Insulting, meaningless, offensive...

Katy Brand on Chortle's post-Fringe survey

Chortle is the comedy industry’s go-to website for news, opinions, information and reviews. This is partly because it is well run, entertaining and informative, and partly because it is pretty much the only one.

Like most other comedians, I check Chortle many times a week to find out what’s going on in my current professional world – clicking links, reading gossip and reviews and so on. I basically consider us all to be on the same team, and that is regardless of the fact that the website has in the past been, in my not very humble opinion, somewhat snide about me and my work, sometimes with a fair point to make, and sometimes not.

We all love Chortle, with its sweet pedantry and endearing pomposity – we’ve watched it grow and develop, it’s become an important part of our world as comedians. So it’s unpleasant to see it go a bit, well, sour.

Over the past few months I have noticed the website posting with increasing frequency, any and every so called ‘study’ into whether or not women are funny, whether or not the study has any basis in good sociology, or whatever the correct term is. Sometimes the posting is accompanied by an ironic editorial undertone, but often it isn’t, and so I have begun to wonder what the agenda is here. A few welcome months went by without any such ‘published works’ and I sort of forgot about it.

Then came the Edinburgh Fringe 2010, with it’s much-celebrated ‘Two vaginas on the shortlist’ for the Comedy Award and so it seemed the editors of Chortle felt it was about time we got back to the important business of finding out whether women really are as funny as men, now that they were so fantastically well represented in comedy’s leading prize. Casting around in what I can only imagine was a frenzy of academic activity, desperately trying to find the perfect study into the comedic gender gap, the Chortle team must have drawn a blank.

But, undeterred, they decided their scientific thoughts on the subject were as good as any, and so they created their very own survey, and on finding through rigorous testing that indeed men ARE funnier than women, ‘but only just’, as they so winningly put it, breathlessly published their findings as the lead article on the website, illustrating the article with a picture of Josie Long, who had just been among the 2010 nominees (bet that brought her down a peg or two, eh, chaps?).

Well, as you can imagine, as a female comedian I was keen to drill into this research. And, as the article explained, the method used was to average out the number of stars out of five reviewers had given to individual acts, and from this they could deduce whether men or women were the more successfully reviewed acts on the Fringe. I thought, ‘goodness – that must have taken some work, calculating all the stars for all the acts from all the newspapers and websites at the Fringe!’ But no – instead, the research team at Laboratoire Chortle decided that their own reviews were objective and incisive enough to be taken alone, and so they calculated stars given by only the website and nobody else’s.

No matter that they hadn’t seen every show on the Fringe – as everyone knows, Chortle reviews are the last word in the critique of comedy, and therefore even shows they had not seen would be represented in their findings. Excellent.

And so, to the figures. Women averaged a star rating of 3.04, whilst the men edged ahead with 3.27. Well, you can’t argue with bald statistics like those. There was the answer, staring Chortle plainly in the face, whether they liked it or not: Men are funnier than women. It was their duty to publish. Part of the service they provide.

Well, I’m offended. This is the most insultingly pointless survey into this now tired subject I have ever seen, and trust me, I’ve seen a few. Other than the ridiculous circumstances under which this ‘research’ was conducted, leading to a moronic outcome, there are further points to consider. Are men funnier than women? The issue is not what the answer is to this question, the issue is why are you even asking the question at all?

Chortle is often (though not always) a sophisticated, intelligent online forum for people who practise and love comedy. That they are still asking this question of themselves, let alone anyone else, is insulting.

They wouldn’t survey their reviews to find out who averaged more - Jewish comics or black comics and then compare them, so why this? You might argue that it’s an issue that’s still alive and therefore warrants investigation. Well, I’m afraid you’re wrong there. For many it’s a dead issue and only brought up by journalists.

Aside from the maths in Chortle’s findings (which is as wrong headed as it seems), the bigger issue is that Chortle, the comedy industry’s online home, is still concerning itself with the idea of men and women competing as genders for laughs.

It’s desperately, laughably out of date, it’s idiotically researched and it has no place as a lead article on our website. I’m sorry this article isn’t very funny (perhaps you could add up all the jokes in articles by women on Chortle, and then add up all the jokes in pieces written by men and answer the ‘burning question’ that way), but, in the words of Josie herself, ‘I don’t know how much more of this shit I can take’.

Chortle editor Steve Bennett responds:

A lot of people appear to have taken this story more seriously than we intended it. The methodology of using the stars from our own reviews clearly isn’t exactly scientifically rigorous, and was meant as a bit of post-Fringe fun.

The analysis certainly wasn’t undertaken to reinforce some existing prejudice, and I would absolutely dispute the fact we are increasingly putting focus on this issue, or non-issue. If we have ever shown any sort of ‘agenda’ on the subject, it’s been to dismiss the debate as irrelevant. As Katy suggests, we usually take any studies into this with a generous pinch of salt; perhaps we should have been more obviously tongue-in-cheek about our own.

Before the numbers were crunched I actually thought the results might turn out in favour of women, given that Nina Conti and Storm Large both received five-star reviews, and there was a good showing of four-stars. In the end, that clearly didn’t happen.

Whether we should have made gender a focus at all may be a valid point, but it is clearly an issue. That the Edinburgh Comedy Awards made so much of their ‘two vagina’ shortlist; that the BBC Two controller is actively seeking more female comics on her channel; that something like the Funny Women competition still exists – all this and more suggests that male and female comics are seen as separate, and not just by journalists.

There may well be sociological reasons for how audiences respond to a man on stage compared to a woman. But the counting up of stars is never going to be a good way of investigating that – nor was it intended to be. I sincerely hope no one mistakes this for a serious scientific survey.

Published: 1 Sep 2010

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