Heard the one about the 'bitchy' female comics?

Three leading comedians have been accused of perpetuating a "bitchy and irrational" stereotype of woman comics by the organiser of an all-female stand-up competition, after they criticised her for charging entrants.

Lynne Parker, the organiser of Funny Women, apologised after making the comments about comedians Shappi Khorsandi, Sarah Millican and Jo Caulfield on her blog – saying she had been subjected to "communal cyber-bullying" on Twitter – but defended her right to charge people to enter.

Ms Parker founded the competition in 2003 to help combat the sexism she believed was rife in comedy and after losing sponsorship during the recession has this year announced a fee of £15. But many comedians object on principle to "pay to play", arguing that it takes advantage of them and that the competition is unnecessary.

On hearing news of the fee, Khorsandi tweeted: "Aspiring comics! Never pay to enter a competition! Buy a new hat instead," while Millican wrote: "Advice to any budding female comedians, no need to pay to play by entering Funny Women. Just be funny, write loads & work very hard." Caulfield also said: "Funny Women have finally proved it IS harder for women in comedy because men AREN'T charged £15. Please reconsider this RIDICULOUS idea."

Ms Parker responded by writing that potential female comedians "can either take Ms Khorsandi's advice and do what's expected of you as a girl (get a new hat), jump on the bandwagon and perpetuate the stereotype of the bitchy irrational female comedian more interested in gossip than developing a professional profile; or you can rise up and act with the strength and poise of a woman, join us in making a statement and be a fundamental part of taking female comedy beyond this silliness and on to the next level."

Yesterday she said she was "genuinely sorry for tarring the female comedy world," and that her comments were an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to a torrent of sometimes highly abusive comments on Twitter. "When someone starts slagging you off, if you've got balls you stand up," she said. "People think we're making huge amounts of money out of it but we're certainly not."

"It is hard for women to perform in what is a very blokey environment, we're not all Jo Caulfield with balls of steel. A lot of women who take part never carry on with comedy, but I see it as a way of pushing them beyond the boundaries of what women are normally expected to do," she said.

However, other comedians including Dave Gorman, Tim Minchin and Chris Addison have since added their names to the growing list criticising the charge. Ms Caufield told The Independent yesterday: "Pay to play is a terrible thing, it feels scammy. It's like someone saying do you want to be a model and pay all this money to have some photos done. It's just not right.

But Cerys Nelmes, one of this year's entrants, defended the competition: "I went to a Funny Women workshop in January, and if it hadn't been for Lynne I'd be stuck in Bristol doing nothing. Instead I'm gigging around the country. She's been 100 per cent behind me, and I've been going so mad about all the stuff on Twitter and Facebook because some of it is vile." The winner of last year's award, Gemma Whelan, also said the nastiness was unfounded. "I had a very positive experience. I don't feel Lynne's ever tried to spin me or make money out of me."

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