Stand Up For Equality

Women can be as witty, confident and funny as men. So why there are so few women in stand up comedy, asks Kadie Armstrong?

Kadie Armstrong, 19 December 2003

I love stand-up comedy. To my mind, anyone that can keep an audience not just interested, but amused, for half an hour has a rare kind of talent. So why, as a good little feminist, when I see a woman walk onto a comedy stage do I break out in a sweat? Why do I brace myself for disappointment? Why do I have a feeling that she's going to 'let the side down'? (Leaving me, I might add, feeling like I've let the side down.)

I want to see more women doing stand-up: far, far more women

Let me state right now that I want to see more women doing stand-up: far, far more women. That way, when a female comedian doesn't have me aching with laughter I can just think, "Yup. Derivative material with the comic timing of an early death," then go home and watch my Willimina Hicks video, happy in the knowledge that there are plenty of female stand-ups who do make me laugh. Women who do surreal humour (like Harry Hill). Women who pack out Wembley stadium and are quoted by legion unoriginal students (Newman and Baddiel). Geek-like women who stutter out virtuoso comedy performances to enraptured audiences at the Edinburgh festival (Daniel Kitson). But no: that's just not the way that things are.

But why? Women can be as witty, confident and funny as men. And, although it's a fact that's unlikely to be questioned by women and men reading this, let me name names:

  • Kathy Burke
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Dawn French
  • Jennifer Saunders
  • Josie Lawrence
  • Nina Conti
  • Roseanne Barr
  • Dorothy Parker
  • Sarah Kendall
  • Germaine Greer
  • Doon Mackichan
  • Lisa Tarbuck

All these women, at some point have made me laugh. On purpose. They appreciate and use humour, as do most of the women that I've met of the non-celebrity variety. In fact, you know, they're almost like men in that respect. Well, now. Who'd have thought it?

get right in there with the panty-liner jokes and don't look back

Now, granted, I chucked a few professional comedians into that list for good measure but, on the whole, you'd have to admit that there aren't that many female professional stand-ups who have 'made it', who are celebrities. I attempted, rather unscientifically, to test this premise. I scribbled the letters of the alphabet in a column down the left hand side of a piece of paper and tried to think of at least one male and one female stand-up with a surname beginning with each letter. Now I was really scraping the barrel (Lily Savage, anyone?) and I couldn't think of many more than 10 female stand-ups in that time (and quite a few of them weren't really current, having moved on to sit-coms or other forms of comedy career). But I had over double that number of men; men who all still appear on the comedy circuit. If anyone finds differently I'd be interested to see your list (and the view from the window of your padded cell).

So, if we're agreed that women are not the un-laughing hyenas in petticoats that male-dominated comedy bills might suggest, why the disparity? Well, there's theory upon theory. Women just aren't funny in the required way. Women don't have the confidence. Women who seek to be funny starve their brains of oxygen, causing their barren wombs to wander and nearby wine to sour. Female stand-ups are women until proven funny, whereas male stand-ups, by virtue of being in a comedy venue, are funny until proven twats (that's you, Jim Davidson.) A female stand-up finds it harder to win over the men in the audience due to their being unwilling to yield to her comic authority, or just unwilling to accept an alternative view of the world from a woman (if only for half an hour). And, my favourite, it's every woman's duty to be at the thrall of her husband and not to outshine him.

I would a thousand times rather have a homely girl, simply brought up, than a learned lady and a wit who would make a literary circle of my house and install herself as its president. A female wit is a scourge to her husband, her children, her friends, her servants, to everybody. From the lofty height of her genius, she scorns her womanly duty, and she is trying to make a man of herself.

Rousseau, Emile

Well, some of it makes sense as we can see from some of the tools of the female comedy trade. A little safe, self-deprecating humour will both detract from the authority of the comedian's position and go a little way to convincing the (male) audience that, hey, she might just be funny after all. Or, on the other hand, sod the men in the audience- get right in there with the panty-liner jokes and don't look back; as long as half the audience think you're funny then you've done your job (Jo Brand). Or play the older sister: authoritative but kind, funny but definitely asexual (Victoria Wood).

But in the end, it's an element of all these theories, along with a big crappy heap of historical precedent, that means that I tense up when a female comedian walks onto a stage and cringe when I see her staying safely within prescribed boundaries, talking about periods, babies, men, bikini-line waxing and so tediously on. Which isn't to say that male stand-ups don't do the precise equivalent; take my father-in-law. My point is that with a greater number of female stand-ups out there, a wider range of comedic genres, material and audiences would be represented.

with a greater number of female stand-ups, a wider range of comedic genres, material and audiences would be represented

Of course, you might wonder whether this is, in the scheme of things, a gender imbalance that should really concern us. Shouldn't we be challenging society to treat female politicians as politicians first and women second, before asking that it similarly overlooks the sex of female stand-ups? Oh, mighty Gods on Olympus, YES! Of course, we should. That Theresa May's belief in leopard-print shoes should be reported in place of her political beliefs ought to be a source of shame for the press and, indeed, society at large. And society, perhaps, would have felt this shame more keenly had women been proportionally represented amongst the multitude of social commentators who respond to such media excesses. Amongst such commentators I include stand-ups, satirists, wits and anybody who counts humour in their anti-Establishment armoury. There are myriad ways to reach an audience, but it's going to be more inclined to listen if you offer it a spoonful of comedy-sugar with which to wash down the distasteful medicine of truth. So, of course- politics, law, engineering, villainy- women should be better represented in all these areas. Fortunately, though, agitating for wide-ranging social reform, including real sexual equality, and wanting to see more funny women on telly aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they might even be mutually edifying.

Finally, humour is as subjective as any aesthetic. Nothing else can explain the careers of Roy 'Chubby' Brown, Jim Davidson, Ken Dodd, and Brian Connelly, as far as I'm concerned. And perhaps that's why I find myself in a quandary. I can't pretend to laugh at a female stand-ups that I just don't find funny, yet I want to support them. They're braver than I am and just by dint of standing up and being counted they might encourage other women to give it a go. Women's experiences and opinions, however lacking in humour or feminism I find them, have every right to be assimilated into comedy's communal repertoire given that even the most bigoted, hateful, and ill-informed views of mediocre male comedians have been for decades.

So that's it, no more doubting my feminist credentials when I'm disappointed by another female stand-up. Disappointment is merely a side-effect of high expectations; high expectations that I hold only because I know that as many women as men have awesome senses of humour and it's inevitable that more and more of them will start popping up. Until one day- one day I tell you- there'll be a glut, a superfluity of witty women. They'll kill at Montreal, confound at the Comedy Store, enthral at Edinburgh and boycott the Perrier Awards with the best of them. And when women start actually dominating the comedy bills, suddenly people will notice what's happened. The tabloids will scream "No laughing matter!", "Too much funny fanny?" and "Humour harpies harbour herpes shocker". The new crisis in masculinity will be the pop-topic du jour amongst the intelligentsia and- ahh, yes- the backlash will have begun?

Acknowledgements:

  • "They used to call me Snow White... but I drifted. Women's strategic use of humour." - Regina Barreca
  • "Women and laughter" - Frances Gray

About the author

Kadie Armstrong

Kadie Armstrong is rarely required to write about herself in the third-person. Frankly, she finds it unsettling.

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