Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Comedy is a feminist issue

I've also had an interesting exchange on twitter with Jonathan Ross. As everyone knows, he's been suspended from school for being a naughty boy. The annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year therefore, missed his presence. There was the usual ratio of 5 men, 2 women. The five men, all comics or comic actors, were funny in varying degrees. The two women were not comediennes but attractive presenters, in other words 'totty' who act as foils for the funny men. Davina McCall, who presents Big Brother, generally comes across well, but Claudia Winkleman, an intelligent woman, decided that her only route to keeping up with the boys was to act as if she were ditsy and a bit thick. She did that 'I'm so silly' act to which women often resort.(1) It was truly embarrassing. I twittered this observation to Jonathan Ross who wrote back:
"Find me a woman who can be funny for hours without a script. It's a huge problem. Plus Channel 4 will not use women that are not already known."
How do women become known in comedy? By doing the stand-up circuit, which is notoriously gladiatorial. I would also argue that confidence, an essential component, comes later for women, who often take time out for bringing up children. Combine that with the obligation for women on TV to be young and beautiful as well as funny, and you end up with a dearth of comediennes. Women can be funny. I personally know several who are as quick as men although it is said that women's humour is more observational, less combative and therefore less suited to the quick-fire repartee of panel shows. 

In this Guardian article from 2004, the writer optimistically predicts that women will become more visible in comedy. It didn't happen. There is still the same minority trickle of humorous women. I found this quote from Ronni Ancona, the female impressionist(2) revealing:

 'You're sitting in a room with male writers and you say something, and it's ignored.' she complained. 'You say it again and it's ignored. And then a man will say it and everyone goes, "That's brilliant."'  ...Ancona says she had to petition the BBC to get the show's title changed from Alistair McGowan's Big Impression ."

(1)Apparently the suffragettes were well aware of the uses of humour in politics and used 'sillyness' as a weapon.

(2)Meaning she is a female that does impressions not a man dressed up as a woman, ha, even the job descriptions for funny women have been co-opted by men!


  1. Oh, you should do stand up - you'd be brilliant! Although what you say about observational humour is true - it takes a lot of confidence (and perhaps even aggression) to do something like stand up.

  2. Oh, and that point about a woman saying it then getting ignored, then a man saying the same thing is SO true in a range of walks of life, even in political and activist groups that are supposedly more aware of generd issues.

  3. I'll have to go on Twitter myself. Sounds like fun!

    I didn't realize that Ronnie Ancona had to petition the BBC? I assumed the title was willingly changed becuase sit was obvious to every viewer from episode 1 that she and McGowan were effectively a double-act.

    As for women in conmedy, there are many female geniuses. Catherine Tate is hillarious! Another two are Lucy Montgommery and Debbie Chazen in "Tittybangbang". Chazen is an overweight lady which proves that someone without Conformist good looks can make it too. I've also seen a fair number of excellent stand-up women at Jongleurs and other comedy clubs who could piss with the big boys, so maybe things aren't as bad as they were when Ronnie Ancona was starting out.

    I hope what Jonathan Ross said on Twitter is not the norm in show-business. Also Claudia should not comply if she's forced to put on a ditsy act. If there's any sexism around it should be stopped, so long as it's done in the right way, which is to create equality; and that means literal equality, not "equality" in its Orwellian meaning that we see so often today, otherwise known as "positive discrimination". This is not euality; it is merely an inverted inequality. I hate seeing a woman put down because of her gender, but I'd be equally outraged at a man suffering the same fate. I know woemen have had to put up with being second-class citizens for all history, but that's all the more reson to end discrimination now and not to perpetuate it.

  4. Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne, Catherine Tate are very funny women but as established comic writers, they tend not to do panel shows. And who knows how they could compete with the likes of Paul Merton?
    Panel shows are a good way for comedians to get a foot in the door, it seems. Do a good job there and you might get a series. If women comics are not given those slots, they don't get the same opportunities.
    Of course I don't believe in positive discrimination for women comics, as a viewer, I just want funny, whatever colour, gender, ect.
    But it is depressing if what some men think 'that women cannot compete on rapid fire retorts' is true. I don't think it is true, I just don't think women have the confidence quite yet.
    Claudia was not FORCED to put on a ditsy act, she fell back on that classic female device, no doubt in an effort to be 'good telly value'. We've all done it. It's cringe worthy seeing it up on the screen though.

  5. Catherine Tate could joke circles around Paul Merton! I think that many women CAN compete on rapid-fire retorts, but some ignorant idiots think otherwise then I guess we all meet people like that in all walks of life.

    I know Claudia was not "forced" in the sense that somebody put a gun to her head or anything. I meant that she should not have felt she needed to put on that act. She should not have had to cope with any situation like that. I'd have admired her for just going out there and being herself and saying "sod them!"

  6. Catherine Tate could joke circles around Paul Merton. I think women CAN compete on rapid-fire retorts. But if some idiot thinks otherwise then I suppose we all meet people like that in all walks of life. Sod 'em!

    And I didn't mean Claudia was "forced" in the sense that somebody put a gun to her head or anything. I meant that she should not have felt she needed to put on that act. She should not have had to cope with any situation like that. I'd have admired her for just going out there and being herself and saying "sod them!"

  7. Josie Lawrence, she was always a bright button.

    I must agree though, there are so many less women appearing in the media who have this style - women on 'just a minute' are somewhat of a novelty. I can't help feeling this is not the result of discriminatory media types, but the result of (intrinsic and/or socially determined?) differences in women's style and confidence levels.

  8. Oh yes, and you have almost tempted me into Twitter.... NOOOOO Why WOULD I want an addiction like that?!

  9. another awesome post!!
    Congrats on your more recent successes - it's really awesome.

    I hate group politics and consensus - they can be such bullshit.

    I also get really pissed off with eco-fascists. I really care about the planet and the environment - but I reckon we are wasteful beings by nature so can never fully escape this unless we kill ourselves; although that's also wasteful. I reckon the best approach is the intentions we have in our daily lives - ie. the path of least harm.

  10. off the top of my (admittedly tonight) rather fraught head ... come the names Josie Long, Lucy Porter, Shazia Mirza, Gina Yashere (although I believe she is now based in the US as she found the UK too restricting) – some stand up comedians (and female) working the circuit who are also highly rated and are very witty women


  11. Whatever happened to Jo Brand; she was brilliant. I love it when she talked about those drop-in chemists at railway stations! "I told the guy behind the counter I had a veruca so he tried to remove it with a ticket punch. I also said my period was late and he said it was leaves on the track at Didcot Parkway"! Classic!

  12. Another Jo Brand howler: "I read in a magazine how I could find pleasure by using a candle to masturbate. It didn't work, in fact it was far from pleasureable when my pubic hair caught fire!"

  13. Yes great Jo Brand jokes and maybe Catherine Tate could run rings around Paul Merton but what they do is scripted.
    Can they compete as Jonathan Ross says, by being funny for hours without a script?
    I love Jo Brand but on panel shows she just isn't as funny as consistently as the men. Sorry if my pro feminist credentials are getting dented right now.
    Catherine Tate builds comedic characters, can she do off the cuff humour?

  14. Yes, Catherine Tate's characters are superb. I particularly like Uncle Derek, the man everyone keeps thinking is gay, which he also keeps indignantly denying: "How very dare you!"


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