Would I agree not to book a female comedian? | Erm, maybe, says Will Richards

Would I agree not to book a female comedian?

Erm, maybe, says Will Richards

Let me pose a hypothetical scenario:

I have been approached by a social club, who are aware that I have run comedy events in the past.  They have decided to run a comedy night for their members and would like me to organise it for them.

They are a wealthy club and have offered me a substantial budget.  Let's say £5,000.  However, they have stipulated that the don't want any women on the line-up.

To avoid clouding the issue, they do not put this condition in writing.  It's verbal and off-the-record and so any sort of naming-and-shaming or anti-discrimination action is not an option.

They also make it clear that if I don't take the job, on their terms, they'll just get a band instead and forget about comedy.

So, if I turn the job down on principle, I'll be sacrificing a lot of money.  I'll also be denying well-paid and much needed work to other comedians.  Male comedians, admittedly, but comedians nevertheless.  And for what?  My principled refusal will not change the club's way of thinking.  In fact, my actions may well have the opposite effect and confirm their suspicions that comedy these days is full of politicly-correct Guardian reading lefties and should be avoided.  Instead they'll spend the night listening to the Godfrey Bloom String Quartet and muttering about how The Daily Mail has really gone downhill since 1934.

I may get a warm inner glow and the knowledge that I've done a good thing.  But there are more efficient ways of achieving that.  Drinking half a bottle of whisky and helping an old lady across the road, for example.

If, on the other hand, I accept the job, I'll still be able to book excellent comedians.  Comedians who are not sexist or racist or homophobic (that's most of you, of course) and as a result, some audience members might decide that modern comedy is actually pretty good and subsequently go along to a local comedy club, which probably does book women.  This might even result in people uttering the immortal words, which so many of us have heard before: ‘I didn't think women were funny, but she was really good!’

There are other options, of course.  Perhaps as well as the agreed male acts, I could also sneak in a female act.  One who is known for her ability to cope with this sort of crowd.  But would this be a good idea, really?  Not only would it be degrading, smuggling in a female comedian like she's an underage drinker or a Tory at a Liza Minnelli concert, it may simply result in a massive row and nobody getting paid.  

I could offer to accept less money if they agreed to have a woman on the bill, but that would just be perpetuating the stereotype that women are worth less than men and anyway, if my hypothetical social club is able to pay £5,000 for a comedy night, money's probably not an issue.  I could book a rather masculine woman and claim I thought she was a bloke...  But no, the choice here is clear and binary:  Take the money and give them their all male line-up, or refuse the money.

I suppose there is also the question of whether anybody should ever have to justify themselves on matters of personal taste and aesthetic judgement. I mean, it's sad that some people have decided all women are unfunny.  It's also absurd and demonstrably untrue.  However, ‘funny’ is subjective in the way that ‘delicious’ or ‘sexually attractive’ are subjective.  Surely we should respect others' personal taste, even when it seems ridiculous or distasteful to us?

If somebody said to me that asparagus tasted revolting, even though he had never tried asparagus, I would respect that.  I'd think he was a fool and doing himself a disservice, but if he asked me to arrange a dinner party on condition that no asparagus was served, it's a no-brainer.  Asparagus would not be on the menu.  Tough on all those asparagus farmers out there, losing out because of somebody's irrational prejudice, but matters of personal taste are not protected by anti-discrimination laws.

Let me give a slightly more inflammatory example:  Would you say to a gay man, ‘Why don't you like having sex with women? Many women are wonderful at sex! There are lots of excellent examples of really successful lovers who are female.’

‘No, I don't think women are attractive,’ Replies your gay friend.

‘But how can you know that?’ you say.  ‘Your experience of sex with women is limited and you can't possibly know that ALL women are bad in bed.’

Yet it's unlikely that anybody who is not a member of UKIP would say this to a gay man, because sexual preference is a matter of personal taste and we accept that individuals are free to have whatever taste they want, whether it be in whom they choose to sleep with, what food they choose to eat or what music they choose to listen to.

Surely comedy falls into the same category? Should an individual ever have to justify personal taste, no matter how odd or infuriating their preference may seem to others?

So I ask, ‘what should I do?’ in the case of my hypothetical gig for the sexist social club, but I think know the answer.  Like many of you, I believe women are proportionally as funny as men and are just as good at being stand-up comedians (incidentally, ‘being funny’ and ‘being good at stand-up comedy’ are not the same thing, but that's a discussion for another day).  However, the lure of £5,000 is strong and I am weak, so I would almost certainly take the money and provide an all male line-up.  I've rented out my soul for less in the past.  I hope my complicit sexism would be a little less cack-handed and indiscreet than Mirth Control's was recently, but I reckon I'd do it.

And yet, I WOULD be complicit in a shameful act.  A blatant and grotesque piece of sexism that should not be happening in 2014. I would justify it to myself and if necessary to others, using the above arguments.  I would try to book male comedians who might teach the audience a thing or two.  But I would know in my heart that it was wrong and really, there is no difference between a person who doesn't want to be entertained by a female comedian and a person who doesn't want to be served by a black waitress.  

There is a lot less sexism, racism and homophobia today than there was 25 years ago and one of the reasons for this is that people have simply refused to go along with it.  People who have not come up with excuses and self-justification, have not accepted the ‘live and let live’ argument but have simply said that such bigotry is wrong and have refused to have any part in it.  Consistently, society has caught up with this.

Of course, as somebody who seldom runs gigs these days, I'm unlikely ever to face this dilemma.  I shall never experience the shame of accepting a sexist man's 5,000 pieces of silver, nor the moral satisfaction of telling him to shove them up his arse.  I shall therefore simply offer you the first line of a poem.  You can fill in the rest of it yourself: ‘I stayed silent when they refused to book women, because I was not a woman...’

Published: 12 Mar 2014

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