Rowan Pelling: Heard the one about the female comic?

Be warned - sexy women make jokes at their peril. No man will ever go near them again


I admire the author A L Kennedy for her bravado in taking a stand-up routine to the Edinburgh Festival this year. Perhaps it will start a stampede. I spent a pleasurable half-hour ruminating on the Margaret Drabble "Cardigan of Comedy" tour: "Anyone in the audience from Highgate?" Or Antonia Byatt's "A funny thing happened on the way to the London Review of Books..." However, judging from Kennedy's lukewarm reviews, the opposite will be true and day jobs will prevail. The novelist's shortcomings as a comedienne will doubtless be used to bolster that annual Edinburgh fringe debate, that "Women just aren't funny".

Any arts journalist with an ideas famine can usually get a column out of the fact that in 25 years of the Perrier Comedy Prize, there have only been two female winners: Jenny Eclair in 1995 and Laura Solon last year. It's a good year when there's even one woman on the shortlist.

And the results of last week's Radio Times poll to find the top 10 female comedians showed a dispiriting lack of newcomers. Victoria Wood topped the poll, followed by Dawn French, who declared herself surprised at the dearth of new female comic talent. The only contender who hadn't been around since the Ark was 38-year-old Catherine Tate.

A quick trawl through the internet suggests that the topic of male vs female humour fuels many a blog debate. Software engineer Michael Williams from LA is fairly typical: "All the funniest comedians are male, in every media... I don't know any funny females." (Right, and that has nothing to do with you being an IT freak.) This ignited a heated discussion with such uproarious contributions as Kevin Golden's: "Personally, I feel that women suffer from a complete lack of cleverness and originality." Inspiring a high-minded young woman from Cambridge to ask when he last got laid - if ever.

What didn't prove contentious was the consensus that there are good reasons why men develop capacity for public displays of humour. Namely: self-protection, manifestation of ego, group approval and to impress girls. Equally, there seem to be good reasons why women suppress their comic instinct: basically, men don't like it and you'll never get married.

Something not argued on the site, but true in my observation, is that the prettier a female the less useful her comic talents. A drop-dead gorgeous woman is already seen to be taunting men with her unavailable good looks; if you add scabrous wit to her qualities then she will be viewed as wantonly cruel and unnatural and will find herself ostracised. (Women won't like her either, as plainer females should at least be allowed the consolation of superior humour.) This must be the reason so many beautiful women are inexplicably serious; social conditioning combined with pure survival know-how forces them to suppress all sign of comic instinct.

My husband and I sat for 20 minutes trying to think of a current iconic beauty who could be deemed guilty of outrageous hilarity. The only name we could summon was Joanna Lumley's and she's more a good sport than the spit of Dorothy Parker. Also she's only been allowed to be funny since her fifties. Exactly the opposite is true of handsome men: they go from pin-up to god (acclaimed by both sexes) if they crack one decent joke.

For all these reasons men are generally more practised at public manifestations of humour - or Comedy with a cap "C", which they talk about with genuflecting reverence. I was constantly amazed by the way male stand-ups of my Oxford student peer group would discuss the mechanics of laughter. The recent South Bank Show on Armando Iannucci was a plum example of po-faced male comedy curatorship. The only time I laughed was when a comic described the Renaissance heralded by his and Iannucci's arrival on the Oxford stand-up scene thus: "The comedy tradition had died three years previously." Yup, I think contemporary historians can verify that for three whole years not a single quip was made. But I'm not surprised by the widespread, largely male, adulation for Iannucci. Men tend to rate the cut and thrust of satire more highly than its laugh quotient. The satire of Iannucci is about cruelty, rivalry and counter-revolution, which is the way boys have been encouraged to joust since the playground. It's one of the reasons most political sketch writers are male.

But this male comedy finds its balance in a particular female brand of humour that leaves most of the male population lukewarm. It largely manifests itself in novels and the foremost practitioners include Jane Austen, Muriel Spark, Hilary Mantel and Kate Atkinson. The main target remains the venality, vanity and absurdity of human nature, but women authors are often more interested in the way these qualities manifest themselves in a domestic or localised social sphere. This supposedly limited terrain is the reason women novelists are accused of failing to write "the big book of ideas", as though an idea is only significant when inflated with hot air and so bloody huge that you can see it from 10 counties.

The sly gaze of such novelists is as unrelenting in its focus as the women knitting under the guillotine - as revealing for the discomforting truths unearthed. This brand of humour, straight from the witch's coven, is also exemplified by comedy writer Victoria Pile. Nobody could claim her sublime TV comedies Smack the Pony and Green Wing lack laughs. Not that you will see Pile herself in comic vein. She's strictly a behind-the-scenes woman. But, then, aren't most females? As all covens know, the sound of women cackling with unrestrained hysteria requires the privacy of a telephone connection or the back banquette of a discreet saloon bar.

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