Funny thing, our new women comics are invisible

A new generation of Americans has joined a dynasty of female comedians, but in Britain such fame is elusive. Susie Mesure reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the quest for comic equality, they tick every box. They have the wit, the gags, the prime-time shows, the YouTube clips viewed by millions, and yes, they are even female. But for UK comedy fans, there's just one problem. The new crop of comic superstars is American, not British.

The explosive success of performers such as Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and newcomer Sarah Haskins has exposed the dearth of British comic talent without a Y chromosome. The fact that the BBC have again turned to such doyennes as Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders to help fill its autumn schedules has reignited the debate over why so few women manage to hit the UK comedy jackpot.

While in the US the likes of Fey, who achieved global fame with her impersonations of vice-president wannabe Sarah Palin during last year's presidential campaign, enjoy household recognition, here that success is enjoyed only by an older generation such as French, Saunders and Victoria Wood.

Perceived wisdom likes to blame women for not being funny – there are countless internet threads on the topic, not to mention Christopher Hitchens's withering Vanity Fair polemic "Why Women Aren't Funny" – but US triumphs prove that isn't true. Fey's sitcom 30 Rock, which she writes and stars in, has received 22 Emmy award nominations, while more than 17 million people have watched Silverman's satirical song "I'm fucking Matt Damon" on YouTube.

In Britain, even those women deemed to have cracked the comedy scene, such as Laura Solon, who in 2005 became one of only two women to have won the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (the other was Jenny Eclair in 1995), are relative unknowns compared with, for example, Jack Dee, Lee Mack and Frank Skinner. The two women to have won best newcomer at the awards in the past three years – Josie Long and Sarah Millican – are also very low profile.

The lack of female comics manifests itself on comedy panel shows, which have been criticised by the likes of Wood and Jo Brand as "testosterone-fuelled" zones. Alan Davies, who co-stars with Stephen Fry on the comedy show QI, recently said there just weren't enough funny women around to guest star.

Industry insiders say Britain's problem lies in its stand-up circuit, which is still the main route to comic prominence in this country. Nica Burns, the West End impresario who founded the Comedy Award, formerly the Perrier Awar, nearly three decades ago, said stand-up's competitiveness does not suit women. "They find it tough to be so overtly competitive. It's all rooted in the hunter-gatherer genes." Hannah Chambers, a comedy manager, added:"It's a biological thing. Men are more conditioned to be the joker than women, so more men come through to be comedians."

Burns believes American women do better because they have had routes to comedic success other than the stand-up scene, namely the plethora of US television channels. "American women such as Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhard came through earlier [than their British equivalents] via TV because there are more channels," she said.

Sarah Haskins, who is tipped as the next Tina Fey, made her name on cable TV with jokes about the patronising way products are marketed to women. She thinks female comics have it easier in the US because "there has always been a good female comedic tradition". That said, she added: "Culturally, women have had less pressure to be publicly funny than men," which has kept the numbers relatively low.

Next month's Edinburgh Fringe festival is certain to refocus attention on the male/female comic divide. But Burns is confident the tide is turning. "Change is slow but it's coming. The playing field is becoming more level all the time as women are welcomed on to bills and audiences stop judging people just because they're female."

And a BBC spokeswoman claimed the autumn listings would "illustrate the corporation's commitment to developing new female comedy talent as well as established writers and actresses". Miranda Hart, Olivia Colman, Debra Stephenson and Emma Fryer will feature alongside French and Saunders, she added.

Funny Women

Phyllis Diller, 92

One of the pioneers of US stand-up, she retired from the circuit only seven years ago

Victoria Wood, 56

A relative spring chicken compared with Diller, she still flies the flag for older, funny British females

Tina Fey, 39

US comic sensation, thanks to her send-up of Sarah Palin last year and her Emmy-winning sitcom, '30 Rock'

Catherine Tate, 41

Tate walks a lonely path in Britain when it comes to big name funny women

Sarah Haskins, 29

The Current TV star is tipped as the next Fey for her satirical take on women-focused advertisements

Laura Solon, 29

One of only two women in three decades to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award, yet still not a household name