Women aren't funny? Don't make me laugh...

Adam Gilder joins the ongoing debate

Cor, aren’t girls and boys different? That was the underlying assumption in a piece Germaine Greer wrote for the Guardian last week. She argued, quite rightly, that women are as funny as men, but offered some possible reasons why women aren’t as prevalent on the stand-up circuit.

This piece was of interest to me as ‘gender difference’ has comprised a large portion of my academic studies at university, mostly from a sociolinguistic perspective. Many of the perceived stereotypical differences between men and women are informed by the language we use, rather than on an underlying universal truth.

I would agree with some of the points Greer made: I do not think that the pleasure received from making people laugh is linked to the male orgasm or that the microphone is a phallic totem (especially as many comedians are just as funny using near-invisible headsets). I would also agree that making people laugh is not an exercise of power, though I am hesitant to agree fully with Greer’s idea that the comic is searching for acceptance. Surely they are looking first and foremost to make the audience laugh?

Greer states that, ‘Female performers don’t make it, don’t get the prizes, don’t get the audiences and don’t make the money.’ I’m sure a look at Dawn French’s bank balance and Sarah Millican’s trophy cabinet would disprove this ill-informed generalisation. It also misses the fact that a huge amount of male acts also do not win awards or earn a huge wage.

There are so many statements in the piece that I disagree with at a very basic level, such as: ‘Men… have been honing their skills ever since they started school. Girls have nothing similar of their own and are not invited to horn in on the guys’ act.’

The problem with this statement is it sees ‘men’ and ‘women’ as united groups, with all members within them conforming to the same truths. But there are no rules over who can or cannot join in any joke, regardless of what sex you are.

Underlying all of these claims is the assumption that ‘women are less competitive’, which is a standpoint which is generally accepted, though it would be very difficult to actually prove this. A question I am often asked in seminars is: ‘Which men and women are you talking about?’ This is certainly a valid question to ask of Greer, as I can be fairly confident that there are competitive and uncompetitive people, both male and female.

Greer also draws a distinction that ‘men do the inspired lunacy, women do droll’. Though I am a fan of neither I would struggle to describe the styles of Sarah Silverman and Joan Rivers as droll, and surely there is no greater inspired lunatic than Josie Long?

Despite arguing this I find there are very definitely fewer female acts than male ones. I have only been attending comedy gigs for a few years, yet I have likely seen roughly 100 male comics, but just four female ones – and I’ve not been avoiding them.

In some ways, though, this may work in favour of the female comics, as I can name them all (Shappi Khorsandi, Lucy Porter, Helen Keen and Mab Jones), whereas I have forgotten the vast majority of male acts. Equally, I am sure that the acts in question would rather be remembered on the strength of their material, rather than on which toilets they use. And I don’t think that having so few female acts suggest that women aren’t funny. I don’t think I am a radical maverick in saying that it is the content of the brain that is key to comedy, rather than the content of the underwear.

Comedy is such a subjective beast that it is impossible to argue that something ‘isn’t funny’, for there is always an unspoken suffix of ‘…in my opinion’.

Greer states that: ‘Every year produces a new crop of women stand-ups who will take the world by storm, and when the froth subsides very few names persist’. It is worth noting that this statement also holds true if you remove the word ‘women’.

Stand-up comedy as a male-dominated space is perhaps informed by its roots in variety and music hall, and the struggle for equality hasn’t yet balanced the numbers.

In a world where people still differentiate for such ridiculous reasons as colour of skin and sexual preference, it is hardly surprising that some people believe that no woman is funny. Quite simply, they are wrong. My perhaps unsatisfyingly wishy-washy conclusion is that some people are funny, some people aren’t. It depends on what you think is funny. Funny, that.

  • Adam Gilder is a third-year English language and communication student at the University of Glamorgan.

Published: 10 Mar 2009

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