My first response was: Jo Brand. Helen Lederer. French and Saunders. Mae West. That funny frumpy girl who used to play Stan Laurel’s wife…
Then I thought again. After all, things ain’t that simple - they never are, in comedy or in life - and I remembered three pearls of wisdom:
The first came from some newspaper reviewer laying into (funny) Morwenna Banks and (funnier) Amanda Swift’s 1987 book The Joke’s On Us, an appreciation of female comics. The guy was a bit of a ponce, but his basic argument was, these girls insist on being taken seriously, which isn’t an obvious comic stance.
The second was (groan) Ben Elton with his usual Mr Nice Guy poise. He commented, ‘Why aren’t more women doing it? Well, why aren’t there more women doctors? We live in a sexist society’
The third was – lynch me If You Like – Bob Monkhouse. On his wondrous Bob At The Beeb cassette he opined: ‘Comedy comes from pain. If I say my childhood was happy, there’s little cue for humour. But if I say my childhood was lonely: on the see-saw I got worn out running from one end to the other… Or I was an Only Child and still not my parents’ favourite. Home movies, they got the kid next door to play my part….’ Like it or not, there’s ample stuff for the gagsmith to get his teeth into.
So let’s take the first point about women being taken seriously. Because while I consider myself a fairly right-on kind of chappie, I’ve got to admit I have a problem with women being as ridiculous as men. Like when Billy Connolly makes a fool out of himself, I find it blissfully easy to laugh at him – or with him – ah, who cares anyway. But women – hell, they have babies. They have periods. They’re the gentle sex. If Bob Monkhouse quip: ‘Men fantasise about making love to two women at once; it’s more realistic to fantasise about making love to one woman twice,’ you can laugh away. But if a woman says it, I feel yeah, you’ve got a point. God I feel stupid.
Now let’s try Mr Elton’s quote. PC aside, he’s damn right. There are dozens of fantastic female comedians, but hundreds more male ones. That isn’t sexism, it’s a simple fact. For the last five months I’ve been an assiduous fan of Rome’s one-and-only cabaret venue, and it’s been chock-a-block with talented acts; only one of whom was female (and, incidentally, rubbish).
And thirdly… Yeah, comedy thrives on pain, and it’s often at the expense of the comic. Think Frankie Howerd playing the Don Juan, Bob Hope terrified of his own shadow, David Brent thinking he’s Mr Popularity. Or at a more basic level, any slapstick violence, from Laurel and Hardy through Fawlty Towers to The Young Ones. That’s why I never got into the clever-little-me sarcasm of David Baddiel: he had some great lines, but he was always the bully, never the bullied.
Yet women suffer far more than men. They survive childbirth (Drew Carey: ‘Lucky it’s women that give birth, otherwise I wouldn’t be here’). They go through smear-tests (Ben Elton: ‘Keep your bottom down, something not dissimilar to a torpedo is coming into your most delicate parts’). Once a month they go through period hell (Eddie Izzard: ‘You have all this negative energy you throw out against people you like – why not channel it against the people you hate?’)
All in all, painful stuff. So why were all the quips I remember from guys?
Sue Teddern once told fellow writer Ronald Wolfe: ‘Very few women commission comedy. There is a gulf of understanding to be breached, because women write comedy in a different way. Instead of trying to copy men and not succeeding, they should celebrate what they do and do it well.’
A convincing argument –15 years ago, when Sue said it. But check any current comedic credits and you’ll find plenty of females in commissioning, writing and performing. More to the point, they’re not trying to fit male stereotypes, they’re discussing their own lives and being damn successful to boot: out with the Russ Abbott frumps, in with the Jo Brand stand-up, the Catherine Tate satire, the circuit up-and-comers like Susan Murray.
My only conclusion is that there isn’t one. This whole debate raises more questions than it answers and that’s no good for any comedian, male or female. So please allow me one final quote, and it’s from Tony Robinson: ‘I don’t think the categories “alternative” and “mainstream” are particularly helpful… Better to say there’s accurate comedy and lazy comedy.’
That’s the nub for me, categories. Labels. Limitations. Alternative/trad, stand-up/sitcom, male/female, it no longer matters. If you think alternative comedy beats the old guard, remember Rik Mayall spent the Nineties churning out formula while Bob Monkhouse knocked out a page of gags a night. If you’re a comedy purist placing stand-up over sitcom, why did Fawlty Towers garner awards while Jim Davidson was spewing out filth? If you reckon men are funnier than women, try watching Billy Connolly’s appalling US sitcom then check out five minutes of Hattie Hayridge.
So maybe it’s time to chuck this whole are-women-funny discussion. Stuff’s either funny or it isn’t.