I went to Edinburgh Fringe for the first time earlier this year. I’d been putting it off for years, somehow knowing that once bitten I’d be smitten and condemn myself to a lifetime of returning every single Summer, trying in vain to recapture that first heady experience.
I managed to go a good three days before I was bothered by that lazy but inevitable refrain: “I just don’t find women very funny.” We’ve all heard the sort of thing; women don’t have any sense of comic timing; we cry if we get heckled; we’re not genetically predisposed towards having a sense of humour (thanks for that one, Christopher Hitchens). Basically, we wouldn’t see a punch-line coming if it bit us in the tit.
And I didn’t fight back against the statement, even though she’d just insulted the two identities I hold closest to myself: being funny (though your mileage may vary on that one), and being a feminist. I didn’t want to come across as poe-faced, or over-sensitive, or risk proving her right in some way. So I didn’t fight back, even though I’d just sat through an hour of feminist poetry. I didn’t fight back, even though I know that she is wrong.
I can list female comedians (or, as I exotically refer to them, comedians) like most people can list hot dinners. I can list them like the Wikipedia article on lists of lists of lists can list lists of lists. And yet still, women are notably absent from “high profile” comedy lineups. Only around 10% of contestants on Mock the Week are women; most regular team captains or presenters on comedy panel shows (Have I Got News For You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Would I Lie to You, QI – the list goes on) are men.
If a woman does appear, it’s usually only as a token effort; a line-up featuring more than one woman on the bill is practically unheard of. That is, if the one woman manages to get on in the first place. Stand-up comedian (and lady) Grainne Maguire recalls, “I remember getting booked for a gig and then getting a phone call back saying that since it was the first comedy night at the venue, they wanted to play it safe and didn't want any female comedians, so I was ditched.” Classy stuff.
Which is why it’s such a refreshing pleasure when these ridiculous views are held up and challenged. On Sunday night, I was lucky enough to join a theatre full of brilliant people doing just that, at the Stand Up to Sexism gig put on by Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 to raise awareness about the pervasive, run-of-the-mill prejudice that women face every day. From Viv Groskop’s rapping about women’s issues as “Feminem”, to Lucy Porter’s promise to play a tune on her “little button-like organ” at the (ahem) climax of the show, one brilliantly funny woman after another (and a few lovely like-minded feminist men) took to the stage and proved that YES, actually, we can joke just as well and pun just as badly as the next man.
And there was something there that can often be lacking in the combative, “boy’s club”, heckle-filled world of the comedy club: a sense of camaraderie, of community. I laughed my head off, and at the end, I cried it back on again; proud, of what these women had come together to do. And sad, that they had had cause to.
There are increasing signs that more people are noticing and tackling these issues. Prominent pop-feminist blog The F-Word is currently seeking a volunteer comedy editor, explaining that “female comedians aren't given enough attention, and male comedians relying on tired stereotypes make a killing”.
Hay Festival has just held “the first [festival] we've ever managed with more women onstage than men”, at the Bangla Academy in Dhaka, and there a growing number of feminist-orientated comedy nights showcasing female talent. Comedy for Choice, for example, which was held last week to raise money for pro-choice campaign groups, and What the Frock! from Bristol, which put on a showcase at this year’s Feminist Summer School, are part of a growing number of comedy nights showcasing female talent.
The success of these sell-out nights shows a more than healthy appetite for more diversity in comedy, which is something that hopefully the big-name panel shows and comedy clubs will begin to pay attention to. If not, we’ll keep making our own fun in our own spaces until they do.
And remember: the best response the next time a man says that he “just doesn’t think women are very funny” is to smack him in the genitals whilst yelling “SLAPSTICK!!! SLAPSTICK!!!”