That has changed in the past 10 years, as audiences have discovered that a Y chromosome is not a prerequisite for comedic success. There are more women performing on the stand-up circuit than ever. At this year's Edinburgh Festival, from the surreal to the straightforward, from the political to the personal, women are packing them in.
"Funny Women" - a women-only stand-up gig which awards a prize for the best new female comic of the year - is highlighting the quality and diversity of female comedians. But is there any need for women-only gigs? Is it insulting to award a women-only prize?
The four comedians I spoke to are all playing at the upcoming gigs, but you could not wish for four more different performers.
Sweet, five-foot-nothing Lucy Porter has been selling out big venues at the Fringe for years with her friendly but sharp brand of personal recollection and incisive humour.
Debra-Jane Appelby, a brash, transsexual northerner, was the winner of the Funny Women award at the Comedy Store in London this year. Her Edinburgh show this year is a reflection on how disappointing the 21st century seems to a woman brought up on the likes of Dr Who, Tomorrow's World and Star Trek.
Janey Godley, a garrulous Glaswegian who tells honest and hilarious stories about the men in her life, is finding her niche as "the female Billy Connolly".
Jo Caulfield's lively audience banter and beautifully timed material about life as a metropolitan thirtysomething is a nightly sell-out. So is stand-up still a big boys-only club? "There are still less of us," says Caulfield. "You're normally the only woman on the bill. It's not that it's a boys' club in that it excludes women or anything, but it can be difficult only ever working with other men, while men are always working with other men. When you do the occasional all-women gig, like Funny Women, you think 'isn't this fun?' Not everyone is talking about the same things."
But why are there fewer female comics in the first place?
"It's just reflective of society, I suppose," says Caulfield. "Why aren't there more female barristers? Why aren't there more female bus drivers? Comedy is an area, like many areas, that women have taken longer to get into. I suppose, innately, women have less confidence to get on stage. If you watch a little boy and a little girl, the boy will run around shouting and breaking things, and the girl will sit quietly.
"Men are confident like that - I've seen very confident men on stage who have been awful. But because women are a bit more self-aware, it takes a little more for us to get on stage."
Appelby disagrees. "I think women are actually a little better-suited to comedy than men. Comedy is a communication. For men, it can often be about aggression, ego, and competition. But for women, it's about communicating. I've noticed that things are sometimes more acutely observed by women, too."
The real difficulties start, says Appelby, when a woman has decided to become a stand-up.
"Women are still getting slightly short shrift from comedy audiences. And you still get promoters who say they can't book you because they've already got a woman on the bill that night. The lifestyle's difficult to cope with if you've got kids or whatever. It's a lot of travelling around and cutting your teeth in grotty pubs in the middle of nowhere."
Or, as Godley puts it: "it's a weird, ridiculous occupation and women just get wise to that very quickly. They say, 'I'm away to get a real job.' "
"There are men who don't enjoy that part of the job either," says Caulfield. "It's just hard becoming a stand-up comedian, whatever sex you are. I think what's really changed has been the audiences. It's really pleasing that comedy audiences want to see women, and are prepared to fork out their cash year after year. It wasn't long ago that, given the choice, people wouldn't pay to see a female comic."
Ticket have been selling well for this year's gigs. "I think there is a different market for Funny Women, besides the normal comedy crowd," says the event's organiser Lynne Parker. "We attract people that haven't been to live stand-up comedy before, as they think that women performers will be less aggressive and more accessible. That's why we are experimenting with an afternoon show as well as a late-night one and, interestingly, these have been selling quicker.
"Our Funny Women awards showcases sold out better this year than ever before and there were a lot of comedy virgins as those gigs too - possibly because they came along to support acts they knew - but we are growing our own audiences as well as developing the talent."
Porter is effervescent about the showcases.
"I recently dragged a few friends from the industry down to one of the nights," she says, "and they said to me afterwards that they had been dreading the evening before it started. But they loved it - the quality's really good across the board."
Appelby agrees: "It's an evening which is piss-funny from start to finish."
The performers for whom events like Funny Women are really designed are, like Appelby, relative new-girls.
"Funny Women is a very nurturing environment for new female comics," says Godley. "When I started out, I was always the token tits on a gig. I was playing skanky men's pubs. And I do believe there's a big place for that too. But as a new comedienne, it can be hard to find your feet, and this is a good place to do that."
There is also a prize at stake. Edinburgh's prestigious Perrier Award is dominated by men.
"You know, I think Perrier choose who they want and the sooner people accept that the better," says Godley. "Maybe we're just not good enough. I refuse to accept that there's a bunch of critics who are coming to review comedy and they already have a set idea in their mind that women won't be good enough. I'm happy to accept that not everyone likes what I do."
So what's the point of the Funny Women award?
"I don't know how I feel about it. I wasn't sure about the Richard Pryor award either," says Godley, referring to the prize for the best ethnic comedian at the Festival which was dropped this year because of a lack of sponsorship.
"If you pick a minority - which women are in comedy - and give someone a prize within that minority, it can be detrimental. On the other hand, winning a prize as a new woman comic is a great encouragement, and can set you on your way."
"I'm not a natural advocate of awards," adds Caulfield. "I'd rather have a Funny Women final with the 12 best women and just have a great gig, but it's more exciting for there to be a winner, so that's what happens. It's the same with the Perrier - I don't think prizes are ever fair. There are lots of men who have had a year when they should have won it, and it does see ridiculous that only one woman has ever won it, but it is just a numbers thing. There are far more men doing this than women."
All comedians want audiences, and to a certain extent judges, to deal with them on a level playing field. Performing at a women-only gig and being associated with a women-only prize is to discreetly acknowledge that there is still some distance to go before that can happen.
On the other hand, it shows that an all-female bill can make a sell-out crowd split their sides.
"Promoters are now aware of this," says Caulfield, "that audiences desperately want to see women on the bill. And they're trying to make it easier for us to make them money."
"I suppose the proof is in the pudding, and the Funny Women gigs are doing really well," Porter says. "I do think it's becoming increasingly less important for women to have the outlet of women-only gigs. And I wouldn't be that disappointed if you didn't find it necessary to write this article again in a year's time."
'Funny Women at the Fringe', Smirnoff Underbelly, Belly Laugh, Thursday to Sunday; late show 11.45pm to 12.45am. (0870 745 3083; www.funnywomen.com).Reuse content