Something funny's going on

Where is the new generation of female stand-up comics? Probably backstage - and not telling the jokes, but organising them. They are now surviving, even thriving, in the macho business of comedy by becoming men's managers. By Veronica Lee
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The Independent Culture
I was a Perrier Comedy Award judge last month and sat through dozens of acts from the inspired to the dire. Depressingly, there wasn't a single female up for serious consideration in either the main awards, or even among the newcomers. Where are the Jo Brands, the Jenny Eclairs and the Caroline Ahernes of the current stand-up generation, who lift the lid on the female psyche or offer an alternative to male comics talking about themselves? But perhaps I was looking in the wrong place for comedic talent. Remarkably, of the 10 acts on the two shortlists, eight are managed by women. While women may be taking a rest from performing, there is no shortage of them behind the scenes.

Not long ago, one would have expected the shortlists to be dominated by acts managed by Avalon or Stone Ranger, two high-profile, highly visible comedy management/promotion companies run by go-getting young men. But this year the distaff side appears to have taken over.

Dawn Sedgwick is manager of Perrier winner Tommy Tiernan, Jason Byrne and Ardal O'Hanlon. Her background is in television. Tiernan describes her as "a safe pair of hands", which is perhaps reflected in her slightly motherly mien. She says: "It's a growing area for women and where they are taken seriously. The entertainment industry is still male-dominated, but there is now a generation who have moved on to a high level and I hope it will have a knock-on effect in performing."

But why has a generation of women comics been lost? "Sadly," she says, "lot of women feel that they have to do bog-standard `women's' material, which often doesn't work, fairly or unfairly. If a woman does stuff about sanitary products people are turned off, but a man talking about sex or football is fine. It's hard from a performer's point of view in that she has to come up with something very different to make an impact because they are compared unfavourably with men. And stand-up is tough - you really have to show your mettle."

Vivienne Smith, the vivacious and forthright ex-publicity agent for the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh and now manager of Perrier nominee Ed Byrne, Michael Smiley and Marcus Brigstock, has a more prosaic explanation for the lack of young female talent. "Women are much more sensible than men at an early age, so I guess they're off learning to be lawyers and doctors rather than spending time in smoky clubs. But it's true that a lot of young guys like the rock'n'roll image of comedy today, and they certainly have more role models for getting up and performing." The 1995 Perrier winner Jenny Eclair believes that the world of stand-up, with its aggressively drink-sodden, heckling audiences, is so antithetical to women that she does not wonder that so few want to do it. "I always say that women have more sense," she says. "It's a vaguely masochistic thing to do."

But she wishes that women had more staying power, or worked harder to get it right. "There's a generation of women coming up to 30 who are missing or who have simply given up. I met one recently who had dropped out and I asked her why. She said, `My boyfriend left me and I couldn't cope.' I could have shaken her. Women are emotionally frail about it."

She puts this down to differences in the male and female psyche. "Men start practising being funny early on - it's the way parents treat them. With girls, it's `Doesn't she look pretty'. Men don't communicate with each other with any depth - they try to make each other laugh instead. Women share secrets."

Eclair thinks the only way a woman can survive in such a tough business is by assuming a stage persona vastly different to her own. So different is the off-duty Eclair from the offstage one that she has never allowed her partner, father of their young daughter, to see her live act. Eclair says the relationship would be over if he saw her vulgar, foul-mouthed, horny creation in full flow.

Vivienne Smith is not convinced by the assumed persona argument. "Well, there's Rhona Cameron and Donna McPhail for a start. But don't all performers have to adopt a stage persona? Otherwise, it's just Joe Bloggs making an after-dinner speech at the Rotary club."

But it is true that more female stand-ups than men do "acts" rather than "turns" as themselves. Caroline Aherne and Brenda Gilhooley were jobbing stand-ups till they became, respectively, Mrs Merton and Gayle Tuesday, and both shot to television fame overnight.

Smith concedes that comedy is largely a macho world: "As much as any middle-class sport can be considered macho," she says drily. "It is a male-dominated and competitive business but that's not confined to comedy. I don't know to whose benefit that kind of approach is. I believe you are only as good as your clients, and you should try to do your work with a certain amount of decorum and discretion."

Women in management can also offer a broader view. As Dawn Sedgwick says, "Most of our comedians are male and we can offer a female perspective on their material." And Lisa White, of comedy agents Off The Kerb, was responsible for discovering two truly original talents to come through this year - Perrier nominee Peter Kay and the shortlisted newcomer Paul Foot, both of whom have an appeal to female audiences that may have been lost on those managers who line up one laddish comic after another with beer, footy and fart jokes.

Women in comedy management tend to work with smaller teams. For Vivienne Smith this is a deliberate policy formed from previous experience. "When I worked in a large management company the focus wasn't there. It was a numbers game - how much money has that client done this week? Not much, so shove them aside and concentrate on this one who's doing really well at the moment." Dawn Sedgwick, too, believes comedy management should be client-centred. "We have a strong, small clientele because we take the long view of their careers and work them hard across the board, to encourage them as writers and TV performers in addition to doing stand- up. I think the larger companies are perhaps more interested in getting their own name forward rather than their artists'. We don't have that ego working."

From a purely financial point of view, too, a quiet but effective management beavering quietly away on comics' behalf pays other rewards. As one experienced Edinburgh observer put it: "You couldn't move up there without seeing an Avalon or Stone Ranger logo, bag or poster. You can bet every penny of that comes out of the artists' fees."

But while we can applaud the work female managements are doing for male comics, all is not lost on the women comics front. Channel 4, organisers of newcomers' award So You Think You're Funny?, were delighted by the strong showing of young women stand-ups in this year's competition and expect those such as Caroline Quinlan, Nadine Leonard and Sheba Moserrat to reach the mainstream within a couple of years.

Eclair thinks a challenge lies ahead. "There is a modern wave of comedy that is surreal, whereas women tend to be emotional gut-spillers and that sort of thing is now considered old hat, too Eighties. It's going to be interesting to see if the new generation of young female comics are going to get away from their genitalia and their age and their looks and compete with the boys on that new front." In the meantime, though, look for the women backstage rather than on it.