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Column: Art / Music / Theatre

‘There aren’t any funny women out there’: perceptions of gender in stand-up comedy

by Estelle Tang , April 23, 201210 Comments

Dandenong comedian Tegan Higginbotham

Of the 202 Australian stand-up shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, less than 25% of the acts were by solo women or women-only teams. I wasn’t particularly surprised about this, since gender imbalances are common in other creative industries (such as writing, as we know) but my inner feminist was still left feeling rather pummelled. My intention had been to support younger, female comedians in their work and though I still could, by seeing acts by Hayley Brennan and Tegan Higginbotham, my choice seemed very limited.

We all know that there are funny women out there. UK stand-up extraordinaire Shappi Khorsandi was one of the festival’s biggest acts. Judith Lucy and Cal Wilson, who are also performing, are household names. Higginbotham’s act, ‘Million Dollar Tegan’, was exceptional in its comedic timing, engaging use of narrative, linguistic wit and personal honesty. Outside of the festival, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Magda Szubanski, Jo Brand and the current golden girl of humour, Tina Fey, are practically enshrined within the comedic canon. So why are there so many more men on the stand-up circuit?

Germaine Greer (who is extremely witty herself, I might add) responds to this question by assessing socially accepted gender norms. Men tend to be the funnier sex, she argues, because they depend upon cultures of banter, buffoonery and quick-wittedness in order to bond with one another in ways that women generally don’t. Men’s comedic skills, therefore, are developed early and become embedded within their patterns of relating to people, making stand-up comedy a more readily accessible profession for them than it may be for women.

UK stand-up performer Josie Long’s experience provides a more industry-specific approach to the issue. She comments that even though both sexes often seem represented equally on open-mike comedy nights and in improvisational workshops, there is still an attitude both within the industry and in public that privileges men in comedy, and which really grinds female stand-ups down over time:

Three hundred times a year, I’ve had somebody say to me, ‘There aren’t any funny women out there’ or ‘Women aren’t as funny as men’ or ‘I don’t like women comedians’ or even ‘I like you but I don’t normally like women’ … Some sort of hint that for some reason they’re judging men versus women in the arena of comedy. If I add that up, that is 2100 times I’ve been undermined in my career that my male counterparts never, ever have.

But there seems to be no simple solution to the view that women will never be as funny as men. A recent Guardian article outlines how Chortle (the UK industry website) released an almost all-male shortlist for its 2012 comedy award, echoing the current trend in literature prize shortlists. According to the article, though, half of the Chortle selection panel were women, suggesting that an increase in the number of women in the industry may not be enough to shift a cultural attitude.

Unfortunately, this cultural attitude has led to extreme forms of harassment for female stand-ups. New York’s Gaby Dunn has blogged about her experience of being heckled by a man to the extent that it not only derailed her act and led her to feel publicly humiliated, but also threatened her so much that she felt physically unsafe. After the gig, Dunn hid out the back of the bar until her boyfriend came to pick her up.

If this woman can’t even feel physically safe in her workplace, how can she expect to be assessed according to the quality of her work? Surely a female stand-up’s funniness should be measured purely by whether or not an audience laughs at her jokes. But the question remains: how do we get to a point where such judgements are solely based on performance, and not at all loaded with assumptions about gender? To borrow Long’s terminology, how do we change the rules of the comedy game to ‘comedian vs comedian’, rather than ‘man vs woman’?

The academic in me cries out for research questions to be answered: how does humour form in different cultures? Is women’s humour really any different to men’s? Have we allowed men to define what is considered ‘funny’ through their prominence in the industry? And what does it mean to be ‘funny’ anyway? The punter in me takes a more time-friendly and immediately practical approach. She says: Get over it. Pay to see more female comics. Keep seeing male comics too. Review all shows as harshly or as graciously as the performance allows. Publish said reviews. And repeat ad infinitum.

Julia Tulloh is a Killings columnist and splits her time between freelance writing and working in early childhood policy.

  • Tom

    “But the question remains: how do we get to a point where such judgements are solely based on performance, and not at all loaded with assumptions about gender?”

    You stop writing purposely divisive blog posts like this, for one. I reviewed for the Melbourne Comedy Festival this year and I reviewed a female comic and she was rather good indeed. My review reflected that. I saw another show with more female performers than male. It wasn’t very good. Why? Because the jokes weren’t plentiful nor were they very funny.

    How one performs on stage has nothing to do with gender whatsoever. I would imagine most of my fellow reviewers would work from the same criteria.

  • Elise W

    Tom, your response is painfully indicative of the issue at hand in Julia Tulloh’s article – that all judgments and assessments of art (whether it’s comedy, painting, theatre or writing) are embedded in the complexity of gender. The article isn’t about the performance itself, it’s about the reception. Of course, life itself is complicated by issues of gender – you can’t just ignore it, like you suggest. That there are only 25% of performers that are women suggests something about the programming – which is proved by your own point that you found one performance funny, another not.

    It may not be that how one performs on stage has anything to do with gender – but the way they are received is most definitely determined by their gender.

  • Jayde

    Not only is this a great article, but it’s exactly what I’ve been secretly thinking. The Germaine Greer explanation about blokes being buffoons is right on the money too. I spoke to a group of friends about the ‘why are there no funny women’ question before seeing a (male) act at the comedy festival – we all held an internal assumption that men are just funnier. Based on the anecdotal evidence, a lot of people hold the same view – that men make better standup comedians.
    This might be because blokes seem to be able to get away with jokes and a style of humour that women cannot. It seems harsher if a women gets up on the stage and says, for example, that “all people from Rockhampton are f-wits”, but Akmal did that during his standup last week and everyone laughed.

    I hope someone does the research you suggest, I’d be fascinated to read. Are women more serious than men? I’d love to know!

  • Pingback: get yo funny on… « julia tulloh

  • Emma

    In the midst of this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival I found myself asking myself the same kind of questions that Julia poses here. Stimulated, I suppose, by the talk about the invisibility of women writers I recognised that I had been privileging men comedians, and I was disappointed in myself.

    This prompted me to discard my assumptions about women comedians and go and see them with an open mind. I was aware of my bias and wanted to engage in a different mode of receiving the performances of these funny women. Needless to say it was totally rewarding and hilarious.

    As a side note, I’ll take Felicity Ward over Akmal any day!

  • Julia T

    Thanks for the comments, all.
    In my conclusion, I completely agree with you, Tom, that the most practical way of getting over gender issues in comedy is to review performances on merit alone. But while you, I and other reviewers may not believe that men are particularly funnier than women, other people (i.e. paying comedy patrons) often do, as Jayde and Emma have pointed out. This suggests to me that it would be helpful to examine why such a perception exists, and then determine how best to overcome it. And reviewing everyone on equal terms is a big part of that. But as Emma notes, she only realised her bias about female comedians after she had been engaged in conversations about gender imbalances in another industry –writing. This suggests that sustained discussion around perceptions of gender, and the issues raised by Elise and Jayde in their comments, are also crucial to people changing their minds about women in stand-up.

  • Adam

    This is madness, specifically the kind of madness that circumvents the obvious question (and the same question that was taboo during the Stella prize debate) – What if there just aren’t as many hilarious female comedians at the moment?

    As you say, half the Chortle judges were women (so it was with the Miles Franklin), plenty of comedy-goers are female, there’s a market for female comedians – you quote many of them. It’s hard to argue the comedy edifice is particularly patriarchal still, except in some increasingly irrelevant sectors like SNL. But still we’re required to work towards changing “the rules of the comedy game to ‘comedian vs comedian’, rather than ‘man vs woman’?”

    Putting aside that gender differences have long been a bottomless well of jokes, especially among edgy female comedians like Rosanne Barr, why are we obligated to insist on gender equity instead of humour as the yardstick here?

    To use your example of the young female comedian getting heckled, after reading her blog post it seems the failure wasn’t a gendered one. If the guy was crazy and intimidating, club security should have had him removed, which is pretty standard practice for abusive/drunk hecklers. There isn’t much anyone can do about mental creeps – they just need to be tossed out.

    What about the non-creepy heckler? Heckling is a time-honoured art and responding to idiots is part of the comedian’s trade, regardless of gender. Everyone’s going to get mocked on stage, including women, but her replies don’t seem all that funny:

    “Sir, if you’re gonna talk to me, you need to come to the front because I can’t see you.”

    “I mock him a bit saying he hangs outside the CVS all day and telling him I know he’s just going to show me pictures of his dick on that camera, basically joking that he’s a crazy Internet creeper come to life.”

    Just seems like she wasn’t particularly funny and got stalked by a psycho, which is awful and shouldn’t have happened, but could have happened anywhere, because crazy people are everywhere (not just in stand-up joints).

    “Surely a female stand-up’s funniness should be measured purely by whether or not an audience laughs at her jokes.”

    I agree, but I think it’s this piece that insists that there be some other standard.
    You say the punter in you wants to just keep going and seeing female comedians. Seems like you’ve answered your own question, to be honest.

  • Penelope

    Access to institutions, including comedy, is limited to those holding the keys.
    We see most comedy acts are men – not because they are funnier, just as most managers are men, not because they’re better managers.

    It’s a complex intersection of power and access, race and gender, representation…

    F–k it pisses me off every time I hear someone say ‘women can’t be funny – hey why are there no good female comedians’…Like, why are all the Great Masters men? Maybe because Rodin was so busy f–king Camille that she was dealing with the repercussions of sex while he was off kicking goals?

    I deeply believe humour is the reserve of the oppressed (Jew humour anyone?) and women have hilarious anecdotes to share. It’s just that it would be unpalatable to society…

  • irisav

    Interestingly there was a study into gender differences in comedy and perceptions of the ‘humourous-ness’ of a line. The study involved having a group of ten split evenly between men and women right a witty caption for an image. Another group of participants then rated the comments according to how funny they thought they were and whether they thought they had been written by a man or a women, whilst a third group were told the gender of the caption authors and then asked to rate how funny they thought the lines were.
    What the found was that when the gender was unknown the split between lines thought funny was pretty even between the male and female authors, but the people reviewing tended ascribe the funny lines to male authors. Following on from this the same captions that were thought very funny by the first reviewer group which were written by women were not considered as funny by the second group who knew they had been written by women and captions authored by men were rated as more humourous.
    The conclusion was more or less that humour is more about the audience and the perceptions and biases they hold which tends to be ‘men are funny’ and ‘women are unfunny’ rather than any objective reality of men being groomed by cultural contexts and rituals to be more funny than women.

  • Julia T

    Thanks Irisav – a great example. I hadn’t realised that study had taken place – I will investigate.

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