Women aren’t funny? Don’t make me laugh
Only five of the 57 acts at next month’s Vodafone Comedy Festival, in Dublin, are women. Perhaps that’s because women are being funny in ways that don’t always rely on stand-up
Comedy stalwart: Lena Dunham (second right) with Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet and Jemima Kirke from her series Girls. Photograph: Chad Batka/New York Times
Comedy stalwart: the journalist and author Caitlin Moran. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Comedy stalwart: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin (with Will Farrell as President George W Bush) on Saturday Night Live. Photograph: NBC
Comedy stalwart: Amy Poehler in her sitcom, Parks and Recreation. Photograph: NBC
"This is going to be another of those ‘are women funny?’ pieces, isn’t it?” That’s the first thing everyone I called for this article wanted to know.
I blame the late Christopher Hitchens. In 2007 he wrote a column for Vanity Fair in which he argued that women are less funny than men because they make babies: “a higher calling that is no laughing matter”. Men, he went on, have compelling evolutionary reasons to be hilarious. “If you can stimulate her to laughter – I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horshshoe- of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth – well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up.”
Hitchens’s piece is plainly such nonsense that it is comic itself – yet some people remain unconvinced that women are capable of being funny. To them I say the following. Amy Poehler. Sarah Silverman. Eleanor Tiernan. Tina Fey. Caitlin Moran. Sarah Millican. Shappi Khorsandi. Lena Dunham. Maeve Higgins.
That out of the way, something is going on with women and comedy. Of the 57 acts lining up to perform at the Vodafone Comedy Festival at the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin next month, for example, only five are women.
The festival’s director, Bren Berry, groans when I ask why. “The other women I wanted weren’t available. They were touring or not available for various reasons. I had a very strong policy of trying to include more women, but I just didn’t get lucky. It’s an easy criticism to make, but tell me how to correct it.”
But surely there are more than five good female acts out there. “It’s not about male or female: funny is funny. There’s no sense that I’m trying to meet a quota. I didn’t go, ‘I need more redheads, I need more Jews, I need more Travellers,’ either. That said, I was aware of it, in the sense that I was expecting a call like this.”
Jane Russell, the head of the Sky Cat Laughs Comedy Festival, in Kilkenny, says she finds some of the discussion about the lack of visibility of female comedians “frustrating and regressive”.
“If you’re programming for a comedy festival you’re going to be looking at whether somebody’s funny, whether they do an Edinburgh show, whether they’re doing a tour. You’re not looking at whether they’re male or female. Would it be better if we were to put in more women at the expense of men who happen to be better comedians?”
Part of the problem, she says, is that many women don’t see stand-up as a career. “There’s no sense that the industry is sexist: there are lots of women in production roles. But at grassroots level women are not seeing stand-up as a career.
“I think it goes back to when we were small: girls were encouraged to smile sweetly and sit there, being pretty and quiet. Guys were encouraged to stand in the centre of the room and state their views.
“From the outside it must look like an intimidating industry to break into, but if you’re good and you have talent people will get behind you.”
Lack of visibility
So is women’s relative lack of visibility less to do with their ability to be funny and more a reflection of their desire, or otherwise, to perform?
Sue Collins, a third of the Nualas, believes so. “I don’t think women have the same need to get up on stage on and tell people their world view. I think I’m unusual in that, from a very young age, I felt it was for me. But – and this is a sweeping generalisaton – it’s not something that appeals to all women.”
Berry says he doesn’t believe the culture of stand-up tends towards the “laddish”, but not everyone agrees.
“I’ve been backstage at comedy festivals in London where male comedians are literally boxing the air, psyching themselves up before they go on stage. It’s a very male environment, and it can be very tough,” says Collins.
Another issue is the reluctance of festival directors to take a punt on female talent, because of a view that women can be a tougher sell. “There is a perception among some uninformed people that women do only tampon jokes,” the comedian Tara Flynn says.
“When you get up there as a woman you have to get in and make them feel comfortable a little more quickly: ‘You’re in safe hands. I’m not going to talk about periods.’ But, ultimately, what audiences want from comedy is that they want to laugh.”
It becomes a vicious circle, Flynn says. “If you don’t do the festivals, you don’t get the profile, and if you don’t have the profile, you won’t get the festivals.”
But the outlook for women with a talent for making other people laugh is not at all grim. The actor Jennifer Maguire is one of several prominent, and hilarious, Irish women who have found ways other than stand-up to express themselves.
“There are so many forms of comedy, and just because you do one thing, such as hidden-camera work, doesn’t mean you can be a good stand-up, and vice versa. A life on the road playing every dark and dingy pub or venue in the country doesn’t appeal to everyone. Writing or TV work can be more attractive for that reason alone.”
Jane Russell identifies Twitter as a significant emerging medium for women interested in comedy. “Twitter has opened up a whole new world to me. There’s a whole dialogue going on there, and it’s largely female-led.”
I recently asked my Twitter followers to name the funniest Irish woman on Twitter. Among the better-known suggestions – Amy Huberman, Maeve Higgins, Tara Flynn, Marian Keyes – the name Carol Tobin kept cropping up.
Tobin is a comedian, though she too has recently moved away from stand-up to focus on writing and is currently developing scripts for film and television.
“Stand-up is really hard, and quite lonely. You’re travelling a lot on your own, performing in clubs in front of a lot of drunk people. It’s not an appealing life, and it’s not conducive to having a family.
“Twitter, on the other hand, is brilliant for women with a family. It has also helped my career greatly. I’ve been approached about writing projects by people who know me through Twitter.”
Recently, at a live interview with the writer Caitlin Moran in the National Concert Hall, I was struck by the electric, almost evangelical atmosphere in the room. It was very clear that there is an appetite among women for a different kind of comedic performance: a mix of polemic, dirty jokes and feminism. Hitchens, of course, would probably say that she is the exception that proves the rule.
“Caitlin is a great example of ‘You can be whatever you want to be, if you’re funny with it,’ ” Collins says. “You can tackle serious issues and sad issues. She’s just hilarious and really, really clever.”
Ultimately, everyone I speak to admitted to being frustrated, not necessarily by the lack of women doing stand-up but by the constant focus on it.
“I’d love if we weren’t having to talk about this,” says Flynn. “We don’t ask female surgeons what it’s like being a female surgeon, yet women who are comedians are always being asked about it. I would love if it weren’t relevant. I’d love if there were three women performing a show together and it wasn’t billed as an ‘all-woman night’, it was just a ‘comedy night’.”