Can you imagine telling a joke and someone who shares your ethnicity says to you: “Wow! You’re funny? That’s so weird, because I don’t normally find people of our ethnicity funny”. Now replace the word ethnicity with sexuality, religion, political leaning or even hair colour.
Listen to how absurd it sounds. “Wow! I don’t ever find ginger people funny, especially ones that are Church of England, but you are so funny.” Someone believing that because you share an identity with them, this must automatically mean you could never be funny. How low must you value your own identity to even utter those words to another human being?
“Hey, you know people like us, well we just can’t have stage presence, humour, articulation or writing skills. Come on, scuttle back indoors with me and stop this nonsense. Standing there acting like we have value in society. Honestly!”
This is still the case with so many women, whose internalised misogyny bubbles over at the mere sight of another woman telling jokes on stage. It’s not always annoyance on their part, sometimes it’s amusement, bewilderment, confusion, shock and – ever so occasionally – repulsion.
“Ergh, she – like me – is female and I for one am FUMING about it! Being up there on stage and saying things that I, or others like me, might relate to. None of us have that right! We all know we just have to endure and roll our eyes. We don’t mock and we certainly don’t say things about ourselves out loud, we aren’t actual people!”
Frequently, I will be approached by women after a gig and often I can predict what they are about to say to me and preemptively place them into one of two categories. One type will tell me that they were surprised that I made them laugh, as they “don’t normally find women funny”, and the other type will opt for saying: “Sorry love, I didn’t laugh because women can’t be funny.”
Imagine saying this about yourself. It seems so bizarre. Maybe I was just not funny to you. Maybe I was funny to some in the room and not others. Maybe I’m just not your cuppa. That’s OK and totally acceptable. I mean, I find Dara Ó Briain hilarious, but I don’t massively enjoy Roy Chubby Brown. Do I need to sit down and have a good hard look at myself because both these comics are male?
I once had two women come up to me after a gig to say they enjoyed my set. I waited and braced myself for the inevitable self-hate and I wasn’t disappointed. “I don’t normally find women funny,” one of them announced. “But we liked you. Women normally just slag off men and talk about their fannies.” You want to know what was so wonderfully ironic about this encounter? That day, my set was exactly that.
It was a rant on my husband’s approach to housework (which is as shoddy as my attempts to manage my ever-increasing body hair). Yet, they laughed. They laughed so much they came to tell me. They said they related and enjoyed it, that should have been the end of that sentence. Sadly, their internal misogyny and subconscious self-loathing autopilot mode came on and the anti-women sentiment had to come out, even though it contradicted everything they had just said.
I remember a friend of mine saying: “It does shock me that you do comedy, because women just don’t have, you know, ‘banter’.” Don’t we? Sorry, have you been on a night tube in London with gaggles of shrieking, giggling girls in fits of hysteria coming home from a night out? Mocking each other for their behaviour, for the people they chatted up and how much kebab is on their chin.
Don’t get me wrong, as a 40-year-old heading home from a gig and needing to be up at 7am for two kids, I don’t always relish sharing a carriage with these gals, but I can’t deny they are clearly bantering. In fact, as an ex-teacher, I can assure you that the teenage girls of east London are quite simply some of the slickest, funniest and most remarkable comedically timed individuals I have ever met.
For example, it was the girls in my GCSE class who convinced everyone to hide in the classroom when I nipped out to get a new whiteboard pen, so I returned to an empty room. It was my female A-level student who I tried to pull out of a fight with another student but struggled to do so as I burst into a fit of laughter when I heard her bellow: “Meet me for a fight after school in the park yeah! I’ll mash you up, but we gotta be done by 4pm as I’m not allowed out after dark.” She knew what she was doing, she knew she was performing to a crowd, and she knew exactly how to make even the teachers crack a smile.
It was a previous female contestant on Love Island, Olivia Attwood, who made me cry laughing as I watched on as she out-bantered all the “lads, lads, lads” she was sharing the villa with by saying: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, like I’m so surprised that natural selection hasn’t weeded him [Chris] out by now.”
It was Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley who showed how the clown can very much be female and women can be totally confident in being entirely unfeminine via their hilarious, award-winning performances in the TV show Absolutely Fabulous, a show which positioned funny women at the forefront and had men as secondary characters.
And finally, it’s my daughter and her gaggle of friends, who have me chuckling as I listen to their playful impressions of family members and teachers. My daughter once waltzed in the living room with a brilliant impression of her Nan, incorporating the perfect reference to “Costas” coffee shop – never Costa, always Costas
How can so many women say to me and my female colleagues “women are not funny”, “women don’t have banter”, or “women don’t get comedic timing”? What Handmaid’s Tale hell are these women living in? Are they only made to laugh by the men in their lives? Every time they have been in all female company – a girls’ night, a hen party, a WI cake and limbo party – not one chuckle can be heard because of the lack of male presence in the room. Really? I don’t believe they are all just sitting gloomily waiting for Gary to drop by and give just a moment’s relief with a knock knock joke.
There is a possibility that, as women, we may have been so conditioned to believe that stand-up is a male activity, that anything outside of that should immediately be viewed as “not funny” and “other”. If it is not something we know and we can immediately identify, this must mean it is new, awkward and strange. Well, I would say, let’s accept that. Let’s roll with the punches and accept that there are new voices, perspectives and different observations on the world around us.
All we need to do now is search for the one that makes us laugh. Don’t loathe yourself so much that you outwardly say to another woman – a woman who has shared so many of your own experiences – that “you are not funny because you and I are not as good as men”. It’s more of a crushing blow to yourself than it is to any female comic, because we do find women funny. We are just so sad that you don’t see how totally brilliant and funny all of the women in your life are.
I wish that this wasn’t the shared experience of all female comedians, but sadly it is. We have all experienced it, dressed up and disguised in various forms; the comments from our sisters in the audience outlining how absolutely bamboozled they are that the person on stage, commanding the room and telling a joke, is female.
“Oh, women comics are all the same”, “they all talk about vaginas and periods”, “women just whinge about men” – opposed to all those guys on stage who never ever talk about their penises or their girlfriends, which, by the way, is absolutely fine. All comedians are just touting observations of their own experiences and not everyone will relate, but wanting to only allow men a platform to mock the ridiculousness of life is, well, closed-minded.
Please don’t think that all of this means we are fighting a losing battle – we aren’t. In fact, there are many women on our side, women who are seeking out female comedic talent to watch and endorse, women who know there is a huge market for having their experiences shared via stage and screen.
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For instance, I recently opened at the London Palladium to a sold-out room filled almost entirely of women, all of whom were there to watch the brilliant Celeste Barber, a woman who found fame mostly by mocking the absurd fashion and beauty standards that are placed exclusively on women and illustrating how a “normal” woman could never live up to such ridiculous ideals.
Her selling out the Palladium, to that demographic, helps prove that female comics are speaking to so many women, and so many women are ready to listen, a point that continues to help empower and drive all of the women in my industry. However, regardless of how actions like this illustrate to us how far we have come, we are also very aware that we still have so far to go.
It is frustrating and annoying, and it means the moment you step on stage as a female comic, you know you not only have to try and entertain a crowd but also prove yourself against all the doubters. Yet, what is truly upsetting for all of us female comedians, is knowing that the most vocal cynics will be our sisters sitting in the crowd, the women we ourselves think are so funny.
So, before you feel instantly angered by the woman stepping onto the stage, just consider whether maybe being a woman doesn’t mean we are less valid.