The funny thing about being a girl is . . .
So, women aren’t funny, eh? We talk to four funny females playing the Vodafone Comedy Carnival to get their take on that lazy trope
When you did you first realise that you had a talent for making people laugh?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I used to be funny socially; since I’ve become a professional comedian, I’m a lot less funny, socially. I used to be the one who was centre of attention, holding court, making everybody laugh – but now, I’m much more likely to be the person at a party having a really intense one-to-one with somebody in the corner (laughs). But I think that part of me is sated by this wonderful opportunity of skipping on stage and having a laugh, and then being able to be interested in other people when I’m off stage.
Your dad is also a stand-up comic. Was it inevitable that that sense of humour would trickle down?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people’s parents who are doctors end up being doctors. I think whatever’s valued in your own family’s culture is massively influential. I see myself doing that with my own son – he’s a maths genius, and I have no idea what he’s going on about. I’m like, “Yes, darling, that’s lovely – you’re six and you’re doing cube roots or whatever”. Yet when he says something funny, I really react. I’ve caught myself going “Oh that’s lovely, dear, brilliant Pi chart” and then absolutely howling if he says something funny. So I am mindful of that, so that he doesn’t equate parental approval with being funny quite as much as I did (laughs). But, yes, I think we always knew that if we could make our parents laugh, we could get away with murder.
Was there anyone in particular, apart from your dad, who you’d consider a comedic inspiration?
At first it was all about the Americans: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. And of course, being black, they did talk about an “otherness” that I, as an Iranian girl in London, related to. It didn’t matter if the subject matter wasn’t exactly the same: it was about being an outsider and an “other”. I really connected to that in quite a powerful way. And when Ben Elton came along, that “otherness” became political. We were in a very right-wing society with Margaret Thatcher at the helm, and suddenly this guy was speaking the way that we felt, and it was cool to be a part of a sub-culture, ’cos that’s what it felt like at the time.
Part of your show addresses issues of feminism and sexism in comedy.
I actually have a whole section of this show specifically about female comedians, and lots of comics do now – we’ve all kind of had enough, I think, of critics comparing one female comic to another female comic. For me, the thing that held me back the most was racism and prejudice about the colour of my skin and the country that I came from. Once I dealt with that, I thought, “I’m sorted with this – no one can make me feel like that anymore”. And then it was like “Oh, hellooo sexism, misogyny . . . I haven’t even begun to deal with you yet!” (laughs).
The important thing with sexism is that it really has to be such an individual thing; you have to fight it from the grassroots up. I’ll be really honest with you: it wasn’t until I had a daughter – or I had children, at least – that I really went to battle with that stuff. When you become a parent, you can no longer brush things under the carpet. You’ve got to stay in the moment and complain.
Shappi Khorsandi plays the Róisín Dubh on October 18th
You started doing stand-up in your teens; had you always wanted to be a comedian?
In Australia, “comedian” isn’t really a career option. There’s not enough rooms or opportunities, and touring is a lot more difficult when each city is an eight to 10-hour drive away from the next. I’ve worked as a door- to-door salesman, travel agent, I’ve worked in videogame arcades and bowling alleys (I know where the pins go). I’ve done countless customer service jobs, and when I was able to take up comedy full-time in May last year, I realised it had all definitely been worth it.
Once you began to break onto the comedy scene, did you find that your gender worked against you in any way?
I was very fortunate in that the Adelaide comedy scene is incredibly inclusive and supportive: at no point did I ever feel I was different because I’m female. It wasn’t actually an issue I encountered until I moved to the UK. I auditioned to be one of three hosts for a TV show recently. They wanted two men and one woman, so already, that’s an imbalance they decided on before even starting the auditions. I auditioned with two other guys and after, the director said, “Okay Bec, thanks, you can go now. Can we just do that again with only the two guys now?” When I looked confused, he sheepishly shrugged and said, “I don’t agree with it, but the commissioning editor wants to see how the format would work with just two men.” Not two people: two men.
I got the job in the end, but I very nearly didn’t, purely because I’m female. People got angry when the BBC announced they would have a one-woman minimum for their panel shows and said, “The acts should be chosen on merit, not gender!” But they already are chosen because of gender: it was assumed that two men and one woman would be funnier than, say, two women and one man, or three women. They hadn’t even seen the acts to base any of their decisions on merit.
What’s been your most successful joke to date?
“Someone gave me Sudoku toilet paper for Christmas. It’s toilet paper with Sudoku puzzles on it. It’s useless. You can only fill it in with number ones and number twos.” That was voted 4th Funniest Joke of the Fringe by TV channel Dave. But my personal favourite is, “I used to think an ocean of orange soda actually existed. But it was just a Fanta-sea.”
Your shows often incorporate paper puppetry; what can we expect of the one that you’re bringing to Galway?
A bit of music, a bit of magic and A LOT of silliness.
Bec Hill plays the Spiegeltent Paradiso on October 25th and the Black Box Theatre on October 26th
Was there one person who proved particularly inspiring to you as an actor and comic?
Rik Mayall. I grew up watching him when I was a kid on Grim Tales and loved him ever since. He’s my earliest memory of comedy.
You’ve been described as “Adam Hills with ovaries”. It’s intended as funny and complimentary, but do you ever bristle as those sorts of parallels?
No, I was really happy with that. I think Adam is lovely and very funny, and that quote came quite early in my career so I was thrilled to have something I could put on my poster. I don’t mind the comparison at all. I think I’ll know that I’ve made it when a young male comic is described as ‘Celia Pacquola with a penis’.
Did you ever feel that being in possession of ovaries has proved a hindrance to your career?
Comedy is my full-time job, and has been for four years. So if it was working against me, it hasn’t been enough to stop me. No one really talks about the positives: for example, being the only woman on comedy bills, which is generally the case, means you often get your own bathroom backstage. BONUS. It’s hard for me to talk about what it’s like being a woman in comedy because I’ve never been a man in comedy. Or a sheep. Or a carrot in comedy, for that matter. I just want to tell jokes, and this is the shell I’ve got to do that.
Do you think it’s important to address those sorts of generalisations, rather than ignore them?
I’m sad it’s still a conversation we’re having. It doesn’t make sense to me because “women aren’t funny” as a hypothesis is just plain wrong. It’s been proven wrong. Look at the world. It’s like being given the answer to a puzzle and you keep trying to figure it out. There are funny women. There are funny men. Heck, there are even funny toddlers. Ever seen a toddler fall asleep in soup? Hilarious. I think the way forward is the more women there are being funny, those “women aren’t funny” people will be drowned out with evidence of the contrary.
Will your gig in Galway be your Irish debut?
I’ve gigged in Ireland once before – in Clonmel, I think. I had a great time. I loved that I asked a woman in a shop what sights I should see while in Clonmel, and she said “the cinema is down the road”. Fantastic.
Celia Pacquola plays the Spiegeltent Paradiso on October 24th and the Black Box Theatre on October 25th
You provided the voice of the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny a few years ago.
It’s true. Only the Irish version, but it’s true. It’s actually what got me cast as the Filthy Mermaid in Matt Berry’s I, Regress for Radio 4. I think he found it online. It also used to cause a weird little frisson on dates.
You’ve been hugely successful, but once you began to break onto the comedy scene, did you find that your gender worked against you in any way?
Not really. Clubs used to only book one woman at a time, but they’re better at being in the 21st century now. Maybe there’d be the odd tough gig where the audience mightn’t be sure whether you were “able” for them or not (until you got your first laugh). And their uncertainty is reinforced every time the media asks the “women in comedy” question, which I’d love to retire. Gender’s only one part of the prism through which you view the world, so only one part of who you are as a comedian.
What’s your take on the whole “women aren’t funny” nonsense?
I honestly can’t answer it. Some women are funny. Some aren’t. Some men are funny. Some aren’t. Sometimes people don’t click with a comic’s material or delivery. That’s not about gender – that comic’s just not your cup of tea. Comments sections make me laugh: “Women should stop doing period jokes.” They did. In the ’80s, after certain comics had done them for the first time, because no one had before. What that comment tells me is that the commenter hasn’t left their house since 1990.
Tara Flynn performs as part of the Stephen Frost Comedy Improv at the Róisín Dubh on October 26th. Her new book, You’re Grand: the Irishwoman’s Secret Guide to Life (Hachette) is out October 16th