Why Did the Comedienne Cross the Road?

3(1) take a look at the changing position of women in comedy, and believes the only way is up from here.

Backstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s University ‘sketch off’, in a room full of thirty of the best student comedians in the country, there were five women. Five (four not including myself). Now normally, I’m not one to complain about being stuck in a room with a lot of very funny men but instead I couldn’t help but wonder – is this representative of British comedy?

In short, yes. Despite a growing proportion of successful female comics, in the big league comedy remains a stereotypically male dominated profession. We have mostly male construction workers, oil riggers, lumberjacks…and comedians. Where are all the women? Men are not necessarily funnier than women. Gender does not dictate the ability to be funny. Why then, when watching The Cambridge Footlights, did their show consist of fifteen men donning Harry Styles hairstyles and very skinny jeans? There was one female footlight last year, obviously playing all the hugely important roles like ‘wife’, ‘sister’ and ‘dinner guest #2’. She didn’t even come on to bow at the end! Now that’s just embarrassing.

However, whilst my own experiences may paint a harsh picture of the presence of women in comedy, this is not going to last. Although there may have been a poor turnout from female performers at the ‘sketch off’ this is becoming more and more of an anomaly. Many of the notable rising stars of the Fringe were brilliant female comics, on the verge of taking the British comedy scene by storm. At present, most of the headline acts are men but female comedians are consistently and quietly creeping forward, stepping on the toes of their male counterparts. It’s a quiet revolution, but a significant one.

Yes women might still be the clownfish in a vast comedy ocean, with ticket sales to watch female comedy acts totalling just 14%. However it was just five years ago this total was an appallingly low 2%. Statistics don’t lie. Women in comedy are on the way up.

At the moment female comedians are in fashion. Miranda Hart’s triumphant finale was a Christmas TV highlight whilst Sarah Millican’s wonderfully funny stand-up equals or exceeds that any of her male colleagues. Similarly, as presenters, no one can deny that the BBC struck gold with Mel and Sue: the loveable duo at the forefront of The Great British Bake Off. Providing cheeky but harmless humour and unending innuendos, it is their chemistry, wit and charm which have made an already good show a great one.

However, just because women are becoming more prevalent in comedy is not to say they were never popular in the first place. Some of the all time comedy greats have been women, proving that when they do something, they do it well. Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Joan Rivers have created a wonderful legacy for the role of women in comedy. Victoria Wood remains the second most influential Victoria of all time (below Queen Victoria but above Victoria Beckham if anyone was interested). I’m not saying that women are funnier than they were before; but it’s the fact that we’re getting to see more of them which is so exciting.

So if women have always been funny why is it only now that we see their popularity increasing? Well, perhaps we’re becoming out of touch with the male comic. Trying to not sound too stereotypical, generally women’s humour tends to be more inclusive, less offensive, and because of this, sometimes just plain funnier.  Let’s look at the two contemporary female comics in the big league: Sarah Millican and Miranda Hart. Neither rely on political satire nor offensive humour. Instead they make jokes about something more reliable: themselves. It’s the kind of golden rule of comedy: if don’t make jokes about yourself, what right do you have to make jokes about anyone else?

Millican and Hart’s comedy relies on fun and witty humour; without the perpetual grumpiness of Jack Dee, the political agenda of Russell Brand or the isolating offensiveness of Frankie Boyle. Yes, ok they talk a lot about men, diets, childbirth and whatever ‘women’s issues’ you can think of, but this doesn’t necessarily isolate a male audience. As it stands, mainstream female humour isn’t offensive. It’s fun.

Female comedians also differ to actors, singers, weathermen and all celebrities in that they don’t seem as absorbed by Hollywood lifestyle, often speaking out on issues such as body issues, sexualisation and discrimination. Over in the states Ellen DeGeneres remains the unofficial spokeswoman for gay rights whilst closer to home Sarah Millican’s glorious defence against those who criticised her ‘Bafta dress’ was a triumph. Most recently this years’ finale of Miranda portrayed a Miranda not hell-bent on getting the man she longed for, but depicted her transformation into a more real, more empowering figure whilst retaining all the humour and fun of the previous series.  In all cases, these women aren’t just comedians, but role models. Female comedians aren’t just making us laugh- they’re making us think; a trait which will only increase their popularity and success.

If we look across the pond, female comedians are even more successful, with two of the world’s biggest awards ceremonies hosted by funny women. The marvellous Ellen DeGeneres did a stellar job hosting the Oscars whilst Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as hosts of The Golden Globes proved themselves a superb double act as well as writers and performers. Saturday Night Live continues to churn out successful comedians, but noticeably women, including Fey and Poehler as well as Kirstin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Britain catches everything from America: its music, its culture, its economic recession. Surely its only right we right we also copy their celebration and success of female comics as well?

This year, The Durham Revue, for the first time in as long as I can remember, contains an equal number of men and women. Traditionally a male-heavy group, this year’s gender balance has elicited responses of genuine surprise. “Three men and three women. that’s interesting.” Is it? Is it really though? We picked the people who we thought were funny. Half of the population are women. If anything, three women and three men make the Revue statistically dull!

And so it seems, the future for female comics appears to be shaping up to be a bright one. Who knows what the face of comedy may look like in a few years? So next August, when I’m back in Edinburgh with The Durham Revue and we perform in yet another student’ sketch off’, I hope to see more women being hilarious on the stage, because they certainly are doing so elsewhere in the comedy sphere.


Photographs: Emma Werner, Flickr. 

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