Do women really suck at comedy?
I’m allegedly pretty funny: but why are men always surprised by that?
I made a joke in front of a guy at an event a few years ago. To my surprise, and his, he burst out laughing and spat out his free orange juice. “Sorry,” he said as I wiped it off my face. “I didn’t expect you to be funny.”
I hear that a lot, sometimes in more veiled ways than others. I’m pretty funny… for a girl. He doesn’t usually find women funny, but that joke actually made him laugh, seriously. Most women can’t laugh at themselves, but I can. It was ‘brave’ or ‘refreshing’ for me to be okay putting on stupid voices or making ugly faces for comic effect. All of this, for me, is pretty weird. Obviously, women are very funny. We’ve always known women are funny.
How many of you quote Kathy Burke’s sketch punchlines, or refer to Hyacinth Bucket? You’ve all snickered your way through a scene with Victoria Wood, Lucille Ball, Jennifer Saunders or Joyce Grenfell a thousand times. You’ve all sat through That Mitchell and Webb Look or Harry and Paul and screeched laughing at Olivia Coleman or Sophie Winkleman. All of you have found women very, very funny. I think what you mean is:
You don’t like comedy that isn’t made for you.
And that’s fine. I absolutely can’t stand Peppa Pig or Fast and Furious for the same reason: I’m not the target market. It doesn’t mean Peppa Pig is inept or Fast and Furious should be burnt in the streets, it just means that I’m not a six year old girl, or a teenage boy. I, too, regret to say that I would roll my eyes if I was forced to sit through an action movie about a robot fighting a bigger robot for two hours. I get it.
I’m not about to demand you find romcoms funny or suffer a brain hemorrhage laughing at Amy Schumer talking about her breasts. But maybe think about that a bit when you criticise a woman’s comedic prowess: is it her gender, or is it who she is writing for?
Maybe the jokes don’t land for you in a woman’s stand up because you’re just not the target market. You’ve never tried to change your knickers into sexier ones in a phone box, tried to dye your own hair blonde for a boy at school, or pretended to be an Olympic sprinter to hit on a man in the gym. There are a tonne of male comedians I know women can’t stand for the same reason.
I’ve never tried to balance a beer can on my stomach while watching the football. I’ve never tried to trick my wife into thinking I was doing DIY while reading lad mags. Comedy is empathy. And with little to go on from your own humiliation, self deprecation or experiences, it weakens the jokes considerably. It’s just not that funny for you. Why should it be? I’d be totally put off by observational populist stand up from the 1940s. All the jokes would make no sense at all. Everything, in stand up or comedy, is based off shared knowledge and experiences. It’s juxtaposition, absurdity, cringe or hyperbole. Almost any joke comes into those four shared experiences of collective knowledge.
And speaking of collective knowledge, we, as a culture, have only really got female comedians who do ‘women’s’ comedy.
Male comedians get commissioned to do all kinds of non-gendered stuff: impressionism, political observation, physical comedy. Harry Enfield makes fun of the Tories. Omid Djalili ridicules antisemitism and racism. Robin Williams tore into George Bush with an enthusiasm we continued for decades. Jon Culshaw does hilarious impressions of Trump. David Mitchell ridicules everything from Downton Abbey to supermarket queues. They have much more range and freedom to try and find stuff that amuses a wider group of people.
Female comedians, however, are expected and widely only commissioned to do ‘women’s’ comedy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a die-hard fan of Lucille Ball, Miranda Hart and Victoria Wood. There is an essential space for things that only women could really get in comedy: the pressures of girl’s boarding school friendships, classism in female identity, even frivolous things like breadmaking while pretending to be a perfect housewife all have room to squeeze comedy from.
And that’s great! I remember, as a teen, adoring Miranda because she was a mess. She looked like an idiot in front of boys. She had crushes that weren’t infatuated with her. She lied. She fell out with people. She looked really stupid in that new dress. It was the first time I remember thinking, ‘It’s not just me!’ when it came to not being a beautiful, slick and glamorous woman. Before that, a ‘funny’ woman was Jennifer Aniston looking immaculate in a crop top with a toned stomach complaining that too many men liked her. Both are fine, I’m not here to shame you, but it was so refreshing and powerful to see someone who was I could relate to.
So maybe the issue isn’t so much whether women are funny: I know they are. I’ve been to Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve cried laughing in Camden to Lolly Adefope and I’ve fallen off the sofa watching Joanna Lumley and Shappi Khorsandi. I think it really is an issue of a bunch of TV execs (trust me, I’ve met them) agreeing that they need more ‘girl comedians’ and commissioning women for women, rather than women for comedy. Women are, unfortunately, being boxed in by a desperate attempt to ironically, get rid of sexism.
There are funny women, funny women who don’t just talk about tampons and boyfriends. There really are. Try commissioning us more freely on a wider range of topics, and try avoiding the difficult subconscious attempt to see a woman as a ‘woman comedian’ who affirms or challenges how you perceive women as a gender in a field.
Still not convinced? Well, Deepak Chopra sucks at molecular biology. But you don’t go around declaring men are unscientific.