You’re Funny… For A Woman

As I stepped off stage in Manchester having done a good job of entertaining the room, I headed to the back to watch the next act. A man from the audience leaned over and whispered into my ear:

“You’re funny… for a woman.”

While the Light Entertainment comedy scene was traditionally a man’s world, the ‘alternative’ comedy scene that emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s (which is now very much the mainstream), with clubs such as The Comedy Store and The Comic Strip being formed, made the “art form” more accessible to women. The American model, of a performer’s material being their own and there not being a pool of misc jokes that acts could share, meant that people could express themselves and their ideas.

Maureen Younger talks in her Ask The Industry podcast interview of being described as a ‘specialist’ act when she first began her stand up career. Male life experience is considered ‘normal’, while female experience is the “other” – a concept developed by Simone de Beavouir in her 1949 book ‘The Second Sex’, which is why people get so angry when women briefly touch upon their vagina material, yet don’t bat an eyelid when a gentleman spends 20 minutes talking about tugging himself off.

I think that in part, women are judged more on appearance than men are, as is stated in the 1987 book “Jokes on Us” by Morwenna Banks and Amanda Swift – “it is often assumed that a woman can not be both attractive and funny”. But in many cases women can be perceived as a threat regardless, and have to work to put a room at ease before they can begin entertaining, as Marti Caine says: “if you are under 16 stone and under 90, you’re immediately classed as competition to the women, and the men will not laugh if the women don’t laugh, and if a man laughs at you, his wife’ll really hate you, strangely enough. So the first thing you’ve got to do, in my case anyway, is knock yourself so they start defending you.” That’s a lot to overcome in a set that lasts 5 or 10 minutes, when a male act can just get straight in to making people laugh.

But honestly, while it is improving, I think that there is still an issue of representation of women in comedy that makes things a bit difficult. While many argue that there are fewer female performers to put on line ups (which is very true), if women aren’t seeing women perform, then why would they consider it an option that is open to them to pursue? Plus, if audiences in general aren’t seeing many women performing live, and there has been a continuous questioning of whether women are even funny anyway, it is incredibly easy for audiences to dismiss female acts as rubbish.

But what about television? Surely there are loads of opportunities for women on all those panel shows?

Unfortunately, women are vastly underrepresented on the ol’ panel show. A study conducted by data scientist Stuart Lowe found that in 49 years, there has only been one panel show (on both TV and radio) where the presenter and all the panel were female – an episode of Heresy on Radio4, hosted by Victoria Coren-Mitchell in January 2012.

And quite often, on comedy panel shows, the female spot will be given to a non-comedian who has something to sell or promote and who will not be as funny as the professional male comedians for obvious reasons. If we compare the female and male panellists from the first season of the BBC show Would I Lie To You (2007) we can see the disproportionate representation:

Female Panellists Male Panellists
Natalie Cassidy (actor)

Fay Ripley (actor)

Ulrika Jonsson (presenter)

Myleene Klass (musician)

Leslie Ash (actress)

Wendy Richard (actress)

Claudia Winkleman (presenter)

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (socialite)

Frankie Boyle (comedian)

Dom Joly (comedian)

Duncan Bannatyne (entrepeneur)

Patrick McGuinness (comedian)

John Barrowman (actor)

Dominic Wood (magician and presenter)

Eamonn Holmes (presenter)

Dara O’Briain (comedian)

Jimmy Carr (comedian)

Jason Manford (comedian)

Neil Morrisey (actor and comedian)

Russell Howard (comedian)

Len Goodman (ballroom dancer)

Vic Reeves (comedian)

Harry Enfield (comedian)

Dave Spikey (comedian)

While 11 of the 16 male guests were comedians, none of the 8 female guests were, despite around 25% of all club comedians being female. To be fair, this series was released in 2007, which was before the BBC announced that there were to be no more all male panel shows back in 2014 which did improve things slightly, though personally I think that it was a very patronising thing to announce, and I don’t see why they couldn’t have just started giving spots to the many, many talented female comedians out there without saying “LOOK GUYS, WE’RE DOING A GOOD THING”. Looking at the panellists from Season 9 in 2015, there are now 2 female comedians featuring across the entire series, and 14 male comedians.

Female Panellists Male Panellists
Moira Stuart (presenter)

Gabby Logan (presenter)

Katherine Parkinson (actor)

Alex Jones (presenter)

Germaine Greer (writer)

Claire Balding (journalist)

Judy Murray (tennis coach)

Gaby Roslin (presenter)

Ruth Jones (writer and actor)

Dame Kelly Holmes (athlete)

Sarah Doon-Mackichan (comedian)

Jo Brand (comedian)

Danny Dyer (actor)

John Richardson (comedian)

Joe Lycett (comedian)

Bob Mortimer (comedian)

Steve Backshall (naturalist & presenter)

Rick Edwards (presenter)

Greg Davies (comedian)

John Cooper-Clarke (poet)

Alan Davis (comedian)

Jermaine Jenas (footballer)

Richard Osman (presenter)

Rhod Gilbert (comedian)

Nick Grimshaw (presenter)

Rob Delaney (comedian)

Richard Hammond (presenter)

Sean Lock (comedian)

Trevor Noah (comedian)

Jack Dee (comedian)

Tinchy Stryder (musician)

Romesh Ranganathan (comedian)

Bill Bailey (comedian)

Alex Brooker (journalist)

Ben Miller (comedian)

Henning Wehn (comedian)

In an interview with the Telegraph, Sarah Lloyd, Director of QI Limited, suggests that female comedians are being asked to appear on shows, but they’re not accepting the invitations. She said “We ask women to come on, but they won’t. You tell me who you’d like to see on the show and I can tell you we’ve asked them.”

But as Deborah Francis-White points out: “A lot of the time what people don’t realise they are watching is five men in their local pub – they are regulars, they look like everyone else and they are made to feel welcome – and one woman on a job interview. Because she knows that not only will [the audience] decide whether she is good enough to be allowed back on this show and other panel shows, but they will be judging whether all women are funny.”

The fact that people are talking about these issues is definitely a positive thing as it is bringing about awareness and this will undoubtedly bring change. And as double Chortle award winning comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean said in an interview with The Wee Review “The industry of telly and radio are definitely pro-women because they’ve realised that they need to correct a lot of stuff that’s been going on…I think it’s a great time to be a woman, but like anything else, you might get the first break if you’re a chick but you still have to do the job as well.”


Here are some links to female comedy nights and organisations:

Funny Women

Laughing Labia

Laughing Cows

MY Comedy

The 99 Club Female and Non-Binary Bursary

G&B Girlpower

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s