Mock The Week isn't the problem...

Bethany Black on the old 'women in comedy' debate

I keep getting dragged in to an argument on Twitter, an argument with people who ostensibly are attempting to fight my corner, but in reality do not understand the industry I work in at all and are making up ‘facts’ to fit their views, not looking at what actually happens and trying to alter it at that level.

I now know how corporate finance executives trying to explain credit default swaps to non industry people must feel like.

Basically Mock the Week has come under fire for being sexist, not in its content, but in the fact that only about 18 per cent of their guests are female.

That sounds like it's terrible, but when you consider that about ten per sent of the professional circuit of stand-ups are women, you can see that that's quite an improvement on that.  And Mock the Week is better than a lot of other comedy programmes on that score, On Live at the Apollo for instance, 11 per cent of the comedians are women, and of those, a qaurter are Jo Brand and another quarter Shappi Khorsandi. The others are Joan Rivers, Sarah Millican, Gina Yashere and Andi Osho.

But even that is a fairly fair representation of the industry in terms of numbers if not diversity.

Looking at Chortle’s list of stand-up comedians, it seems about 20 per cent of circuit acts are comedians, although my experience suggests that taking out open spots and visiting performers, roughly ten per cent of the UK professional circuit is female.

But why is this?

The main reason, as far as I can tell is simply "because fewer women want to be stand-ups"  but why do fewer women want to be stand-ups?

Well anyone who's spend enough time around stand-up comedians will tell you that it takes a specific personality type to be a stand-up. In that way it's a lot like being an alcoholic.  Or as Sarah Silverman said ‘being a stand-up is like being gay, you're born like that and there's nothing you can do about it.’

If you were to build a character profile of a comedian you'd be looking for someone with:  A big ego coupled with low self esteem, a pathological need to be liked, often not the eldest or only child, but usually from a family with an anxious or depressed mother and a distant father either emotionally or physically, didn't necessarily excel academically even though they had the ability, people pleaser, obsessional and defiant, and mostly grew up with a family or peer group where the ability to be funny quickly, or to be witty had higher than average cachet.

Some may have all those traits, some may have only a few. This is by no means a forensic study but it does match a lot of comedians, all of them apply to me.

The personality traits above are, however, more often male character traits.  This is one reason that I believe more men go into stand-up than women.

Yet at the entry level, the number of new acts is closer to 30 per cent female. But more women than men drop out.

Why is that?  Is it because the industry's sexist?  I'd argue that the answer is no.

I'd argue that society's sexist, and that the social pressures on women are different than they are on men. and the myth that women aren't funny keeps getting dragged up time and time again even though it's patently not true.  

Whether you like the female comedians you see on TV, they represent a fraction of the female comics out there. Stand-up is best experienced live, and the comedians that you see on television have got there because they can consistently make rooms full of people laugh.  As a professional comic I reckon I perform to over 12,000 people per year, and of those I make about 80 per cent of them laugh in any given audience.  In the last year I had one death on stage, and even there in a room of 300 people I made about 50 people laugh consistently throughout the gig.

If I was to be on TV there would be people who'd say ‘I hate Bethany Black, she's shit, she's just not funny’ and subjectively to them that's absolutely true, objectively though the evidence points to me actually being very funny most of the time.

But the myth's prevalent that it's there when I walk on stage.  And as a female comic it's a prejudice that you've got to get over before you can make an audience laugh.

In stand-up, the first two minutes are key, because unless they're there specifically to see you the audience doesn't know who you are, they don't know what your name is, they've not seen you on TV so they assume you're not very good (‘because look at the shit comics that get on TV!  and this one can't even get on TV’).

If you're not what they expect a stand-up comic to look like: male, white, straight talking about wanking, drinking and why they're single, then you're already at a disadvantage. You've got to address who you are, what you look like and why you're funny.

As a female comic you already approach the stage with an audience thinking that you're not going to be very good.  A number of occasions I've had audience members audibly go, ‘Oh shit, a female comic, they're always rubbish’, or get up to the bar when I'm coming on stage or any number of things like that.

The industry knows that the myth that women aren't funny is just that, a myth.  And in order for female comics to be able to get to the point where they're professional they have to prove that it's a myth. 

Because there's fewer of us it's a double edged sword.  If you storm it as a female comic you're likely to be remembered more than a guy who storms it.  But the opposite is also true, if you die you're more likely to stick in the mind than a guy who died on the same bill. So the trick is not to let promoters see you until you're more likely to storm it than you are to die.

There’s an argument that Mock The Week does not represent what women want to see, as there are so few women on the show. But that’s bollocks.

Meera Syal once said: ‘The thing in comedy that is the same for men and women is that they both hate women,’  and in audience terms that's true.  Women in audiences are less likely to like female comedians.  It's just how it is.

Several times a week I'll have a woman come up to me after a gig and say ‘I don't normally like women comedians but you were really funny.’  I take that in the spirit it's intended, as a compliment, when in actual fact what they've essentially said is: ‘When I heard your name I expected you to be rubbish, and then in spite of all my expectations you were perfectly adequate at the job you were being paid to do.  Well done!’

Comedy is about status, just by being on the stage you're assuming a high status, especially as you have the temerity to think that you can make a room full of strangers laugh.  And this can be threatening to some men (often beta males who are the ones who heckle as they see it as a chance to raise their status in their own group)  and to some of the women in the audience (ones who are their with their partners, or who are looking for partners) where you become a sexual competitor.  

But when I say I'm a lesbian right off the top it completely stops this and makes them feel comfortable about laughing at the things I'm going to be talking about.

This simple change in status then allows me to deal with other things.  A lot of comedy on a club circuit is like plate spinning, you have to employ certain tricks to get an audience on side to like you in quite a combative arena so that when you've earned their trust that you'll be funny, you can talk to them about the stuff that's important to you.

For example if it's a Saturday night and I've got a rowdy crowd of 350, there's always a chance that a stag or hen party might decide that they want to be centre of attention. So what I do is find the hen of the nearest hen party and flirt with her a bit.

This has an odd effect in that she's flattered, has had attention and is a little bit embarrassed, her friends like that I've made a fuss of her, a big portion of the audience think it's funny, and all the stags like that I've flirted with a woman and feel like it's given them something they can relate to me with.  

Other female acts do this in different ways but the reason behind it is the same, it's to lower their status with the audience so that they're not seen as a threat or sexual competitor.

It's all a con trick.

I've been called fat by audiences, I've been called ugly, I've been threatened by audience members, I've had enough threats of rape off men in the audience that I've got a standard put down to deal with it.

If any part of comedy is sexist, it's the audiences.

Don't get me wrong, there are a few promoters out there who I won't name who are massively sexist, but they're very much in the minority and comedy, especially professionally, is very much a meritocracy. Either you can make the audience laugh or you can't. If you can't, you won't get paid work, if you can you will.  Obviously there's more to it than that: if the promoter likes you personally you'll get booked back more than if they don’t – but generally it works on merit.

But why do more women drop out of stand-up without making it professional?

I think partly it's down to the amount of time and effort that has to go in to becoming professional at stand-up, if you don't love it, if it's not a burning desire, then you're not going to make it.

I personally don't believe in ‘natural talent’. I believe in hard work and transferable skills.  When I started out seven years ago I was terrible.  Really bad.  I said offensive things for the sake of being offensive and didn't know the difference between that and funny things.  But I stuck at it and worked very hard and kept learning.

There were about 50 comics in the North who started out at around the same time as me, after a year there were about 25 of us, after two years about 10 Now there's about three and we're all working professionally as comedians.

It is a tough apprenticeship.  In the first year of doing stand-up I did 200 gigs, all open mic nights above pubs, I travelled 1,000 miles per week on top of trying to hold down a full-time job.  Every penny I had was spent on stand-up, I would get an average of four hours sleep a night and I had to sever all ties to my previous support networks.  There just wasn't time to keep in touch with them.

The first year it cost me about £7,000 to perform stand-up.  I earned £63.  I had to cut back on buying clothes, something that has continued until very recently.  I couldn't afford to get my hair cut.  I couldn't afford to spend money on looking nice.  But this didn't matter to me as much as performing stand-up.

Most of the industry are men.  A lot of them are reasonably young, and most of them put off having children until much later, when their career has stabilised.  More of the women who I've seen leave stand-up have done so to raise a family.

If you're a mum working 9-5 you're less likely to want to be away from your children in the evening too while you're learning to be a stand-up comedian, especially as it takes such a long time and there's no guarantee of a career at the end of it.  Plus if you start doing stand-up in your mid-20s and see that it'll take up to ten years to get to a point where you're comfortable in your career enough to start thinking about having children, then it's going to be offputting.

These are the things that make it more difficult for women, I know that if I had family commitments, or wanted (if I'd been biologically able to) to have kids, then I'd probably not be doing this.  Or if being able to afford clothes, or socialising or make-up or haircuts were as important to me as comedy then I'd definitely not be doing this for a living.

There is also the fact that male comics who are terrible will continue to perform and the open mic level longer than women who are terrible.  Women who are terrible recognise this and tend to go into different areas, whether that's writing, moving into radio, music, poetry, burlesque whatever their interest.

Guys who are terrible continue on, not getting any better for years, occasionally getting big enough laughs at some gigs to justify their continued involvement in stand-up, and some of them over time do get better after years of being shit and manage to start getting paid work.

That's the double edged sword of the open mic circuit, it allows people who 15 years ago would have had to give up because they were terrible and wouldn't be able to get booked, the opportunity to work indefinitely.

See the thing is it's a pyramid, the ones at the top of the open mic circuit find their way on to the main circuit, and the ones who get to the top of that find themselves picked up by TV.

TV reflects the circuit, it doesn't shape it. 

I'm not arguing that some of the content of Mock the Week isn't sexist, or that there shouldn't be more women in stand-up, I do think both of these things, but the way to change it is for more women to get in to comedy.

I'd hate if shows like Mock The Week had to have 50/50 male and female comedians on it, because if I did ever get on any of them I'd never know if I'd got there from my own merit or just to fill out a quota.  I already fill so many equal ops boxes, I'd hate for that to be the reason for my success.

I've got to where I am today – a jobbing comedian on the circuit – through seven years of very hard work to the exclusion of everything else. I'm good at my job, I'm funny on demand no matter how I feel, whether it's the day I've had a pet die, whether it's the day I've been dumped, I get up on stage and make people laugh.  I overcome prejudice and I hopefully change people's opinions of female comedians one gig at a time.

Published: 5 Oct 2011

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