Apr 22, 2011

Angry Angry – Female Comedians can be Funny Funny

Comedian Ben McKenzie writes...

Comedian Ben McKenzie writes…

Ah, Comedy Festival rituals: getting rained on while flyering; the emotional rollercoaster of reviews; enduring the annual “are women funny” bullshit peddled by the mainstream news sponsor…

This year it’s not an “article” that perpetuates the “discussion”, but Tianna Nadalin’s recent review of Jen Brister. There are plenty of problems with the piece, not least that it consists mainly of poor retellings of Brister’s jokes rather than any kind of critique of her style or ability, but that can’t hold a candle to the second sentence, which originally began: “Very few female comedians can pull off funny funny”. This phrase has since been edited out, without explanation or even acknowledgement, but the clear implication of it remains: women can’t be “funny funny”, only “woman funny” – some other standard for comedy that only applies to women, as if men have some unfair advantage. And frankly, that makes me angry. Angry angry.

Comedy is a tough gig, and like most industries, dominated by men – but only lazy thinking and ignorance of feminism can take you from “male-dominated” to “women aren’t good at it”. Nevertheless, such thinking is rife, and hardly new: in 2006, punters rejected my flyers for women’s shows because “chicks aren’t funny” – and many who did so were women. My attempts to challenge this thinking were met with stony silence – and no deeper reasoning.

I was going to try and dissect where this attitude comes from, but the simple truth is that our society is still pretty damn sexist. But how to dispel the bullshit? It’s hard to find someone who who will openly discuss their prejudice. But, dear reader, through extensive research (I asked comics, punters and Twitter) I have discovered the main arguments that underlie this “opinion”. Join me now, as I respond to our imaginary, happy-to-be-challenged bigot in a fairly one-sided, vaguely Socratic dialogue.

Funny women only talk about relationships, vaginas, tampons, emotions, family, domesticity, personal problems, [insert 1950s idea of women’s conversational topics here].

Balls. This is the most common argument, but the least convincing. Let’s put aside that male comics also talk about relationships, personal problems, domestic life and vaginas (and indeed balls); this list basically leaves a female comedian with very little to talk about that won’t confirm your bias. Most people complain about the tampons, yet the only reason I’ve seen women doing tampon gags is that they were all offered $50,000 last year by Libra Fleur to make this particular myth a reality. Somewhat unsurprisingly, that ad campaign never materialised – though some of the resulting “you keep your $50k and I’ll keep my dignity” material has been truly inspired, perhaps none better than Bec Hill’s epic, not-what-Libra-Fleur-had-in-mind cardboard cut-out commercial performed to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”


If you believe this, you need to see more female comedians. Actually, get out and see any. Jen Brister talks about being British and the politics of empire. Karin Muiznieks writes songs about flashers and serial killers. Francesca Martinez reveals the idiocy of how “normal” people treat the wobbly among them. Geraldine Quinn (nominated for the Golden Gibbo this year) sings anthems for those ordinary yet extraordinary moments in all of our lives. Jo and Brydie expose the layers of resentment that lie beneath our best friendships. DeAnne Smith (2011 Barry Award nominee) talks about…well, about whatever the next crazy thing is that pops out of her head. And let me tell you, all of that is hilarious, and there are almost no tampons mentioned (though maybe a few cocks and vaginas).

Besides, who says jokes about tampons can’t be funny?

Funny women aren’t attractive.

These two concepts are entirely unrelated, and besides, if you don’t list “funny” high on your list of attractive attributes for any person to have, there’s something wrong with you. Next.
(No, I’m not going to list a bunch of hot lady comics. We all have our comedy crushes. Besides, we funny men are hardly all oil paintings ourselves. Have you seen Greg Fleet?)

Funny women are aggressive.

Don’t confuse assertive with aggressive. A woman who has a strong opinion and tells you about it isn’t necessarily getting in your face. But is aggression a bad thing in comedy? It’s a valid stylistic choice. You might as well say “funny women are laconic”. Some of them are, and you may not like laconic, but style and gender aren’t really linked. Janeane Garofalo might get a bit aggressive, but hey, she’s complaining about American politics; how else can you respond? Hannah Gadsby (another Barry award nominee) and Geraldine Hickey are gentle but no less a powerhouse of mirth.

Funny women are too polite to be funny.

Now this is just taking the piss. A minute ago they were aggressive! You can be polite and funny, anyway. Just ask Courteney Hocking, Laura Davis or Lou Sanz – any one of whom, by the way, can be incredibly dirty and polite at the same time. Sorry, did I just blow your tiny mind?

Funny women lack confidence.

This just doesn’t stack up. Let’s see you enter an industry in which you’re a minority and stand in front of a crowd of judging eyes and ears and make them laugh for a whole hour. If you can’t, maybe it’s you who lacks confidence.

Funny women want to steal my partner.

Have you ever seen the hetero couple in the front row at a comedy gig? You know the one? Who seem fine and relaxed when there’s a guy on stage, but as soon as a woman comes on, the woman looks unimpressed and either crosses her arms or puts them around “her man”? Yeah. That says more about you than the woman on stage, I’m afraid.

Funny women never had to rely on being funny to get a date.

My, you are a mass of contradictions! You don’t like her because she’s being funny to steal your man, but she’s no good because she’s never had to do that? I’m pretty sure women have never had to rely on being able to pay for dinner, speaking French, or buying expensive gifts to get dates either. But that’s okay; we live in the twenty-first century now, where we can move past such outdated notions of requirements for relationships. Come and join us!

Funny women aren’t as famous as funny men.

Okay, you’ve got me here. The leads in sit-coms are nearly always men; the headliners on stand-up shows are nearly always men; the biggest posters and ads during Comedy Festival are always for men. Strange, isn’t it? I mean, what with them being given all the same opportunities as men, and all the same support from the industry, and equal love and support from punters, and… Oh! Wait, I think I see the problem here. It’s you.

Funny women are empowered to voice their opinions in a public forum, which threatens my world view and makes me uncomfortable.

Wow, you’re pretty self-aware for a misogynist.

Ben McKenzie is a veteran of five Comedy Festivals and the brains behind the Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour. Now in its fourth year, the tour has employed many talented funny funny women including Kate McLennan, Stella Young and Amanda Buckley. He is well aware of the potential irony of a middle-class white male comic defending funny women, but feminists come in all shapes and sizes. His favourite dinosaur is Stegosaurus.

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20 thoughts on “Angry Angry – Female Comedians can be Funny Funny

  1. AndrewBr

    @VeryLisa…So saying men are good at men stuff like engineering, reading maps and lifting heavy things makes me a what then? your just sprouting other peoples thoughts and lines. Think for yourself.

    @MikeB…Stereotypes exist for a reason…they have some truth to them.

  2. mikeb

    Plenty of funny female comedians & i don’t know why this stereotype gets currency. I guess maybe people like Deveney give women comics a bad name but – hey – plenty of bad male comics around as well. She may be a relic but check out the gound-breaking Joan Rivers on the Graham Norton Show (series 8 ep 3 on YouTube). I was in tears (as was Johnny Knoxville). There is a great doco/year in the life on her which is called I think “A Piece Of Work” or similar.

  3. janetarama

    This is interesting. If the impression you gained wasn’t based on Judith’s actual material then we can only guess that it’s a reflection of your own personal experiences during the 90s. Were you a teen? I don’t want to get all psychological on your arse, it’s just that I noticed back then that teenage boys tended to either love or hate Judith, depending on other female relationships in their lives.

    To be honest, Sancho, in my twenty years observing and involving myself in the comedy scene, in witnessing thousands of comedy gigs (absolute minimum of 150 a year) I’ve never been able to differentiate between ‘women’s comedy’ and ‘men’s comedy’. I’ve noticed that there’s ‘shit comedy’ and ‘not shit comedy’. I’ve seen half-baked Judith wannabes and I’ve seen half-baked Hughesy wannabes (there were one hell of a lot more of those). There are certainly movements which can be pointed out in a very general sense, such as the early 90s “How fucked is that??” and the mid-to-late 90s “How fucked am I??” then the early 2000s trend for docu-comedy shows as well as Boosh inspired absurdism followed by the mid-late 2000s “nerd-pride”.

    I learned something very interesting during the seven years that I ran the Comedy Festival’s Information Booth outside the Town Hall. I would talk to a ludicrous number of regular humans about comedy and advise them on shows they might like. Whenever I would encounter the comment “I don’t find women funny” I would always ask with great curiosity “Really? What about…” and reel off a few names. “Oh, no – SHE’S funny. Oh yeah, and she is too…” etc.

    What I learned is that women aren’t funny…except for the funny ones.

    Most odd.

  4. Sancho

    I’m hardly an expert on Judith Lucy’s comedy.

    I’m relating the impression I gained of her in the 90s and the trend I feel women’s comedy took after that, which seems heavily reliant on simply being sarcastic about the experience of Australian women, without actually adding anything funny or insightful.

    She reminds me Cliff Claven from Cheers, who’s only joke was “[topic]. What’s up with that?”.

  5. janetarama

    An curious view by Sancho.
    As a comedy industry oldie I’m very familiar with Judith Lucy’s work and certainly saw all her major shows during the 90s/2000s – and often multiple times when I was working on them. I can only think of a single piece of material involving menstruation – that being a brief and obviously satirical piece ending with the line “No, I can’t quite believe I said that either”.
    Likewise, the only routines involving breasts that I can think of are the one where her father suggests that she may be happier if she got a breast reduction and the one from the show King Of The Road about a masseur unexpectedly massaging her breasts.
    There may be a line or two else which has faded with memory, but in a twenty year career I couldn’t say that these smatterings represent a recurring theme. Fleety, for example, has spoken on these topics on significantly more occasions and at greater length. (Perhaps Judith’s three pieces of material influenced him?)

    But you definitely remembered correctly that she has talked about boyfriends/partners. I think some earlier comedians may have beat her to this topic, however.

  6. Sancho

    Christopher Hitchens makes a pretty good case that natural selection hasn’t required women to be funny to secure mating opportunities, so there’s little inclination toward, or culture of, female comedy.

  7. verylisa

    You so funny AndrewBr. Cos everyone knows that chauvinism is HOT, right?

  8. Sally Goldner

    As a female stand-up/performer for 4 years (now in hiatus), I appreciated Ben’s piece.

    To play devil’s advocate, does anyone ever have a shot at the percentage of male comedians who present dick and fart jokes? Just a thought…

  9. AndrewBr

    Women can be kind of funny. The Kath and Kim’s, French and Saunders but when it comes down to it women aren’t good at ‘men’ things like being funny. Women are good at female things like looking sexy, looking after their men. Looking after children.

    Ben, seriously be a man and look at reality. You’ll get laid more.

  10. Sancho

    Wendy Harmer, too, was a great stand-up back in the day.

    My view of female comedians has been jaundiced ever since Judith Lucy gained a following. From the mid-90s she reduced the range of female stand-ups to “*groan* menstruation, hey?”, “*groan* boyfriends, hey?”, “*groan* breasts, hey?”.

  11. green-orange

    Well there’s French and Saunders. And Magda Szubanski.

    There were quite a lot of female comedians before WW2.
    Ginger Rogers (before she went in all those films with Astaire), Jessie Matthews (with the dentes ingleses), and a whole lot of others I can’t remember.
    But they seemed to disappear after the war.

  12. Sancho

    Many women are funny. Very few female comedians are funny.

    Why? Who knows.

  13. Emilyfres

    People who like to make others angry are often also people who get angry fast and as what i have seen those people are “big egos” that their Instincts controlling their acts…

  14. scottyea

    Why I don’t like woman comedy is because if & when it descends to vulgarity, I feel uncomfortable seeing a woman sacrifice her femininity for attention / fame / a few laughs.

  15. Ben McKenzie

    I don’t want to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t enjoy, and the only thing I want to analyze and intellectualize is the idea that “women aren’t funny” is a valid opinion. Of course people will find a specific man or woman funny or not according to their tastes but to generalise that to “women aren’t funny” – even in an off-hand comment – is a symptom of a larger problem. This isn’t about women being funny; it’s about that opinion being part of the larger problem of sexism in our society. I think the only real reason people think “chicks aren’t funny” is the last one, that it’s a deeply ingrained understanding of how women are allowed to present to the world that leads to that opinion, so deep it takes some work to expose it. The other reasons are intended as jokes to be torn apart, hopefully with a bit of mirth on my side, too. But of course, I can’t tell you to find it funny.

    Steele, I hear you; I know I’m soapboxing to the converted here, though I hope at least some of the converts will raise a smile at the way I’ve chosen to do it. I’m allowed to reblog this, so if you have any suggestions for places I can put it where it might reach the unconverted, let me know.

  16. AndrewBr

    Yep, Women aren’t funny and the only way they can get a giggle is by being totally rank.

    The same way as women don’t really do that much beside eat muffins and data entry.

    Geraldine Hickey…say no more….

  17. steelesaunders

    Pretty sad we have a 1000+ word essay debating the most ignorant arguments in the females are not funny “debate”… could have saved time and just posted a 20sec clip of Geraldine Hickey and the point would have been proven way quicker and convincingly.

    Ironic that this is the one topic rarely addressed with humour but with soapboxing to the already converted.

  18. ImproACT

    I love and support any sane conversation on this topic, but I think the problem can never be addressed through intellectualising why women are funny. In the end, the average punter walks into a venue, the lights go down, and they either laugh or they don’t. This is the basic parameter from which advancements much launch, if they wish to be successful, rather than purely ‘right’.
    I absolutely don’t mean to suggest that female comics need to pander to a system of outdated norms that pull a laugh, rather than progressively assisting with the education of the audience, but just like a plumber stops a leak, (though he may have a broader objective to educate you about water use or home maintenance or which footy team to support), any comic who seeks mainstream appeal clearly needs, as their first obligation, to honour their advertising material by making tonight’s audience laugh, whoever they are, and whatever their psychology may be.
    Yes, I think agencies and promoters and festivals and other comics and reviewers and already enlightened punters share a responsibility to take the cause forward, but the audience (however we perceive their responsibility) can’t be told what they should or shouldn’t enjoy. We need to guide them gently in a way that validates them as decent humans first, then also offers them some new ways forward.
    My own observation would be that the plethora of excellent female comics already do this as their natural survival technique, or if they don’t, they understand that they have chosen what is currently a niche concerned with the more challenging material, just as theatre companies that put on The Sound of Music know they’re going to have an easier run than those promoting something that is less understood, though of greater importance to the growth of music, theatre, and social norms.
    I would further suggest that, whilst it’s greatly disappointing to see reviews like the one you refer to, the print and broadcast media is generally applying a marginally higher level of responsibility towards the advancement of women in comedy than their average punter would demand if left entirely to their own devices. What might be true is that those given the task of reviewing comedy are not always the most highly valued journalists in the media organisation concerned, so may not reflect what their best might have written.
    Hurrah for steady, if frustratingly slow, progress for females in comedy. There is little progress in comparative respect for arts, generally, perhaps.
    A big hug to Ben for helping the rest of us remember that the issue still exists, and for employing the great female comics listed on the basis of their extreme funniness, not just their gender.
    I look forward to showcasing a great number of Australia’s best female impro talent at Improvention in Canberra (July), not because I feel in any righteousness to be doing so, but because they often have a different approach to male improvisers that creates a more engaging and emotive content. Our audience may conceivably have a higher aggregate of laughs from the indulgent milking of the male improvisers, but the most satisfying laughs and their set-ups will statistically be delivered by women.

  19. vanbadham

    Yay! THANK YOU for this.

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