Women on TV: Laugh for the ladies

Why don't women find women on TV funny? Lynne Parker, who runs the Funny Women Awards, explores the current state of comedy programmes and asks why women have a harder time than men
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There is a common, and totally unreasonable, perception that women are not as funny as men. New "converts" to the all-female comedy format at my Funny Women shows often express a level of surprise about how funny they found the women performers, especially as some of them are really new acts.

Despite the huge range of television comedy programmes written by and featuring women, there is a continuous debate about television panel shows and how few female comics are booked to appear on them. More recently, there has been discussion about how the female guests are treated by the male panellists. Then, to add insult to injury, some of the harshest critics of the women who do actually appear on these shows are women themselves.

Confronted by incisive male wit, a woman is readily disposed to swoon with laughter, which is why comedy of the male variety is more attractive, depending on your sexual preferences. Younger women are in the market for being laughed into bed and the lure of a run of sexual conquests, as epitomised by the likes of Russell Brand, certainly makes the comedy profession attractive to young men.

At one level comedy is about youthful experimentation, both creatively and sexually, but there is a mature market that goes beyond the boundaries of attraction. It's sad that the elder statesmen are not as welcoming to their peer group of women as they are to the new young male blades cutting a potent dash on the comedy circuit.

This is all in complete contrast to the fact that women are very successful in the wider landscape of television comedy. Men in stand-up have given themselves unwritten licence to belittle women for the sake of a laugh and there has been a tendency for the female guests on television panel shows to reflect this – popular female comics, Jo Brand and Victoria Wood are even on record as saying they don't enjoy the experience of being on these shows, so why would we, as women enjoy, watching them?

As a woman performer in comedy, other women are potentially your best allies as well as your biggest critics. Both Brand and Wood have faced criticism as well as approbation during their long careers.

Fuelled by this bi-polar picture I have resorted to science for an explanation – or at least a stab at one. Sexuality plays a large part and comedy is confrontational and more in line with masculinity. An ugly funny man can laugh a woman into bed, but it rarely works in reverse. So when women step out of the normal sexual boundaries and are perceived as behaving like men, this naturally repels some women and explains why programmes such as Sex in the City and Ugly Betty have broader appeal. The women in these shows may be behaving like men, but the concept is presented in a humorous and yet feminine way.

In stand-up, women resort to other methods to get a laugh. In the UK, female comics have fought shy of appearing too feminine – even the hugely successful French and Saunders resort to caricatures and grotesque portrayals of people rather than always appearing as themselves.

At the extreme of this, women don't respond positively to female comedy. Even though it won awards, the BBC's Tittybangbang was not universally liked and the attractive but sharp tongued American comic, Sarah Silverman, has not won many fans for her television show amongst British women viewers. Both of these programmes hover on the knife edge of comedy without a comfortable sitcom ending.

Most of us women are careful not to offend each another in everyday life, because we can't risk our relationships with other women. Yet many of these same women are potential competitors; and we go through life treading a tightrope between approval and compromise with our sisters. It's no wonder we don't naturally warm to women who have mastered a way of joking around with the boys.

Maybe this is the thing. The panel show has become a default "shop window" for live stand-up comedy, so it's no wonder the men barricade themselves behind their panel fortresses, with sharp one-liners their only defence against a potential onslaught of clever funny women.

With so much new comedy output on television it's interesting to see how women are reacting and changing their opinions, particularly about stand-up. Given some of the negative perceptions about live stand-up by women, it is great to note that the new "as live" format of Michael Mcintyre's Comedy Roadshow, which ran on BBC1 in June and July, has been a runaway success with female audiences. I put this down to the relatively good mix of male and female guests featured on the show and Mcintyre's upbeat, non-threatening and metrosexual brand of comedy.

Despite the negatives to some newer formats, there is a long tradition of great female comedy on television from French and Saunders and Smack the Pony to The Catherine Tate Show and Katy Brand's Big Ass Show, all of which have introduced us to an edgy oestrogen-filled world where women rule the roost. They keep on coming, too, with Brand recently starring in a new sitcom, Getting On, based on her previous career as a psychiatric nurse, a new female sketch show in development featuring Smack the Pony's Doon Mackichan, and the utterly hilarious Miranda Hart, who finally gets her own television programme after the success of her radio pilot.

At the sharp end of all this broadcasting glory, very few women go on from comedy to present chat shows. These formats are ruled over by Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton and TV's newest favourite, Alan Carr.

Yet, despite the restrictions and perceptions, I have witnessed the birth of a new generation of great female comedy acts who have come through the Funny Women Awards over the past six years. With the power that smart management brings, breakthrough acts such as Zoe Lyons and Sarah Millican are now notching up a few appearances on panel shows.

Most good female comics earn the respect of their male colleagues on the circuit and, for a few of them, the right to television and radio success. It's time the panel shows reflected the balance too and gave women audiences a chance to see that female performers are just as funny as men. Funny is funny regardless of gender.

Lynne Parker set up Funny Women eight years ago to provide a platform for women to perform on the live comedy circuit