“Do Your Thing and Don’t Care If They Like It” (Tina Fey)
During the 90s, Hazel O’Keefe was running a bar and holding comedy nights. After a promoter told her that they ‘couldn’t take the risk’ of putting more than one woman on the bill, she set up Laughing Cows Comedy, an all-female comedy night which has been running for almost 20 years. This women-only bill has seen big names like Jo Brand and Sarah Millican, as well as some lesser-known names who’ll make you question why you hadn’t heard of them sooner. If you’re a Manchester local, Laughing Cows is held on the last Sunday of every month at The Frog & Bucket.
Attitudes towards female comics have improved since the 90s, but the majority of stand-up comedy events still have a 70:30 ratio of male to female performers, and that’s a generous exaggeration. This issue is even more obvious in television panel shows. There seems to be a Jimmy Carr cloning machine spitting out white, male, squeaky-clean, university graduates onto comedy quiz shows. There is no definitive answer to this problem. Perhaps it’s the outdated cultural stereotype that women aren’t funny.
Personally, I think a significant part of it is to do with sex. Men who talk openly and explicitly about their sexual experiences and partners are celebrated, such as fictional comedy characters like Joey in Friends. Yet a woman who is just as sexually explicit is dismissed and labelled as unattractive. Stand-up comedy comments on the lives we all lead and the practices we identify with. Sex is a huge part of life, and to deny women from freely expressing this through comedy is ridiculous. When the American comic Amy Schumer first arrived on our screens, she was labelled a ‘sex comedian’. Amy Schumer is not a sex comedian. She is a female comedian who talks about sex. She even references this in her stand up – “I’m labelled as a sex comic. I think it’s just ‘cause I’m a girl. I feel like a guy could get up here and literally pull his dick out, and everyone would be like, ‘He’s a thinker!’”
There is an enormous pressure as a female comic to write something that discusses ‘being a woman’, and whilst that is important, it’s easy to slip into the classic Miranda Hart territory of ‘I love to eat cake, but I can’t get a boyfriend’. I think Miranda Hart is hilarious, and whilst this is always a crowd pleaser, it sets a limit of what to expect from the next female comic the audience will see. Please, write about being a woman, but be smart, satirical and dark in your comedy. As long as you wear it with confidence, it won’t be questioned.
The success of so many American female comedians in recent years has revealed a disparity with how female comics are treated in the UK. In the US, television sketch shows like Saturday Night Live gave Tina Fey and Amy Poehler their break, and teams of female writers and comedians have moved onto films like Bridesmaids and the new Ghostbusters to pick out a couple. It’s not often our neighbours across the pond are labelled more progressive than us, but here we’re clearly failing.
So what’s the solution? Hazel O’Keefe puts forward a simple one: comedy promoters and television producers in the UK should be actively seeking out female comics. One token female on a television panel show is not enough. But seeing as there is very little chance of this happening any time soon, and the Carr clones continue to dominate, this is where Hazel O’Keefe’s next project comes in. The Women In Comedy Festival, now approaching its fourth year and still holding the crown of the only festival of its kind in Europe, is once again being held in Manchester from 20-30 October. The festival has over 100 events squeezed into ten days around different venues based mostly in the Northern Quarter, and is run by a team of volunteers, many of whom are men.
One of the most refreshing things about the Women In Comedy Festival is its diversity. Comedy is a male-dominated industry, but it’s also a white industry. The festival doesn’t put the ‘diversity’ stamp on every bit of publicity, because this should be a given. Live comedy thrives on variation, and we’ve all seen enough ‘awkward white boy goes through puberty’ sets for a lifetime. One of the many interesting acts appearing at Women In Comedy is Sajeela Kershi, who through her comedy breaks down the stereotype that Muslim women are weak and defenceless, drawing attention to and ‘celebrating the women we don’t hear about’. Others include Eleanor Conway, an ex-music journalist who has worked in the porn industry and the Chinese Mafia, and Jackie Hagan, a ‘one-legged Scouser’ whose show is titled Some People Have Too Many Legs.
The long term vision for Women In Comedy is that it will become the Manchester comedy festival, and maybe even become gender inclusive, with female comics making up 51% and men 49%, because, after all, that is the gender population of the UK.
So support female comedy. Go and see the new Ghostbusters, go to Laughing Cows at the Frog & Bucket, and most of all go to the Women In Comedy Festival. With patron support like Isy Suttie and Maxine Peake, and some tickets priced as ‘pay what you like’, you really have no excuse.