Katy Brand is both right and wrong in her Correspondents piece yesterday. She is right to demand more scientific rigour in the question of men versus women in comedy. She is wrong, however, in her gasps of melodramatic ennui that the question should be raised at all.
We need to know why comedy has fewer women than men, and whether women are any good. This is not a question, as a friend of mine recently put it, such as ‘Why don’t people ask why there are so few women plumbers, and are THEY as good as men?’, because comedy is far, far more important than plumbing. It is more akin to the question of why so few women are in politics, which most of us agree IS important. Comedy is still about putting the world to rights, after all, and we still live in a country where women are paid less, and are being circumcised in Birmingham backrooms, and forced to marry their cousins, and trafficked from Albania to brothels in Slough. And the overwhelming majority of male politicians, polemicists, journalists, policemen - and comedians - haven’t made much difference to any of this.
So I think the question is raised for the best of reasons. Liberals like us, who read the Guardian and pronounce the word jalapeño properly, and have a favourite sort of coffee, and either work for the BBC or think it is worth every penny, LIKE to see women in comedy, just as we like to see black and Asian people in comedy. Comedians , the archetype of self-motivation and self-reliance, must be a rainbow of humanity so that we can feel happy about modern Britain and assuage the grim reality that it is run by white, dickless Oxbridge suits. But there will always be fewer women comedians, and they will always, on average, amuse fewer people.
The science that is missing from the discussion is that of sociology. And psychology. There are fewer women comedians because that thing I just said about us being wondrous, creative creatures is utter bollocks. Comedians are for the most part deeply unhappy people who have managed the rare emotional alchemy of melding fragility with zero self-awareness. Show me a newish comedian who doesn’t insert a hundred tawdry boasts about him or herself into every green-room conversation and I’ll show you a French entrepreneur. We are horrible, horrible people; attention whores; never satisfied by success and ever excoriated by failure. We’re like smokers sucking on a tarry bong of public approval, and no amount of approval will ever be enough. We are whiners, naggers, pesterers, mendicants, opportunists, backstabbers and shits.
More to the point we’re like porn stars; spoilt children; bad dogs; the drunk girl at a party for whom negative attention is better than no attention at all. And that’s the crux of the matter. What do damaged women do, who crave comfort and need to feel wanted? In my experience they sleep around. ANY woman can be a sleeparound. There is limitless takeup from an indeterminate public. But what does the damaged hetero boy do, encumbered by loss and failure, when nobody wants to shag the poor wanker? In my experience - and this really IS my experience - he pours his foetid little soul into public performance. And that’s why there are so many men - sad, sociopathic men - who find a home in comedy. And perhaps that’s why the Russell Brands and Jack Whitehalls stand out so well. They are, I suppose, a breath of less desperate air.
But men can be whatever they like on stage. The audience will spare them a minute or two while it finds a hole for their peg. They have no such patience with women.
About six months ago I saw a very pretty, very petite new act perform in Birmingham. She talked about sex a lot, and about her privileged college friends, and it all sounded a bit like an X-rated Famous Five adventure. It wasn’t terrible in itself; a man doing a toff act might well have got away with it. But the audience wasn’t having this. The men wanted to fuck her, and hated her for standing on stage being so unattainably fuckable, making their lives and their wives look a bit shit. The women hated that their men wanted to fuck her, and so they hated her too. The men knew that the women knew that they wanted to fuck her, and that they hated her, and so were terrified of doing anything as provocative as laughing. And the women were not going to give tacit approval by laughing for the benefit of a woman they hated, and so nobody laughed, and the whole 15 minutes remains the most tense and excruciating thing I have ever witnessed.
I wrote a blog saying that pretty girls shouldn’t do comedy, because men are not capable of dealing with it, and women still care too much about their Mesozoic cavemates. And so the act in question assumed several Facebook personae in order to call me a fat, ugly, low-born cunt; none of which I disagree with. But really, the point was not what SHOULD be, just that when it comes to sexual mores, the people of this country are still in the primordial soup.
We know, in the national conscience so often mined by adverts, what men do and what men want. They act like dorks and they want to fuck and eat things. Women are either having a menopause or wetting themselves, or worrying about babies or writing books or sailing single-handed around the world or being constipated or fighting crime or trying to put the mojo back into their fucking hair. The jury is out on what women want, and is not expected back. The gender is too complex, too variant, too nebulous for 20 minutes at Jongleurs.
Neither do women support their sisters onstage, except in the context of a women’ s event. Most of the hurtful things I have read or heard about women comics - by columnists or punters or people on message boards - have been said by other women. A friend of mine was written a brusque email by an aggrieved woman for a routine suggesting that women who go clubbing semi-nude should fall victim to the Taliban. She was ‘disappointed that any woman would ever say such a thing’. And if a man had said it? Well, you can’t expect any better from them; they just want to fuck and eat things. They are not inextricably sandwiched between public impatience and the mission of Emmeline Pankhurst.
To play clubs as a woman you need to be one of the people. A souped-up everywoman, like Sarah Millican, or a streetwise teacher like Karen Bayley, or a no-nonsense Irish landlady in the mould of Mary Bourke; or you have to know how to play the flirt but quickly bring the jokes, like Lucy Porter. Don’t, for God’s sake, be yourself if you are not something glaringly obvious to the stupidest bastard out there. If you can’t be pigeonholed in the first five seconds then 2,000 years of gender injustice will fall on you like a ton of penises. Whimsy’s fine if it works out at Edinburgh, or you were in the Footlights, or the BBC gives you a series, but female footsoldiers who do cerebral stuff on stage too often die where a less interesting man would succeed, and that’s why this question is still important and why it fixes a searchlight on every other enervating wrong in British gender politics.
To be a female comic you have to be at least twice as good as a man doing the same jokes. That’s why so many women get discouraged, and why they are not so warmly received. If 80 per cent of male comedians were to wake up tomorrow as women, we’d give up the jokes and start trawling nightclubs.