I was recently sent an email by a student who wanted to ask me some questions about women in comedy for a university project she was doing. We get this request quite a lot, unsurprisingly, and the questions are usually the same: ‘why aren’t women seen as funny’, but I don’t mind a bit. Why? Meh, I’m glad they’re taking an interest, I could be responding to the next Katherine Ryan and I think it’s an important question to ask, it’s certainly a question we at Funny Women should be addressing, so let’s start 2019 with it. Why don’t [some] people think women are funny?
For the record, I think while we’re still in the quagmire of ‘women aren’t funny’ statements, it does feel as though we’ve finally been thrown a rope and are beginning to pull ourselves free. It’s just the person holding the rope is informing us they ‘don’t usually find women funny, but that set was quite good.’
And therein lies the problem. Everyone is a comedy expert. From the man who stormed out of a Funny Women gig in Brighton because he didn’t think it would be all women on the lineup, to the audience member who – apparently unfamiliar with the common metaphor adopted in the set – accused a performer of plagiarism, to the people currently defending Louis CK on Twitter. They’re all comedy experts. Kidding, the people who are currently defending Louis CK on Twitter are just under the impression that typing George Carlin’s name makes them comedy experts. We all exaggerate.
The point is if you don’t find something funny, then it’s not funny. To you. This could be for various reasons, all valid, it’s hack, it’s targeting a minority or it’s simply not for you. We’ve recently entered into an era that has proved a rude awakening to some cis-straight-white-men, in which people who do not fall into that category have begun to question why the default design for things such as comedy has to be specifically catered to and by cis-straight-white-men.
Also, to be honest, I think we’ve seriously come to the bottom of the barrel of things for young white men in t-shirts to notice, plus those men in t-shirts have grown into middle-aged men in sweaty suits getting unnecessarily angry about the customer service they receive in a world where they’re smarter than everyone else and must inform an open mic night audience.
This isn’t about privilege (I mean it is, but I’m keeping to comedy here) so much as language and shorthand. For instance, while I don’t use them I know what a urinal is, therefore I can probably work out a joke about a urinal. This is because up till now the default language of comedy (if you will) has been cis-male, bodily functions are funny and you know what? Men piss in the street, like, a lot. Consider me educated. And if the joke is funny I will laugh, because I’ve spent my life seeing men being funny on stage talking about their take on life. Which happens to be male. Which therefore happens to be what I’m used to in comedy. Which is also why if I see a man who is not funny on stage, I don’t then assume that I don’t find men funny. I just don’t find that man funny.
Women, LGBTQ people and people of colour are all bringing a new angle to comedy and if you don’t get it it doesn’t mean it’s not funny, it’s just not necessarily for you, yet. It’s unfamiliar, it’s not the default, we’re slowly building up a wider range of comedy references and shorthand that embraces what it is to be a woman, LGBTQ and/or BAME. As with all new and unfamiliar things, these can breed fear at the beginning and in this particular situation it’s the lie that comedy is being censored, it’s not, it’s being expanded!
So here’s to the year we start getting emails from students asking us if it’s true that people used to think women weren’t funny.