Where are all the female comics?

Decades after they started out, French and Saunders are still Britain's best-known 'funny girls'. But a new generation of women is about to change all that, discovers Gerard Gilbert.

If you ask women what they are looking for in a man, most women will say a brilliant sense of humour," muses Lorna Watson, one half (with Ingrid Oliver) of female comedy double-act Watson & Oliver. "But perhaps men find it threatening or unattractive when women are prepared to make prats out of themselves."

In so saying, Watson is echoing the infamous 2007 Vanity Fair treatise by the late Christopher Hitchens, Why Women Aren't Funny, in which he propounded that humour is essentially a male mating call. "My argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians," he opined. "There are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." Go Hitch.

The (some say) misogynist contrarian was writing about American comedy. I'm not sure what attention, if any, Hitchens gave to the British cultural scene in his latter days, but there seems to be a healthy glut of fresh female comedy talent over here right now – the richest array of comic brio, in fact, since the emergence of French and Saunders, Victoria Wood, Jo Brand and (later) the Smack the Pony trio. And – to humour Hitchens for a moment – none of this new wave is noticeably "hefty, dykey or Jewish", although Miranda Hart makes much joyous slapstick out of her above-average height and Sarah Solemani is of half-Persian, Jewish descent.

However, Solemani's educational background is probably more relevant than her ethnic one – an Oxbridge experience she shares with Laura Solon, Josie Long, Ingrid Oliver (the other half of Watson & Oliver) and, of course, countless male comedians from Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python onwards. "I was so enchanted by the Footlights' history... Emma Thompson was always this hero of mine," says Solemani when we meet. "It's great training because I was just writing and performing every two weeks and I realised that this is what I wanted to do. Funny stuff."

But if the Footlights is British funny stuff's most prestigious nursery, then Edinburgh is its almost universal finishing school, where Solon (a Perrier Award winner in 2005), Hart, Lucy Porter, Isy Suttie and Sarah Millican honed their acts long before radio or television came knocking. The Fringe is where Katy Wix dreamt up surreal sketches with comedy partner Anna Crilly and where Watson & Oliver (who actually met at school) paid their dues. And it is on the latter duo's shoulders, what with a fully-fledged BBC2 series in the offing, that falls the burdensome tag "the new French and Saunders" – an epithet that has been waiting to be claimed (or, rather, bestowed) since Dawn and Jen retired from performing together in 2008.

"I think it's purely a numbers game," says Oliver. "Because there has only been one long-lasting female double act, that's all we've got to compare anybody to. Mitchell and Webb wouldn't be asked if they were the next Armstrong and Miller."

Solemani – Becky in BBC3's brilliant lo-fi sitcom Him & Her – concurs: "Maybe there's too much pressure because we are the minority," she says. "I mean, for example, a female group I know who are in development were asked to list why they were different to another female group in development for another broadcaster. That wouldn't happen to Armstrong and Miller or Mitchell and Webb."

Those boys again. So is there a quota system for the girls? Or a glass ceiling? Solemani suspects it may be a failure of nerve by the broadcasters. "When I was at Cambridge," she says, "I used to go every month to watch Miranda Hart at the Albany (the Albany Theatre in Deptford, south London) where she had a night of just women and I saw some fantastic women – Bridget Christie, Joanna Newry, Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Zoe Gardner – and apart from Miranda none of them have graduated to television. They had had quite difficult experiences in television. Not in terms of support or being developed or being produced, but there just seemed to be a culture of caution just before broadcast where things wouldn't go on air.

"If we don't have a generation of French and Saunders there's a reason for that – because there's a hesitation and caution about putting women on TV."

"I have a suspicion that there are some people in this industry who think women can't be silly or surreal," says Katy Wix, whose television work has included Not Going Out and most recently the pleasurably silly and surreal Felix & Murdo (with, yes, Armstrong and Miller). "Or perhaps there's a subconscious element that we have to prove ourselves more."

However, Wix's comedy partner, Anna Crilly, cautions that: "I think as women in comedy you can throw the sexist card around quite a lot and I feel that's a very dangerous thing because ultimately you have to prove yourself. You're not entitled to your own show just because you're a woman and there should be more women on telly."

One relatively easy route into people's living rooms is by way of the plethora of TV comedy panel shows, from Mock the Week to QI by way of 8 Out of 10 Cats and Would I Lie to You?. But as Miranda Hart, who hosted Have I Got News for You just before Christmas, explains, the format better suits the male of the species. "The problem with panel shows is that you're often the lone female voice," she tells me. "It's often just because of the tone of your voice... Everyone stares at you."

"It seems to be quite a male-dominated arena," agrees Ingrid Oliver. "The way that you're encouraged to put jokes across is shout the loudest and you'll be heard. It doesn't necessarily feel like a very female trait."

Her partner, Lorna Watson, has equally torrid memories of doing stand-up ("It's brutal out there") and believes female comedians tend to naturally gravitate towards the relative safety of sketches. Those that do persevere with stand-up find that some audiences – depressingly, the more youthful ones – have fundamental problems accepting female comedians.

"When I first started doing stand-up", says Anna Crilly, "I had to go out to universities and perform in front of a bunch of 18-year-old boys and their point of reference is Michael McIntyre, Michael McIntyre and Michael McIntyre. A lot of kids are like, 'A woman doing comedy? Nah, nah, nah... we're not having that'. The character comedy world isn't like that at all, it's quite egalitarian."

In his Vanity Fair article, Christopher Hitchens claimed that, unlike their scatological and body-part-obsessed male counterparts: "For some reason, women do not find their own physical decay and absurdity to be so riotously amusing". Sarah Solemani argues that the audience might not find the female body – especially its reproductive capacity – riotously amusing either.

"I have a lot of meetings with producers who say we're really looking for the female Inbetweeners", she says, "and I think, 'Are you? Do you really want the female Inbetweeners? Because you know we won't be talking about our penises, we'll be talking about periods or abortions, and the crux of it is that period jokes still make people uncomfortable.

"I feel cautious about collectivising the differences between men and women, but there definitely is something, and you don't realise it until you are given female comedy. I mean reading Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman and Tina Fey's Bossypants – the experiences are female and the comedy is female in a way you just wouldn't get from Ricky Gervais."

"I love Loose Women," says Lorna Watson. "And I love the fact that they're curmudgeonly, sometimes quite crude – and I know a lot of men just hate that show because it's women being women. They've been trying to do the female Peep Show for years as well, and people weren't ready for it."

All of which makes for a big, fat (or hefty, in Hitchens speak) opportunity for a female comic willing to take it on, reckons Oliver. "The fact that female sexuality is shocking is because people aren't used to it," she says. "Brilliant!"

INGRID OLIVER AND LORNA WATSON

So, the next French and Saunders? No pressure then. Offered a two-year development deal by the BBC, they now have a fully-fledged series of their sketch show, Watson & Oliver. It's on BBC2 – instead of the usual comedy nursery slopes of BBC3 – and what's more, Watson & Oliver is executive produced by Jo Sargent, the comedy veteran who fulfilled the same role on French & Saunders. "It feels like a legacy, doesn't it?" says the half-German Oliver, aged 34.

She met Watson while at school in Kingston, Surrey. Both Watson's parents were comedy-loving teachers, while Oliver's father had a taste for Benny Hill and Mr Bean ("they were big in Germany") that has rubbed off on his daughter's facility with slapstick. The fledgling duo went their separate ways to university and into television production (Oliver as a researcher on The Big Breakfast) before reuniting to write and perform three years of sell-out Edinburgh shows together.

They play both male and female characters in a range of gently surreal situations, from painfully flirtatious Jane Austen-era ladies given to saying "Indeed" a lot (the nearest that the duo come to a catchphrase) to a pair of Playboy bunnies gagging over the reality of sleeping with Hugh Hefner. "Lorna is very much out of the box," explains Oliver. "I'm much more decisive and focused and straight down the line. I rein her in."

Watson has had her fill of the bruising, macho world of stand-up. "One night I remember the Saracens rugby team and the reserve team turned up," she says. "They didn't even heckle – they just talked among themselves! And one of them slapped me on the arse on my way up to the stage."

But even the TV sketch show environment is harsher now than the more forgiving one that nurtured Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders back in the late 1980s – and it should be remembered that the chrysalis of Absolutely Fabulous was an extremely generous 12-minute sketch on French & Saunders, with French playing Saffy. "The room they were given in a sketch," says Watson enviously. "I remember watching an intro to a Morecambe & Wise Show that went on for about eight minutes. We were writing intros at the time... we'd never be able to hand in a script that was eight minutes long."

'Watson & Oliver' will be on BBC2 later this month

KATY WIX AND ANNA CRILLY

If Watson and Oliver are "the next French and Saunders", then Katy Wix and Anna Crilly are the daughters of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Or at least they will be if Dawn and Jen fulfil their wish of playing Katy and Anna's mothers when the younger duo's new Channel 4 sketch show airs this autumn.

"They want us to write them in," says Wix with some amazement. After all, Wix had a small part in this year's Absolutely Fabulous Christmas special and she says she couldn't even look Saunders in the eye.

From the Welsh valleys, Wix, aged 33, was working in a Marks & Spencer in Pontypridd and taking the train to London to do comedy gigs when she met Crilly at an all-female stand-up competition. "I think we were the only two people laughing at each other," she says. Between the pair's Edinburgh gigs, Wix has carved out a healthy television career on such shows as Horrible Histories, Torchwood and as Tim Vine's girlfriend Daisy in Not Going Out – but it is their Edinburgh material that has been recycled into their new Channel 4 sketch show, including their perennially popular 'Women who measure everything'.

"It was Alan Partridge that first got me into comedy – and Chris Morris," says Wix. "I so desperately wanted to be Rebecca Front, and when I worked with her a couple of years ago, it was such a weird thing. She was just normal."

Alan Partridge may have lured Katy Wix into comedy, but it was Kenny Everett who inspired the young Anna Crilly as she grew up in Kent.

"I wish he was still around, I really do," she says. Her father (who died in the 1980s) was a BBC journalist, her mother was a midwife and Crilly had "a proper job" until 2006. "I worked for a casting agency – I had no want or desire to do performing arts stuff. Then I started doing stand-up to see if I could do it and it sort of snowballed and I got an agent. I gave myself two months of not working before I had to go and get another job, and in the seventh week I got the Jack Dee gig."

The "Jack Dee gig" was of course BBC2's Lead Balloon, in which by common consent Crilly's deadpan Eastern European ("I think after four series of it I finally decided that I'm Latvian") home help Magda stole the show.

By then she had met her comedy partner, Katy Wix, at a stand-up competition. "French and Saunders said, 'Go off and be weird and do the comedy you want to do. And fuck everyone else'," says Crilly, although it's another comedy pairing, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, whom Wix and Crilly are more often likened to. "Funnily enough we have an Australian male following," she says, apparently mystified.

SARAH SOLEMANI

"I'd never met a Tory until I went to Cambridge," recalls Sarah Solemani, now aged 29 and musing on her life growing up in north London, the daughter of a mathematician and a social worker. "Our house was filled with books on feminist theory and Marxism."

Little surprise, then, that she studied politics, although a career choice was obviously looming since by then Solemani had spent her gap year playing Elaine in the West End production of The Graduate, with Kathleen Turner as her mother.

She became vice president of Footlights, and in her third year she featured in the film Mrs Henderson Presents. "I was one of the five tableaux girls – so I spent a term just being naked, getting up really early and getting rid of all my body hair."

In fact, it's the big irony of her playing that ultimate slacker, Becky, in BBC3's Him & Her, that Solemani herself is such a high achiever, doing the young writers programme at London's Royal Court Theatre, having two plays put on at Soho Theatre, "and the Old Vic selected six writers to put on in New York – so I had a play in New York".

This month she's opening at the Almeida in an adaptation (set in modern-day Iran) of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, and has an autobiographical script in production. "I lost my mum when I was 16 and it's a coming-of-age comedy-drama set in 1996 about a young girl whose mum's dying and she and three friends want to go to Knebworth to see Oasis play. So Noel Gallagher, if you're reading this..."

Solemani's comedy partner is Olivia Poulet, and after several successful Edinburgh shows the duo have received interest from the States. "They said they really liked the sensibility," she says. "I don't do stand-up. I did it a couple of times at university and you've got to get over that pain threshold of being shit."

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