That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore: The Pursuit of Gender Equality in Comedy
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival starts this week, and will once again be a site of marked gender division. As it has done for almost a decade, the all-female showcase Upfront will take place this year, with acts such as Geraldine Quinn, Cal Wilson and Hannah Gadsby sitting alongside the publicity’s adjectives of “glamourous”, “sassy” and “stylish”. This idea of the saliently gendered comedian exists most prominently in the female realm. However, any concerted efforts towards proving that women possess humour stand challenged by a male majority and a manner of prejudice that thrives in pop culture, research literature and amateur comedy circuits. These are all pressures that need not be added to the already terrifying experience of walking on stage.
Performing stand-up comedy is public speaking on steroids. The only other time I’ve shaken so much was when I performed in my underwear in front my scriptwriting cohort. Let me tell you, five-foot tall teenage girls wearing leather shorts and knee socks are not exactly welcomed into the amateur comedy fold. But as the only woman on the bill of my first stand-up experience, I can tell you this: I don’t think it was my misguided dress-sense that had them staring.
The Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s RAW Comedy competition gives new comics a chance to prove that they’re skilled in the art of inducing laughter . The competition has propelled Australian acts such as Tim Minchin, Hannah Gadsby and Josh Thomas to headline slots and television fame. The finals are broadcast on the ABC, and the winner scores a trip to the So You Think You’re Funny? competition at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, alumni of which include Dylan Moran, Nina Conti, Alan Carr and David O’Doherty. This year, would-be comics from all over Australia, as well as the Indian cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, gathered in grimy little comedy holes, stood bravely in front a microphone and dangled jokes in front of a jury and audience. But with thousands of entrants, just showing up with a routine gives you a pretty lousy chance of becoming the next Adam Hills. And an even lousier chance if you identify as female. I’ll put it this way—if it were a person, the competition could now legally drink in the bars in which it is held. And still, only four females have ever won it.
It would be simple-minded to assume that these statistics are because women are rubbish at comedy. If your mind springs straight to vagina-centric monologues and complaints about boorish husbands, you need only compare it with the reverse—a prime example being the male-dominated bill at my first comedy show. One other female comedian was a last-minute addition to the bill, giving an impressive impromptu set about her holiday with her mother. Neither of us mentioned our periods.
The standard of comedy from the male performers was much more aligned with the audience of older men, who laughed raucously at the mention of “sticking one in” on their sleeping wives and begging for sex from unwilling parties (usually, again, their wives). Being a member of the gender that these men were vilifying for withholding intercourse shouldn’t have affected the way my comedy was received. But I think it would be naïve to say it didn’t.
Gender studies that explore differences in both generation and humour perception are plagued by small sample sizes and vicious misinterpretation. One particular misinterpretation springs to mind. The late Christopher Hitchens was vocally adamant on the topic of female inferiority, especially in the field of humour. Whether this was just a cry for attention from the controversial Vanity Fair columnist is not a matter I wish to dwell upon. However, Hitchens posits in his creatively titled article ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’ that the results of a Stanford University Medical School study justify the belief that women are inferior comics.
While I can understand Hitchens was grasping at straws in finding solid evidence, I fail to see a logical process in his article. The study was conducted by giving 10 men and 10 women 70 cartoons, and the task of rating the cartoons on a one to 10 “funniness” scale. During this experiment, all participants had their neural activity monitored. The major findings were that women in this minute sample size tended to hold lower expectations of the comics’ humour, and be more pleased by the rewards of the comedy. I don’t know quite how Hitchens managed to make the leap between ‘expecting disappointment’ to ‘rubbish at writing jokes’. But he seems to think he can explain objections away by making generalised statements about women’s need for humour. He writes, “For women, the question of funniness is essentially a secondary one … Women have no need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.” Yes, Hitchens, I “catch your drift”. However, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to sharply drop it into a trashcan, where it belongs.
My second comedy show upped the stakes a little. Yet again, I was one of two females. I can’t say that the other comedians weren’t initially friendly—we were all sitting together at the back of the club, and I was next to another young newcomer. Despite us being no more than two years apart in age, he was obsessed with numbers and figures, introducing me to the other comedians as “the twelve-year-old”. When he went to shout a round of drinks, he told me I would be denied because of my “fake ID”. That kind of thing is reasonably easy to ignore. But then things got stranger, and slightly more aggressive. The club was loud, and even across the narrow table, we were struggling to make ourselves heard. When another new comedian arrived, my neighbour mistook the newcomer, Ted, for Ten. When I pointed out his mistake, he decided it was necessary to tell me that I was definitely not a ‘ten’ anyway, before requests for my breast size and weight turned into a hypothetical equation of how easy I was to get drunk.
Questions of the body are unquestionably more evident when it comes to female comedians. To again draw upon the minefield of degradation that is Hitchens’ article, women who are in the field of comedy are of no physical appeal as they are either “hefty or dykey”. Given the previous statements about the singular appeal of womankind to Hitchenskind, we can understand that he does not consider these comedians to be valid female specimens, and thus are incapable of competing in the race against male comics.
Mainstream media dares to call Hitchens’ bluff on this one. When Mindy Kaling, producer and comedy writer and star of The Mindy Project was interviewed by ELLE magazine, and made the cover, her witticisms were discarded for an online debate as to why a full body shot wasn’t used. In a later interview, Kaling dealt blows against body-shaming critics: “I always get asked, ‘where do you get your confidence from?’… What it means to me is, ‘You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’”
A bout of similar patter occurred when Lena Dunham, writer and star of American comedy show Girls, appeared in a bikini for the majority of an episode. All the internet could talk about was how controversial it was that she did so as a person larger than a size six. Try as you might, nobody is going to engage in discussion about whether the episode was funny or not. Here’s an experiment: search the name of a female comedian, and don’t be surprised if one of the top results is any of the following: “weight”, “fat”, “kids”, “hot” or “is not funny”. You’ll be lucky to get any of the following results: “stand up”, “live”, “is rather funny”. Now try it with a male comedian.
Women in comedy don’t want your pity any more that we want drunk heckling or gossip magazine commentary. We want to be acknowledged without the word ‘female’ as a preface. We want you to laugh with us, not at us. What I have learnt, however, is a slightly arrogant, stony-faced ability to deflect criticism and commentary that does not relate directly to my material. So when the leather-faced MC of my first comedy experience laughed raucously while announcing he had “popped my cherry” as a first-time act, I mostly ignored it, only remembering to use as proof of his own comedic failings in this article. And to the boy who looked incredulous as I came off stage and asked me, “Why the hell are you so confident?”, I did the same. And when he made jokes about trapping his girlfriend in the basement, and when he asked me whether I’d “get my tits out if my set failed”, I raised my eyebrows and said nothing. It would be foolish to let the guffaws of an audience I never sought ruin my stage time.