The last laugh for women comics

Are they as funny as the men? No contest, says Veronica Lee. So could one of a new generation of stand-ups be the first female to win the Perrier Award for nearly 20 years?
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When the shortlist for the Perrier Comedy Award is announced in Edinburgh on Wednesday, for the first time in a decade there's a chance that a woman will be on it. There has been a huge jump in the number of female comics at this year's Festival Fringe - 44 compared to last year's 25 among 200-odd men - and hopes are high that an invisible barrier is at last falling.

When the shortlist for the Perrier Comedy Award is announced in Edinburgh on Wednesday, for the first time in a decade there's a chance that a woman will be on it. There has been a huge jump in the number of female comics at this year's Festival Fringe - 44 compared to last year's 25 among 200-odd men - and hopes are high that an invisible barrier is at last falling.

The last woman to win the Perrier was Jenny Eclair in 1985 and no woman has been nominated since Donna McPhail in 1993 (although Alice Lowe was nominated and then won as part of the Garth Merenghi team in 2000 and 2001 respectively). Even more staggering, only 10 per cent of all nominees have been female since the award was created in 1981. Is it that women are intrinsically less funny than men, or are there other explanations for their poor showing?

For one thing, there is a lot of prejudice to overcome. Box-office staff report an unwillingness among punters to buy tickets for female comics' shows, while the comics themselves all remark that audiences often expect to find women unfunny. And sometimes the prejudice comes from surprising quarters. While Nica Burns, director of the Perrier Award, makes huge efforts to keep a gender balance on the judging panel - and points out that the chairman has more often than not been a woman - one female critic on a Perrier panel was heard to dismiss all the acts by women as "very poor". And that was before she'd even seen a single show.

Katherine Jakeways, a talented character comedian making her Fringe debut, points out that it's precisely this lumping together of female comics and poor expectations that works against them. "This critic wouldn't say all male comics were crap, or even talk about black or Asian comics as a group, would she? The fact is female comics are a disparate group and range from good to bad and a lot in between."

But this year, there's hope that something may change. It's noticeable that the younger women coming on to the circuit are willing to tackle much darker or more dangerous material than the funny but safe French and Saunders and Victoria Wood generation. Jo Caulfield takes particular delight in upsetting audience expectations of what a female stand-up will talk about. Natalie Haynes does a riff on teachers having sex with their pupils and one of Jakeways' characters is unbelievably filthy. Sarah Kendall, meanwhile, has a section about Harold Shipman that shocks most audiences. Fluffy they are not.

It also makes a pleasant change from the "I'm fat, I'm ugly, I have periods, I can't get a bloke" school of comedy done expertly by Jenny Eclair and Jo Brand in their day, but devalued by a raft of less talented comics that followed. Kendall, whose material ranges from the war in Iraq to grannies behaving badly, says "I just don't find women talking about their periods funny, in the same way I don't think it's amusing when a male comic goes on about the trivial aspects of being a man." Or, as Lucy Porter - another comic in her second year at Edinburgh - puts it: "Male comics are always talking about wanking."

It's striking that many of the women appearing in Edinburgh this year are in duos, such as Gavin and Gavin, McCloud & Black and Sam 'n' Emma, or doing character comedy, such as Lizzie Roper, Miranda Hart, or Sarah Davies as Jade the folk singer, which suggests an unwillingness for women to be really exposed on stage. Jakeways says that she wouldn't even think of doing her more outre material as herself, while Porter explains: "It is quite a lonely experience doing a show by yourself. It's quite scary and I guess having a partner means you can support each other and talk through what works in each performance."

Porter acknowledges that confidence is also an issue. "Men are far more likely to think, 'I can see people spending an hour in my company and paying for that', whereas women might think, 'I'm not sure they would'." Haynes, at least, makes no apologies for being up on stage. "They've paid to see me, so I go out and try to entertain them. But it's certainly easier to do that at Edinburgh than in a comedy club. If I have a good night in one of those it means far more to me because it's been more of a challenge."

Haynes hopes that this year's greater number of women is the start of a growing trend, but says: "I've been fooled before". Nica Burns meanwhile points to the increasing number of women in the final stages of Channel 4's So You Think You're Funny newcomer award as positive news.

But Burns is concerned about the longevity of women's careers. "The wastage rate is huge," she says, "and I think that is a lifestyle thing. Comedy clubs can be horrible places to work and who wants to be driving down a motorway at 2am, or worse, getting public transport back from some grotty venue?

"It's not popular to say it, but there are differences between men and women. It's not just about confidence, but also that women find it harder to be competitive -- and comedy is a testosterone-fuelled industry." Could it be, though, that women are simply less funny than men? "Bollocks!" says Burns.

But all is not doom and gloom. Burns thinks we may be looking at the issue from the wrong angle and points out that, performers apart, comedy is in some ways a very female-friendly industry. "Not everyone wants to be on stage," she says. "Just look at the women who work as agents, managers, publicists and producers - they're a noticeable majority. And many of the most senior commissioning editors at Channel 4, the BBC and independents are women.

"I think women's humour is being expressed in different ways. Many comics go off to write for other people in TV and radio and make a very good living at it, and look at the growth of humorous novels from writers such as Helen Fielding, Jenny Eclair and Allison Pearson, for example."

It may be, though, that despite their strong presence at the Fringe, this year will be another without a women on the Perrier shortlist. But give them a few years and, on past form, they'll be running a major TV department from a cosy London office. Which beats schlepping up the motorway any day.


Natalie Haynes

Haynes, 28, is highly intelligent (she's a Cambridge Classics graduate) and erudite and isn't afraid to show it. She says as much at the top of her act, which is about the perversities of modern life and overcoming angst. Of being a woman in comedy, she says: "I don't feel victimised or in a minority. I absolutely don't doubt, though, that women are discriminated against in the industry in terms of fees and missing out on headlining in clubs. But I don't give it much thought because it just makes me too angry." She finds female comics talking about periods and the male-female divide "depressing". "Whenever I hear a show predicated on the notion of 'I haven't got a boyfriend', I think, 'Go and get a life'. If I do gender issues it's more from a political rather than sociological angle."

Pleasance (0131 556 6550), to 25 August

Katherine Jakeways

Jakeways (who is making her Edinburgh debut) grew up in Northamptonshire, graduated in English from Sheffield and then trained as an actress at LAMDA. Her acutely observed character comedy is the best on the Fringe and can be shockingly rude (her sex therapist) and poignantly truthful (her Cliff Richard fan/stalker). Jakeways, 27, uses a drama-school exercise of taking real-life characters from newspapers and then riffing on their stories to great comic effect.

Pleasance (0131 556 6559), to 25 August

Sarah Kendall

Kendall, a 27-year-old Australian, studied history in Sydney and now lives in London. She started in comedy five years ago after doing open mic nights at university. Despite her forthright political opinions, she doesn't feel she's a standard-bearer for other women and has a typical Aussie can-do attitude. "I am very, very good friends with my brother and I had a fairly blokey upbringing with him, so I'm not sure I see any huge differences between men and women." Her hugely likeable stage presence allows her to get away with stand-up material that others would struggle with - the Harold Shipman case for example. "It's about my frustration at how mental illness is perceived in the 21st century. Some might think it's outrageous, I think it's rational." On how women are viewed, she says: "It's getting better, but you only have to see The Sun to realise there is a deep-rooted sexism in our society. There's some way to go."

Cabaret Voltaire (0131 226 2151), to 24 August

Lucy Porter

The daughter of Irish Catholic parents, 30-year-old Porter graduated from Manchester University with an English degree and worked as a television researcher. She later wrote for daytime quiz shows. It was realising that her lines were getting laughs for other people that prompted her to try stand-up herself. She now writes for radio as well as working as a stand-up. Her show uses the clever conceit of what liars all comics are. A butter-wouldn't-melt stage persona allows some freedom with her material, although she says she has had to stop doing her abortion set because "women find it too shocking and the men just stop listening. It's the final taboo."

Underbelly (0870 745 3083), to 24 August