Saturday, 20 February 2016

Are you a fan of funny women?

You would think that most people's answer to that, in 2016, would be, of course, we're not prejudiced, this is post BTTF 2 world times, not the Don 'cigarettes' Draper era, dumbass. But, be honest with yourself, how many female comediennes, comedic actresses or writers, would you actually say that you're a fan of? And of those, how many would you favour above the male comedians, comic actors or writers that you like?

Here's the thing, humour, or the ability to be humorous, is a massive factor in human connection. What brought you together with your friends, or your partner? What unites you to the people you value in life? Generally it's shared experience, and if the only experiences shared were an endless cycle of misery and annoyance, those relationships just wouldn't last very long, would they? It's humour that brings us together, and being able to laugh at the ridiculousness of our lives, that keeps us together. Our friends are likely to find the same things funny, if they didn't, we would class them as unfunny, that connection would not grow, and you wouldn't be friends, put quite simply. Shared experience and shared humour, they are the building blocks of relationships.

Humour is also a very relevant factor in sexual attraction. How many of you class having a 'good sense of humour' as essential to the list of desirables you have for a life partner? How many women do you know that consider their men 'making them laugh' as being top of the reasons why they love them? Note that in the second point I state women class 'being funny' as high up on their list, but while being having of a GSOH is a must by both parties, it's rarer that you will find a man, when listing the favourite characteristics of his lady, putting, she makes him laugh, at the top (rarer I say, not never, so lower your weapons!) That's because, as this article points out,* from an evolutionary stand point, it's important for women to appreciate good humour when finding a mate, but not a biological necessity that they be funny too. More often you will find the qualities that women are admired for are linked to their appropriate level of motherliness 'kind, caring, organised, gentle, friendly, nice' or womanliness 'cute, sexy, pretty, beautiful smile/ skin/ ass or some suchness'. Again, not always, but often. With women, physical attributes tend to take second fiddle to character ones when making their lists, but when talking about men, the traits are often ones we think of as intrinsically male, such as, 'strong, confident, funny.’ Even if we are actually attracted to someone because of the obsession we have with the way their bum looks in *those* trousers, it's unlikely that you will find many women openly admitting to being so shallow, because to do so would be vulgar, right? I'll come back to the 'vulgar' behaviour argument later.

I tried to make a list of my favourite comedians, male and female, and found that the list of men is way, way longer, like, dozens of names longer. Is this because there are less women performing or just that I'm less aware of them? Of my favourite dingaling having performers, I found they broke down into categories as well. Bill Bailey, Dylan Moran and Tim Michin fulfilling those 'I can relate to these thoughts and experiences' roles, Ross Noble, Flight of the Conchords, and Eddie Izzard (formerly, not currently) hitting the 'so delightfully abstractly funny' buttons, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks forming the 'legendary and timelessly funny' end, with Stewart Lee, Chris Morris, Matthew Holness and Mark Thomas holding up the 'seriously dark mofos' part of the tapestry. On top of that, there are numerous male writers and actors that make me laugh, including almost the entire casts of Arrested Development, Community and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, to pin point just a few. But when it came to making the female list, that's when things got a whole lot trickier, and way more depressing...

All of these voices, that have informed the development of my humour, all male. But I love funny women, it's a trait I hold in high regard in my female friends and one I constantly aspire to myself. My female friends make me laugh, a LOT. So where are these women when it comes to the business of being funny for money? Seriously, after much thought, this was my list:

Tina Fey, Kaitlin Olson (Sweet Dee in Sunny), the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates, Julia Louise Drefus, Tamsin Grieg (Black Books), French and Saunders, Chelsea Handler, Alison Bree, Gillian Jacobs and Jessica Walter (the mum from Arrested Development and Archer)

And from that depressingly short list, which I've partly explained, how many of them would you still need me to give further details on who they are and how I know them?

The important thing I've noticed is this, the more female comedians I've come across, the more I've found them filling a niche that was sorely unfulfilled for me. Because there is a whole side of life that is solely female, just as there is a whole side of life that's all about what it is to be a man. We’ve focused on that and laughed at the observations and laughed in turn at their observations on our gender. But when I listen to women voicing the thoughts that I've never properly given voice to myself or even followed through to a full observation, I find myself laughing to an almost hysterical pitch. I needed to hear that. I needed someone, who knows, to make *that* funny. This humour is not really female centric either, because a truth is a truth and when it's funny, it's funny. I guess it comes down to having the confidence to make the observations in the first place.

Confidence, I feel, is key to performing, to put yourself out there in a field that is, still, male dominated. But how funny women should act, or should I more precisely put it, are permitted to act, is a whole other issue. Because to be funny, you need all sorts of strings to your bow, the understanding and ability to articulate truths, timing, physical performance, manner, tone, word play... The list goes on. Being self deprecating goes hand in hand with being honest as well, but how self depreciating can a woman be without being classed as 'vulgar' or 'ugly'? Accusations I've never heard levelled at a male comedian, by another man anyway. Case in point, in her stand up, Chelsea Handler tells a story about, basically, shitting herself, and it is, I feel, hilarious. It was honest in a way that I would never dare to be, because I would be too concerned about losing face as an individual, if the same thing happened to me and I spoke about it openly. I don't have the confidence to do so such a thing. But she was criticised for being unfunny and vulgar, and the only difference I could see was that she was a woman, I've heard far worse said by male comedians, constantly, but that's funny, right? Because their value as a man is not compromised by toilet humour, but ours as a woman is, isn't it?

We don't want or need women to behave like men to be funny, because women have their own world of experience to draw from and relate to. But some experiences are universal, so why should women be cut off from making observations on them? The wonderful Garfunkel and Oates hit upon this in their Netflix show, one is cutesy and child like and the other is more overtly sexual, both fall into categories that are still acceptable for women to be while remaining reassuringly, unthreateningly, feminine. But they play with that, one being a bit too child like and the other being overtly sexual and therefore subverting the norm and sticking their heads above the parapet to do so. And they get criticised for it, despite being genuinely funny fuckers.

One of the big complaints often aimed at female comedians and writers is that they just talk about their periods and vaginas, but in response to that I would say two things, one, if a comedienne does only that, then maybe they just aren't that funny (I'm looking at you, Jo Brand!) and two, erm, how is talking about the weird truths of our sexy parts any different to men talking about their cocks? Also, just for the record, how vaginas can ever be irrelevant to our shared experience I have no idea, given that we literally all come from one and a large proportion of us spend a lot our time trying to put something into one, either through want or necessity.

I guess this also ties in with the latest book I've been reading, by one of my favourite, long deceased, authors, Robert Heinlein. The story is about the mind of an old man being put into the body of a young woman after she dies, but some of her personality remains. Now, I love Heinlein, when he's explaining maths and physics or human nature as an overall concept. He speaks about things that are only just happening today, despite his books being seventy years old in some cases... He blows my mind. But writing as a woman? Nope. Just no. Maybe the minds of women were different all those years ago, but I don't think things could have been *that* different. I mean, if women were all like the character he presents in that book, almost entirely geared toward being the perfect lover, then I think there would be a lot more men wandering around with giant grins on their faces. And other women. Basically, everybody would be shagging a whole lot more and it may even bring about world peace. But it's not human, it's not real. It doesn't factor in our complexity or individualist natures. If anything he holds women in too high a regard, he forgets we are just as flawed as the other gender. That's why all of these much derided chick lits and rom coms and hell, even that God awful Fifty Shades exist, because women are inevitably and understandably drawn to something that speaks to them, that acknowledges some truth of their experiences. What I want to know is, why can't it be both? Why can't we have high literature that fulfils that gap? This a bit of a tangent that I may come back to at some point, but what I'm trying to say is that, in all forms of connection, we are looking for an understanding of what we are, that we can relate to.

The problem is that we are always told to be ourselves, but that's not what we actually mean, is it? We mean, be a version of yourself with the edges and grossness smoothed over so that we are more palatable to the world. But with our friends, we need them to know and accept who we really are, and find humour in it. It helps us to deal with the truth of our own lives. We need the same from our comedians, funny writers and performers too, and maybe that's why there's a hole in this experience for me. Because men can understand a whole LOT about the human condition, but there is a whole side of it that they can't, simply through virtue of their gender. So an important part of what it is to be me, is not being observed or commented on, because the half of the world that potentially could, aren't being encouraged to develop the skills to do so. To me, that's a flat out tragedy, and it needs to change. For the benefit of us all, for the balance of our overall experience on this planet, we need more funny women. We need them to be supported and we need them to be given the opportunity to grow. There is no reason why they can't inspire and inform men too, given that it's the way it has worked with male comedians and their female audiences, for, like, ever.

So, world of tomorrow, population of earth in 2016, we've come to accept that women can be strong, physically and emotionally. But the question I put to you today is this, are we ready to accept, and I mean really accept, that women can be funny too?



  1. Hello Chrissy - I know Kathy and Sue and I'm a female comedian (not an earth-shatteringly famous one, and I'm what you might call 'niche', but some, select and bijoux audiences seem to like me, and I've been doing it on and off for years, so am like your degrees of separation step closer to many of your favourite male comedians although I don't know any of them. Except Bill Hicks who communicates with me through automatic writing).

    I think this is a great piece and articulates a lot about the visibility of women in comedy. It's interesting that most of the men you've listed are stand-ups or solo performers, and all the women are comic actresses with only French and Saunders having any live stand-up experience AFIK. Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran of Black Books are stand-ups, and Tamsin Grieg remains totally amazing in her own right, but I'm not sure if she's ever played the Frog and Bucket.

    Certainly, I know that if I went to HMV right now, it would be shut as it's only 9.30 on a Sunday morning, but inside I would find DVDs of all those fellas, but of the women probably only Sarah Millican and Jo Brand from the UK, and Sarah Silverman representing USA! USA! - which has to be written like that and shouted.

    A lot of this is down to the ubiquitousness of comedy overall on TV these days. Familiarity = safety = a safe stock purchase for a troubled national store. Comedy is also relatively cheap to produce. Panel shows two a penny and the same people often on. If you relied on the TV Guide and mainstream theatre listings, you'd believe there were not many funny women at all. Even the panel shows seem to be 5 male comedians + Carol Vorderman.

    Here are some interesting bits of maths done by male comedians (So yeah, really what is the point of Vorderman/Reilly?)

    This one is about the visibility of women on panel shows.

    Here is a study on reviewer bias:

    Interesting stuff! Oh, and ignore whatever Hitchens says about women in comedy... sometimes I like to think it's the other still alive one who says lots of mean things who said that, and not Saint Hitch. Let's pretend it was the Anti-Hitch, yeah...

    So, recommendations! Loooads... Sofie Hagen, Sarah Pascoe, Katherine Ryan, Josie Long, Francesca Martinez, Hannah Silvester, Luisa Omielan, Izsi Lawrence, Angela Barnes, Andi Osho, Susan Calman, Helen Keen, Helen Arney, Harriet Dyer, Kiri Pritchard-MClean, Cariad Lloyd, Grainne Maguire, Kate Smurthwaite, Hayley Ellis, Lindsay Sharman, Dotty Wintrs, Lucy Thompson, Sooz Kempner, Jo Enright, Jo Ettrick-Hogg, Carmen Ali, Pippa Evans, Jen Brister, Jo Romero, Roisin Conaty, Laura Lexx, Sarah Millican, Mel Moon, Caroline Maybey, Jo Neary, Tanyalee Davis, Kerry Godliman, Lucy Porter, Kiruna Stammell, Bec Hill, Holly Walsh, Shappi Khorsandi, Aisling Bea, Nat Luurtsema. Loads more, but I can't think.

  2. Hi Donna,

    Thank you so much for reading and for your detailed response, I really appreciate it!

    Thanks also for all the recommendations, I will definitely be checking them out. Sarah Millican I am aware of and think she's okay but doesn't stand out to me, same with Lucy Porter who I have seen live before, but I do appreciate what they do and how they go about it. I'm kicking myself for not putting Sarah Silverman on the list though! She is pretty awesome.

    How long have you been performing? Have you found there to be a male bias in your experiences?

    I will read those articles also, thank you (although probably tomorrow now as it's quite late where I am in the world right now!)

    Also, lovely to me meet you. I have heard about you from Sue and Kathy!

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  4. Comedy is a huge part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember, so I was really intrigued by your thoughts on this subject and, I have to say, surprised at the brevity of the list you could assemble. I think there is a distinction between female comedians and female performers who appear in comedy and for the latter group, an interesting discussion somewhere about whether the performer or the writer takes the credit for the funny, but that's probably way, way bigger than I can get my head round in a comments field. I also wonder about the question you close with, whether we're ready to accept that women can be funny too, because there have been celebrated women in comedy as far back as I can think. My personal favourites, Betty Marsden and Lucille Ball, were both highly successful (Lucy is rightly a legend, and regarded as a pioneer for women in the media) and in the silent era, Mary Pickford made history not only as a comedy performer, but one of the names behind United Artists and AMPAS.

    I did initially assemble a list of all the female comedy performers and comedians I could think of without cheating, whether I liked them or not, and it was pretty sizeable and 85% UK performers, which I would expect given my aversion to (most) modern American comedy.. . The names you chose appeared to be uniformly modern too, and I have to fly the flag for some utterly classic performers from days gone by including the marvellous Joyce Grenfell and Phyllis Diller. More recently the late Linda Smith and the Smack the Pony team, who always made me smile whatever they were in.

    For more modern recommendations though, there's Nina Conti, Karen Dunbar (sometimes, only sometimes), Riley & Turner, Laura Solon, Hudson & Pepperdine and Katy Brand on a good day. For comedy performers as opposed to comedians, Felicity Montague and Jessica Hines sprung immediately to mind. So that's not a particularly perceptive comment, but there you go... ;-)

    1. Thanks for reading it and for taking the time to respond. I wrote this over only a couple of days as it became like a bit of a fire under me, and as such appreciate and acknowledge that it is controversial and I'm guilty of many generalisations and omissions (many more names I have thought of since I wrote it, Jessica Hines is a good example of this actually!) Part of the exercise was for to see how quickly and easily I could think of my favourite comedians/ comic performers of both genders (not all, just my favourites) and was stunned at the difference of ease between these lists. You can certainly argue that I lack education when it comes to proper knowledge of the history of funny women, but I felt there was something in the difference between the prevalence in the media and culture between the genders that may go some way to account for my lack of knowledge. This was also inspired by many informal conversations on the matter.
      I also agree that there is surely an argument when it comes to comedy writing and performance as to who is truly to credit- interestingly I feel that Tina Fey is a much better writer than a performer and my favourite Buffy writers after Joss were Jane Epenson and Marti Noxon, but I didn't think to consider them when compiling this list as I was focusing on performance in various forms rather than writing. Same with the male comedians.

      Thanks again for the recommendations!