I am sick of hearing that women aren’t funny! Good comedy should amuse, alarm, or shock, and do so irrespective of gender. And yet, there are no female comedians, in my eyes, as iconic or hilarious as, say, Bill Bailey, Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran, John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Leonard Rossiter in ‘Rising Damp’, and such male-dominated comedy sitcoms as Monty Python and Father Ted. Why is this? Are women inherently unfunny?
If this is the case, then it must mean that there is such a thing as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ humour? Firstly, I think one needs to explore what makes something humorous in the first place. In “Comedy Writing Secrets” (1986), Melvin Helitzer proposes that the two most important elements of why we laugh at something is superiority and surprise. He writes that: “There is a strong and constant need for us to feel superior…What we are often doing with humour is comparing ourselves with others we consider inferior by ridiculing their intelligence, their social standing and their physical infirmities.”
It could be that certain ‘female’ traits hinder women’s ability to be funny. One could say that women are more sensitive, and less comfortable with ridiculing someone’s social standing and physical infirmities. I would disagree. A certain brand of female bitchiness makes for very good comedy that pokes fun at people. I think it is rather that men are more comfortable in this position than women are, because of centuries of a social position of superiority. This sense of comfort in a dominant role makes it easier for men to have the confidence to deliver a punch-line. My mother, for example, is hilarious, but always gives up on the punch-line; partly, to be fair, because she forgets it, but also, I think, because she loses the confidence in holding someone’s attention long enough to deliver it, while my father is perfectly happy delivering long jokes or anecdotes and getting the punch-line in, irrelevant of the time taken.
Women also are said to be weaker at maths and science that men, though of course this is a generalisation. Comedy is very much about timing, and there seems to be an almost mathematical approach to writing good comedy. Then there is the type of humour that women are more likely to write about or perform. Christopher Hitchins, for example, finds women unfunny because “women do not find their own physical deformity and absurdity to be so riotously amusing” (“Why Women Aren’t Funny”, Vanity Fair, Jan 2007). I disagree. It seems to me a substantial, relatively unfunny slab of female comedy is concerned with women making fun of their own ‘physical deformity’. I think of Jo Brand’s ‘fat girl’ jokes, and the eternal PMS/ menstrual comedy that has blighted so much ‘female’ comedy from being funny.
For me, good comedy should be funny irrelevant of gender. There are many hilarious female comedians who amuse me as much as men, even if they haven’t reached the levels of some of our more esteemed male comedians. French and Saunders, for example, are a phenomenal comedy duo, and both of them separately (though I prefer Jennifer Saunders) work very well as comediennes in their own right. In fact, ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ is a predominantly female comedy show that works beautifully, because of, among other things, the lack of stereotypical female gender roles. ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ works because it picks up, rather, on the social phenomenon of the Chelsea fashion Sloane. Or conversely, think of Miranda Richardson’s character in ‘Blackadder’. I rewatched some of the shows over Christmas, and was reminded just how hilarious her characterisation of the tyrannical Queen Elizabeth is, with that hilarious mix of flirtiness, madness and the child-like qualities of a spoilt 8 year-old. Or Mrs. Doyle in ‘Father Ted’, who often steals the show, particularly in the Christmas show where she receives a Tea-maid, thus removing her of the pleasures of making tea (her famous line ‘More tea, father?’ is, of course, one of the lines of the show).
The world of stand-up comedy is clearly a male-dominated one, and this is very much to blame for women’s perceived unfunniness. The comedy club circuit is a very aggressive world that appeals more to men than to women. The clubby ‘boy-scout’ nature of the comedy club appeals more to men who enjoy hanging in groups and one-upping each other. Men do still control most of the comedy outlets and that can be a barrier for women comedians. Lisa Faith Phillips, a stand-up comedienne and former stripper, tells me a past experience about auditioning for the Comic Strip, a famous Manhattan comedy club where Seinfeld got his first break: “The audition went very well even though I had been warned the man who passed the talent did not like women comedians. After my set, he asked me to sit with him. He started by telling me that since I was attractive, when I came out on stage the men in the audience desired me and the woman were jealous and resented me so I was already at a disadvantage as I would have to struggle to win both groups back to thinking of me as funny. He then said it “I do not find women funny.” He went on to add that it had to be hard to be a woman comedian as most of the producers and talent agents were men and they did not find woman funny!! Then, when we were alone, he said that his wife didn’t understand him and he was suffering from blue balls! I declined the offer to relieve him. Something tells me Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld were not expected to blow him after their sets!”.
Why did the male interviewer not find women funny? Perhaps because he found them intimidating. Funny women, after all, threaten to be funnier than men, and surely no man wants a woman delivering a better one-liner and emasculating him. As Kate Sanborn said as far back as 1885 in her book The Wit Of Women: “No man likes to have his story capped by a better and fresher from a lady’s lips”. Funny women not only threaten men’s hold of power and dominance in a comedic situation, their funniness also threatens their sexual prowess. As Joan Rivers puts it, “Men find funny women threatening. They ask me, ‘Are you going to be funny in bed’.
Whether men find women funny or not is also, sadly, very dominated by their looks. I went to see Josie Long perform at ‘The Free Beer Show’, and her performance, though arguably and ironically too long, was hilarious; however, as we came out of the joint, I heard two boys commenting on her tubbiness and how they didn’t find her very funny. There is a dominant trend in American female stand-up comedy of ‘beautiful’ comediennes. Think of Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jenna Fisher. Supposedly, Tina Fey had to lose 30 pounds to get on air. America, of course, is famous for its obsession with youth and beauty. But England is very similar, though as always, in a less extreme fashion. British female comedians tend to be more than averagely attractive and sophisticated, and here I think of Lucy Porter, Catherine Tate, Joanna Lumley and others. Conversely, popular male stand-up comedians in England are quite ugly: think of Alan Carr, Bill Bailey, Jimmy Carr, and Ricky Gervais, among many others. Perhaps it is the male-dominated comedy world that is to blame for who is hired? Joan Rivers, again, has another brilliant quote on the topic: “Oh please,” she says, “Nowadays, you can’t even get on open mike with less than a C cup”.
While I agree that looks, the aggression and sexism of the comedy world, and perhaps an inherent genetic unfunniness could be partly to blame for women’s perceived unfunniness, I think there is something that overrides all this. It is in fact the roles that are given to women that are to blame. As Lisa Faith Phillips says, “Looking back over what comediennes were successful on television, there does seem to be only the “allowed” roles for women by the male controlled early movies and television. Gracie Allen – ding-a-ling housewife, Lucille Ball – ding-a-ling housewife, Phyllis Diller – lazy, sloppy housewife, Rosanne Barr – fat, lazy sloppy housewife”.
I’ve just started performing in the Oxford Revue comedy group, as one of two females in a troupe of 11 males. And while I don’t attribute the above criticisms to this particular student production, there does sometimes tend to be a leaning towards supportive, often straight female roles, as mothers, daughters, or whores, for the female performers. It’s up to us as a group to write better, more interesting roles for women comedians. And it’s up to women comedians to write better, more dynamic comedy that steers clear from man-bashing or periods, and instead focuses on their observations of everyday life, of their own realities. This may of course include menstruation or men, but can also include the mould-breaking, socio-political comedy that can change this mistaken view of women as unfunny.