She earns a living making people laugh and has written gags for comedy shows such as South Park and Smack the Pony. But Jane Bussmann is adamant about one thing: women just aren’t as funny as men.
Her reasoning hinges on the fact that, unlike men, women are raised “to give a shit what people think about you”. Her remarks revive one of the most contentious issues in the comedy world and pose interesting questions about how children are brought up.
“Women are raised to care that you haven’t upset people and you don’t look awful. And, by and large, the two things that are good for comedy, are looking awful, and upsetting people,” she told The Independent.
The problem is as acute behind the scenes as on the screen, she added. “In a writers’ room, you need clanking great balls just to speak up. Blokes are raised to be heard. Women are raised to be nice.” That said, Bussmann prefers working with men to women, “who are more likely to stitch you up”.
Bussmann, who lives in Kenya but is in the UK for a one-woman show to support the campaign group One World Media, takes offence at the way women are portrayed in the vast majority of comedy shows. “If you look at most of the posters for American female-driven comedy, in fact all female-driven comedy, and you replace the title of the show with the word ‘Thick’, or ‘Someone with mental-health issues’, all posters promoting female comedy could basically be mistaken for NHS posters advising you to get your family checked for mental illness.
“They’re standing there, knock-kneed, with a finger in their mouth going, ‘Ooh, gosh! Did I make a mistake?’ God! Stand up straight!”
Bussmann, who is trying to raise funding for Distinguished Ladies, a sitcom she is writing, said the US show The Big Bang Theory was a rare exception because instead of just giving women the odd funny line, it had funny female characters. “Women are normally nags, virgins or sex bombs, and they’re none of those. They’re not glamour models, but are deliberately made to look more hideous and it’s done incredibly well because it feels fair and balanced.”
Distinguished Ladies revolves around a fictional gossip magazine. Bussmann is honing the scripts for each episode by road-testing the gags on audiences as she goes. Screenings of the first episode, which stars Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips, Sherlock’s Olivia Poulet, and Little Britain Abroad’s Vilma Hollingbery, were very well received.
The debate over women’s comedic talents stretches back through the decades, if not centuries. Christopher Hitchens most infamously stoked the flames in a 2007 piece for Vanity Fair. It normally falls on male comedians to make the dig, making Bussmann’s comments unusual. Asked to explain her own success, Bussmann said: “I’m not funny, I’m inappropriate. People say hilarious shit at the wrong time and in the wrong place all the time; I just write it down and build characters out of it.”
The One World Media Festival takes place on 8 & 9 November; visit oneworldmedia.org.uk/festival for details. Soho Theatre hosts Jane Bussmann’s show, 18-23 November; visit sohotheatre.com for details.