Female comedians are good, but they are also few and far between. Could it be that women just aren't as funny as men? asks Hettie Judah
Tomorrow morning, the Titans will clash over our tea and toast. Little Zoe Ball, former Big Breakfast babe, starts her first day at Radio 1 in direct competition with the ginger giant of British broadcasting, Chris Evans, newly recruited to Virgin. It is nice that a mere female has been trusted with the prized Radio 1 breakfast slot, but not even the most ardent philogynist would describe it as a fair fight.

Is Zoe Ball going to announce suddenly on air that she has had sex with a member of her production team? Will she risk her job to tell jokes about rolling fat women in flour? Will she be so outrageously, screamingly funny that people will stop work and tune in, just to see how far she will go? A nation winces in anticipation; not because she lacks charisma, or confidence, or intelligence (she may be a babe, but she is certainly no bimbo), but because she just doesn't cut it in the comedy stakes.

To make a bald comparison, when "shock jock" Howard Stern interviewed Chris Evans he made mincemeat out of him; if Howard Stern interviewed Zoe Ball, he probably wouldn't even bother trashing her; she just isn't enough of a threat.

Blame it on misogyny, blame it on conspiracy, but next time you notice how rarely women get on Have I Got News For You or the Perrier shortlist, remember that women book acts and produce, market and manage much of the comedy seen on stage and TV. The fact that so few women break through into the big league cannot be entirely blamed on a sinister male media mafia. The galling truth may be that they are just not good enough.

If, in the real world, women were not capable of making one incontinent with laughter, this state of affairs would be easier to understand, but fortunately enough, they can. I have female friends funny enough to cause lung failure. So if you can find funny women sitting round a pub table, why are so few of them up on stage?

"Women now have less chance than we did; in the Eighties it was very politically correct to have a woman on the bill; we would get open spots before men, we had a lot more help," admits comedian Donna McPhail, one of the few women who has made it into the big league. Those days of positive discrimination are, thankfully, over, but despite the PC backlash, Perrier winner Jenny Eclair still reckons that any woman "half worth her salt" is going to attract attention. Both have noticed that there seem to be no exciting young acts snapping at their heels. As Donna McPhail puts it, "We've missed a generation - there's me, Jo (Brand), Hattie (Hayridge) and Jenny (Eclair), and there is no one coming up from behind. Us lot are just getting too old."

Late nights, far flung venues, low self-esteem, young children, poor pay and basic old-fashioned sexism all seem to contribute to keeping women off the comedy circuit. But these are problems which confront female performers of all disciplines, be they singers, dancers, musicians or even poets; in none of these other areas does the gender ratio seem so unbalanced.

To be fair, stand-up comedy is a particularly raw and personal form to choose; audiences can be hostile, and there is nothing to fall back on if an act starts going horribly wrong. Female comics do seem to die far more spectacularly than their male counterparts. Surprisingly for someone whose act is so tough and deliciously offensive, McPhail reckons that for women the big leap is often believing that people actually want to listen to you. "That first critical five years is more difficult; women have to learn to be self-confident - to be a stand-up you have to learn that people will be interested in what you have to say. Until you learn how not to die in the really big venues you don't have a chance."

While she agrees that women's comparative lack of indestructible ego in performance certainly contributes, Jenny Eclair sees the problem as more deeply rooted in the way the different sexes communicate. "I think it starts in the school playground; boys do banter, they charge around being wankers - girls spend their time huddling in the corners doing their gossip and witchcraft. Maybe we've got to stop being so truthful. Women will swap Caesarean stories within minutes of meeting. Men don't even need to mention that they are married and have children; men are much more practiced in their surreal banter." As she puts it so concisely in her stage show, "If mother nature had intended a bloke to show his emotions she would have put his knob in the middle of his face".

Although surreal banter has dominated the Nineties comedy scene, not only men are in on the jokes; women turn out in force to watch stand-up comedy. Certainly there is such a thing as men's humour just as there is women's humour, but there is a vast shared territory in between. When the funny girls sit round the pub table, it isn't just the other women who laugh. What may happen is that it is the other women who get bought the drinks.

Comedy is not just about being funny; sexual attraction plays a major part in pulling in an audience. Irish comedian Ed Byrne was baring his nipples on posters around Edinburgh, and playing to consistently full houses as a result. It is not for nothing that the personal columns are full of lonely hearts searching for a GSOH. "If I wanted to laugh and come at the same time I'd toss myself off with a glove puppet," quips Jenny Eclair during her show. But there is a darker truth implicit in the archetypal comic Romeo. Despite a wardrobe of PVC and leopardskin, Eclair is adamant that this strategy does not work for women; "a funny man can laugh your knickers off, but a funny woman isn't seen as a sex object; it's not a two-way thing."

Men do not go to see female comedians in the avid way that women go to see male comedians. Given the rise of Loaded humour it is likely that male comedy fans avoid the Jenny Eclairs and Donna McPhails for fear of having to sit through an hour of anti-men jokes. "We have got to stop this myth that men can't like female stand-up. Yes, I am a ball biter, but I'm also a bit of a fanny nibbler," says Eclair. She is right; sitting in the audience at her Edinburgh show, it was extraordinary to watch men who had obviously been dragged there under duress, doubled up with laughter when they realised that she wasn't going to leap off stage and strangle then between her thighs.

Becoming a successful stand-up takes time, experience and opportunity; possibly it takes a lot more nurturing for women to make it than men. Anyone who has seen McPhail and Eclair perform will agree that on the rare occasions when women make it, they are something quite special.

All this is particularly odd given the recent upswing in men abandoning observational banter for very personal material, the award-winning Owen O'Neill being a case in point. It is a tendency more traditionally associated with women, but what makes these emotional outbursts so odd is that the men have suddenly developed a desperate desire to be taken seriously. Perhaps, given a little time, we will see a switch; the men will become so desperate not to be laughed at that the women will be able to sneak in and swipe the microphone off them. Then they can start being seriously funny.