something about women's nurturing quality that lends itself to the business; in comedy, it takes a long time to get to a certain standard, which requires patience and encouragement.

"My feeling on the 'female comic voice' is that they should be judged on exactly the same standards as male comic voices. If they've got something to say, and that voice is unique, they should have a platform. What's patronising to women is to give them a singular platform.

"I would say 30 per cent of my client list is female. In the past couple of years there has been a real shift, in women's confidence more than anything – I don't think the level of ability has changed. People such as Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey have raised people's awareness of a marketplace that can incorporate funny women."

Delphine Manley

Beyond Compere

After running comedy events at Leicester University and then in the city, Manley moved to London to establish Big Fish Comedy, which became the capital's largest chain of comedy clubs. She ran the Leicester Comedy Festival between 1997 and 2000, before focusing on her own comedy agency, Beyond Compere

"My favourite thing is to see an act develop: spotting and supporting talent, and seeing them come through to get work on TV and radio. Running clubs was fantastic, but it was time to move on. It depends what you want in terms of the lifestyle – the hours, where you work.

"Female comedians usually find themselves under greater scrutiny and pressure and have to somehow prove themselves more, which results in more falling away.

"Quite why there are more women in other roles in comedy is interesting. Some people would say women are generally good to deal with, as mentors, managers and negotiators, and of course I would agree! But I see myself as an individual influencing and contributing to an industry, rather than a woman somehow forced into any position by my gender or by society."

Maria Kempinska

Jongleurs

A former drama teacher, Kempinska launched her first comedy club in Battersea in 1983. Jongleurs became Britain's most successful chain of comedy clubs, and Kempinska now runs 15 venues across the UK

"It's only in the past five years that women have come through. But actually they still find it hard to reach the top unless they're on TV, and TV requires a certain style. If you're in that cookie-cutter shape, you get on; if not, they won't use you.

"I won't put on anyone [at Jongleurs] gratuitously, but I'll always give people a trial, and we've always encouraged women.

"You can't be too sensitive. A woman has a different space in a comedy club, and an audience has a different expectation of a woman. Forget any idea of 'sisterhood': women do not support women more. Funnily enough, women are most critical of other women. If they hear a woman on stage being "rude", they don't like it, and get cross at their husbands for laughing. Men don't do that to each other."

Hannah Chambers

Hannah Chambers Management

While studying at Cambridge, Chambers produced Footlights. She became an agent on graduating, and in 2004, she set up her own agency, where clients include Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr and Sarah Millican

"On my desk at work I have pictures of my clients and my two little girls. I consider myself a bit of a Jewish mother: nurturing and force-feeding them, checking they're healthy, but also being quite pushy and wanting them to do their best.

"I do think women are possibly the more nurturing gender, and certainly as an agent you need that side to be very strong. A huge proportion [of agents] are women: women love comedy, but they maybe like the more predictable lifestyle of being behind the scenes, rather than being on the road."

Lindsay Hughes

Baby Cow

While working for a theatrical agency, Hughes became comedian Steve Coogan's PA. She is now head of talent for Baby Cow, the production company Coogan established in 1999. Its shows include 'The Trip', 'Gavin & Stacey' and 'Nighty Night'

"When we started Baby Cow, there were a lot of women [involved]; in the past 15 years, there have always been women in positions of power.

"If [a show] makes you laugh, you can sell it with conviction. It's a rule at Baby Cow that we don't make anything we wouldn't watch and enjoy.

"We've worked with Julia Davis, Ruth Jones, Jess Hynes… we don't go, 'Oh we haven't got any women' – it's a great time for women in comedy. There are a lot of female-led comedies out there: Getting On, Up the Women, Miranda."

Tania Harrison

Festival Republic

Having worked part-time at live-event promoter Mean Fiddler – later Festival Republic – while pursuing a career as an actress, Harrison was put in charge of developing the company's comedy offering. She has been head of arts and comedy since 2006, booking acts for Latitude, Reading, Leeds and Electric Picnic

"I started booking comedy for Reading and Leeds 20 years ago. It's really important to have something other than music at festivals, and it's a brilliant place to introduce acts to the mainstream; they might be well known on the circuit, but it's about broadening their audience.

"I book people I think are great: if you programme by gender, you get yourself into deep water. I've got a significant number of female comics onto bills, so I guess that must mean it's become an easier environment. I think we're over the hump of women being seen as comics who talk only about women's issues. We're way past the Bernard Manning era, thank God."

Lucy Lumsden

Sky

After being involved in student comedy at Edinburgh University, Lumsden worked on the BBC's 'The Comic Strip'. She then read scripts for the BBC comedy department, and became head of comedy commissioning. In 2009, she moved to Sky as its first head of comedy, delivering hits including 'Stella' and 'Hunderby'

"When I started my career at the BBC I did feel quite a lone voice. In-house comedy really had its roots in Radio 4; it was either masculine or camp. Lots of great things came out of it but it was difficult to champion female voices.

"I'm delighted we have a mixed team [at Sky] – a group of all women assessing comedy would be wrong, too. It's important that any female writer or male writer feels they've got a champion within a team.

"Sky Living is really turning its attention to the female part of the audience – though not only female, as shared viewing is keen – but it's giving us the space to let shows that appeal to women shine."

Debi Allen

Debi Allen Associates

Allen worked at the Gilded Balloon box office, and later became an agent. She set up her own agency in 2009; her clients include Sue Perkins, Stewart Lee and Lucy Porter

"Women are really good at attention to detail, we're empathetic, and multi-taskers. You've got 20 clients, there's a lot of juggling to do: having people's diaries in your head, remembering who met who…

"This is going to sound awful, but women are quite happy to be in the background. We quite like pulling the strings.

"I love funny women and I'm on a mission to get more on TV.There's often four guys and one girl on panel shows – if that. I send rude emails every season asking them, 'How many women have you booked?' I p*ss people off.

"Although my most financially successful clients are still men, I make a conscious decision to take on more women. I am a feminist, and I want to show the world that women are as funny as men."

Nerys Evans

Channel 4

While at university in Liverpool, Evans produced shows for student radio and got a job at comedy agency Avalon on graduating. She worked as a PA at the BBC, before becoming a producer, creating 'Miranda'. She then moved to a commissioning role at Channel 4, where she is now deputy head of comedy

"Maybe more people are submitting female-led or written comedies now; it's not something you have to actively go out and get. I've worked with so many funny writers, it's never been difficult for talent to rise to the top – Miranda [Hart], French and Saunders, Anna [Crilly] and Katy [Wix]…

"I've been lucky enough to work with strong female role models. Jo [Sargent, at the BBC] mentored me and other producers; I don't know if it was because she was a woman, or just magnanimous with her time.

"It's well-documented that stand up is a lonely job and not so appealing [to women]. But it's so much more egalitarian these days – it isn't just a smoky club on a Friday night. [Material] comes into your inbox, you have showreels, you see people's plays, and YouTube is just brilliant: if it's funny, it's funny."

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