'In any other job you'd call the police...'

Jen Lavery on the abuse female comedians face

For some female pedestrians, being publicly harassed by drunk or just-plain sexist men is a relatively rare, if unwelcome occurrence. For female stand-up comedians, however, this is an eventuality that needs to be prepared for every time they walk on stage – and it’s not just the male audience members they have to worry about.

Comedians hate hecklers. Female comedians hate hecklers. Male comedians hate hecklers. People who work in comedy clubs hate hecklers. People who frequent comedy clubs hate hecklers. In fact, it’s quite likely that even hecklers hate other hecklers. For those of you out there thinking – but surely comedians love that sort of thing? Surely it helps their act along? No, it doesn’t. They have an act and it’s a solo one. Still not convinced? Okay, if heckling is so ‘helpful’ why do you never see comedians being heckled by other comedians? Why do you never see comedy club staff heckling? Because they know doing so would make the comedian on stage very justifiably pissed off.

Yes, comedians have to learn to handle hecklers because unfortunately people still heckle. But time spent dealing with a heckler is time taken away from their (usually limited) stage time, which would otherwise have been filled with jokes they have worked hard to write and perfect, and that every other person in the audience has parted with their hard-earned money to hear. Nobody pays to hear some drunk punter shouting out and interrupting constantly. If that was entertaining they would simply wait for the pubs to close, follow the drunkest looking person possible home and throw tenners at them as they attempted to fight parked cars.

Comedian Susan Calman puts it this way: ‘I hate hecklers more than life itself.  If you come to comedy PLEASE don’t do it because it ruins it for absolutely everybody. I didn’t get into this to spend 25 minutes shouting at somebody so drunk they can’t understand English and a basic request to be quiet.  My rule is – I shouldn’t have to perform in front of somebody who wouldn’t be picked up by a taxi outside.’

Unfortunately, the type of heckling that female comedians in particular experience can be a whole other beast. Comedians don’t get to choose who they perform to and Calman has her share of heckler horror-stories, the worst of which prompted the only walk-off of her career.

‘I was at a club in Edinburgh doing a night which was almost entirely comprised of stags, which isn’t a problem – stags tend to be okay. But they were all very, very drunk and the compere hadn’t really done anything to settle them down. I was on first and it was a very aggressive atmosphere immediately.  I said to one of the gentlemen in the stag party “What do you do for a living?” and he said, “I kill fat dykes.” It took me a couple of moments to actually realise what he had said because you don’t expect something like that. It’s the only time I’ve ever walked off. I actually said, “You can all go and fuck yourselves.”  If I wouldn’t put up with it in the street, why should I put up with it on stage?”

However, as with abuse in the streets, there are times when it’s best to walk away and times when it’s best to tackle the issue head on.

‘I’ve had the usual – it’s terrible that you say “the usual” – but I’ve had the usual things shouted at me, about my appearance or my sexuality,’ says Calman. ‘A guy offered to cure me of my lesbianism with his penis recently, which was interesting because he was offering essentially to rape me. Sometimes when people take you aback you have to stop the comedy and speak to the person directly.

‘So I said, “Do you really think that’s what I require? A middle-aged man to fuck me in order to change my orientation?”  That’s why I think when you’re doing comedy it’s best not to be drunk. You have to have your wits about you. Situations like that can escalate – you have to stay calm and beat them on an intelligence level.

‘Obviously all of these statements are very stupid, so you have to counteract them and get the rest of the audience on side by making it clear that’s not an acceptable thing to say.’

Fellow comic Bethany Black says she has been threatened with rape by hecklers so often that she now has a standard response.  She remembers one gig in particular where a man who’d been persistently disrupting her set shouted out: ‘Someone’s getting a raping once the show’s over.’

‘I’ve heard that line enough times on stage to know that the correct response to that is “Yes, once the rohypnol kicks in and I get the dildo out my bag.  And don’t worry, I’ll drop you near to the hospital so you won’t have to walk far to get your stitches.”

‘It’s strange that in any other job, if a member of the public or a customer said something like that you’d call the police, but in the job I do you become blasé about it.’

However, when discussing the incident with other female stand-ups, Black did note that the response she got to this story was anything but blasé.

‘It was a week later when I was talking about this with Tiffany Stevenson and she was shocked. That’s when I realised that getting threatened with rape doesn’t happen to all female comics, but I’ve had it about five or six times.’

Of course, heckling is not only a problem for female comedians, and it’s arguable that men are heckled more than women, either because they are perceived as being ‘more able’ to handle it or simply because some people think it’s less socially acceptable to challenge a woman in this way. Some male comedians have also remarked that they find it much more difficult to put down a female heckler than a male one, as the audience may perceive a man who deals out a nasty put-down to a woman as being a bully. Obviously there is a lot to be said about why attitudes like this exist, but that’s for another article.

One thing many acts I spoke to did agree on, was that the nature of “the usual” heckles given to women were generally quite different from those of their male counterparts.

Scottish comedian Jay Lafferty suggests: ‘With men, heckles are usually more about what they’re saying in the material and less about them personally. Female heckles generally tend to be about how you look or simply the fact that you’re a woman. So it’s less “productive” heckling, if a heckle can be productive. Sometimes you see guys getting heckled and they can actually play around with it, whereas a lot of the time when women get heckled it’s just “Get your tits out” or something that you have a standard response to. It’s a kind of dead avenue, really.’

Welsh stand-up Sian Bevan agreed: ‘Anyone who is dying on stage will get heckled, male or female. But as a broad generalization, I think men tend to get bantery heckles and the ones for women tend to seem more aggressive. There’s nothing you can do with them. It’s very much like a gang of little boys in a playground. It feels like there are some gigs where the woman couldn’t have done anything. She was up against a brick wall the minute she walked, with her tits, on to the stage.’

As many comedians adopt a certain persona when on stage, responding to aggressive heckles can be doubly detrimental, as it can force acts to ‘break their persona’ and become confrontational in return.  This can sometimes leave acts feeling they’ve no option but to ‘grin and bear it’.

English stand-up Tiffany Stevenson discussed a recent gig she had done in a student union, where not only was she heckled with ‘Get your tits out!’ but had the added difficulty of a large rugby player stripping naked and climbing on to the stage with her, where he remained for a good few minutes before leaving of his own accord. Stevenson was given no help by the venue security.

‘The head of the student union was in the front row but he didn’t do anything,’ says Stevenson. ‘It’s not as if the guy on stage was a small man. I joked my way out of it but afterwards it took me about an hour to get over the fact it had really happened.’

While this article isn’t suggesting female comedians need to be ‘rescued’ from ‘big bad hecklers,’ comedians of both sexes have often expressed disappointment that friends of those who are determined to make a nuisance of themselves don’t do more to stop them when things start getting out of hand.

Irish comedian Carol Tobin recalls a particularly unsettling example. ‘There’s often the assumption that women comics are lesbians. I was doing a gig and a drunk guy kept roaring “Lesbian! Lesbian! Lesbian!” all through. I have nothing against lesbians—he could have been roaring “Raging hetero!” It was the fact that it was incessant, ruining my performance and the audience’s enjoyment. It made everyone in the room uncomfortable.  When I got off stage after a pointless struggle, his friends, who were sitting with him, apologised for his behaviour. I asked why they didn’t shut him up and they just looked at me, baffled.’

Lafferty adds: ‘I’ve had guys say, “Aw, it’s a woman, she’ll be shite,” as soon as I’ve come on stage, before I’ve even opened my mouth. I’ve got a line I use: “Oh, a female comic, boys! It’s like finding out your lapdancer’s got a cock.”

‘I’ve also had men approach me before gigs and say: “Are you on? Women aren’t funny.” So I’ve replied: “Well why do you think that?” They’ve never really got a reason, they just repeat: “Women aren’t funny, all female acts are rubbish.” So I’ll ask how many female acts they’ve seen and why they think that.  And it’s always the same response: “They just are, they’re just fucking rubbish, they all talk about periods.” So I ask who’ve they’ve seen that talks about periods and they can never answer me. They’ll say things like: “Well, Jo Brand’s not very funny.” There are male comics that other people don’t find funny too, it doesn’t really matter what sex you are.”

This was a common experience for the acts I spoke to, many of whom often had audience members come up to them after a show and utter the immortal line: ‘I usually hate female comedians, but you were really good!’

Scottish comedian Kim MacAskill recalls: ‘I’ve been told by audience members that I’m good – for a girl. I’ve had people tell me I’m really funny and it’s amazing because I’m not a lesbian or ugly.’

‘I can’t believe people think it’s still okay to say comments like “I hate female comedians,” says Sian Bevan. “Replace “female” with “black”, “gay”, “Asian” – it’s just horrific. I think that’s the main thing that I really hate, “Oh you were good for a woman. I hate female comedians but you were quite good.” I think it’s shocking, absolutely shocking.’

And here we come to an interesting point. Many of the acts interviewed for this piece said half the “encouraging” comments like this came from other women. Lafferty reported that in her worst ever experience, the aggressive heckler was a woman, who approached her after the show with a glass bottle. Lafferty, feeling justifiably threatened, calmed the woman down by telling her that her ‘contributions’ had been great, and really helped the show along.

And Violence against comedians isn’t uncommon – in March a 23-year-old male comedian had his face slashed open by a female heckler in a New York club. American comedian Hailey Boyle told me of an incident where she was physically assaulted by a female audience member.

‘It was after a show and some people wanted to have pictures taken with me. Much to my surprise, as we are posing, a woman around 50 years old grabbed my crotch! And I mean GRABBED me – if I were wearing a skirt she would have been inside me! I was so shocked I fell back against the wall and froze up for a moment, then the staff escorted her out. It was so weird; she didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with what she did. As they took her out I heard her say, “Well, she was dirty on stage and I wanted to be dirty too.”’

While all comedians have some sort of “uniform” for performing, female comedians generally feel the need  to put a little bit more thought into what they wear. Broadly speaking, low-cut tops were considered not a good idea by the comedians I spoke to, with some acts also mentioning leggings being a no-no, unless you want the front row avidly staring at your crotch, rather than listening to your act. Irish comedian Eleanor Tiernan noted that once she stopped wearing high heels on stage, the number of sexual heckles she received dropped dramatically. Jay Lafferty commented that when she stopped dressing in tight or revealing clothing, the response she got from female audience members improved immensely.

And unfortunately, not all the sexism comes from audiences. Many of the acts I spoke to reported they had been discriminated against by other people in the comedy circuit because of their gender.

Welsh act Kiri Pritchard-McLean told me about an experience she had after making it to the final of a comedy competition.

‘After I finished my set, the MC asked the judges for feedback —as he had done with the other acts—for feedback. When asked what he thought of me, the professional comic judge said, “Nice tits.” He then mentioned some of my material and then the comedy reviewer judge, who was female, said: “Yeah, I agree with what XXXX said and yeah – nice tits.” It was really humiliating.

‘The comic came up to me afterwards and said, “You weren’t offended were you?” which then makes you feel like a bit of a dick if you turn around and say, “Yes,” so I just smiled. I have vowed that when I see him next I will take him aside and just explain that it was pretty humiliating to have that given as feedback.

‘I was very irritated at the time…but I’ve put it as a quote at the bottom of my CV now. Clever, old ironic me. I also recently received an email from the organisers of another competition I’d entered. I’ve not doctored this at all: “Once everyone is there, we’ll do the draw for running order. That said – if two female/music/prop/gay/whatever acts are consecutive, I’ll split them up to make a better show for the audience.’

The rule of not booking more than one woman on the same bill is – unfortunately – still a very common one, and does nothing to remove the idea of female comedians being a ‘novelty’.  Even worse, some female acts reported simply being told by promoters they had approached that they only booked men.

‘I remember one incident in particular with a promoter who said to me, “Oh I would book you but I don’t book female acts,’ Lafferty recalls. ‘I said, “Why not?” and he replied: ‘Cos they’re not funny.’ So I said “But you’ve just seen me and you’ve just said I was funny.” To give him his dues he did then book me and he has booked me since. I try to not get annoyed about it.  I challenge it by being funny on the stage and by getting on with the job at hand.’

Or, from the opposite side of the spectrum, comedian Fern Brady recalled an incident where the problem wasn’t that there weren’t any other women performing, it was what they were performing.

‘I did a charity gig that had two burlesque dancers on the bill. Instead of putting me on in the comedy section, they said they were putting me in between the two burlesque acts “so it’s all girls together.’ I was really angry about that, and it was painfully inevitable that I got heckled with ‘Get your tits out.’

Hailey Boyle also had some shocking tales to tell about her dealings with US promoters.

‘I have had one former club owner in particular regularly try to “bargain” with me – ‘Show me one tit and I’ll put you on the show!’ This was after years of failed attempts to see both tits, which followed a year or two of trying to have sex with me. Once he even went so far as to try to push his way into my apartment.’

Kiri Pritchard-Mclean was not the only act interviewed who had experienced sexism at the hands of other performers. In fact, every single woman interviewed for this piece had been. From comperes making comments to the audience about their sexuality or appearance when introducing them on stage, to all but apologising for the fact that the next act was a woman, everyone I spoke to had their story to tell.

Sian Bevan recalled the first time she attempted to join in backstage banter with a group of male comedians who had been discussing the fact that that night’s audience looked difficult. The response?

‘What’s wrong with you? Are you on your fucking period or something?’

All this being said – it’s not all doom and gloom. While clearly sexist attitudes do still exist and do need to be dealt with, the majority of those working on the comedy circuit are among the most pleasant and enlightened people you are likely to meet. Most people who come to watch comedy know the best thing to do is sit back and let the professionals do the entertaining. All the interviewees for this article are still performing, along with hundreds of other female comedians across the country and around the world, who are on stage almost every night, making people laugh, taking on hecklers of both sexes.

Just about everyone interviewed agreed that it is getting easier to be female on the stand up circuit. With many more high profile acts such as Sarah Millican, Jo Caulfield, Zoe Lyons and Josie Long, plus writers like Julia Davis, Jessica Hynes and Tina Fey, audiences are getting more used to seeing women in comedy.

We have the female acts – including Jo Brand – that’ve already gone out and battled to make their voices heard to thank for that. So treat them all with respect – be it on the street or in the club.

  • Jen Lavery (@JenniferLavery on Twitter) is a freelance journalist and head of press at The Stand comedy clubs in Scotland, which aim to have at least one woman on every bill. This article was first published on Hollaback!, the website of a movement dedicated to ending street harassment.

Published: 11 May 2011

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