I recently attended Alternative Comedy Now, a landmark academic conference hosted at the University of Kent in partnership with Brunel University’s Centre for Comedy Studies Research, to mark 40 years since the opening of the Comedy Store in London, a date seen by many to be the birth of the alternative comedy movement.
While the movement allowed male figures such as Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle to gain notoriety, the conference made a point of discussing what women brought to the table during this time. During a panel on the topic Funny Women founder, Lynne Parker, argued the point that even before the 1980s, women had always been a key part of the British comedy scene.
Taking place on day two of the conference, Lynne’s presentation looked at how women were portrayed during the alternative comedy movement of the 80s and 90s, which was often at odds with the prominence of feminist rhetoric during the 60s and 70s. She pointed out that female audiences and performers during the 1980s were especially present as a result of the Baby Boomer generation, and highlighted figures such as French and Saunders, famously given one of the highest budgets in BBC Television’s history in order to create their infamous spoofs.
Alongside French and Saunders, the figures of Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne and Linda Smith were also cited as key players in the alternative comedy scene, with Linda Smith’s early performances being at benefit gigs during the tumultuous miner strikes.
Other speakers at the conference included Dr Nicola Streeten, a graphic novelist and CEO of the Laydeez Do Comics initiative which supports UK-based female comic artists, with the terrific tagline of ‘putting the yonics into comics’. As a graphic novelist herself Nicola provided examples of 1980s feminist comics which coincided with the alternative comedy boom and influenced their content to confront negative stereotypes of women.
There was also an impressive presentation from Ellie Tomsett, a lecturer at Birmingham City University, who looked at how female-only spaces are interpreted by both performers and the show’s audiences. Ellie’s research reveals that sexist attitudes towards female-only line-ups are still prevalent, although it was good to hear about the positive progression and popularity of events such as the Women in Comedy Festival, in Manchester. Ellie’s presentation confirmed that such festivals act as safe spaces for audiences who are put off by the traditional masculine environments of comedy clubs, and generally encourage greater creativity amongst performers with far fewer dick jokes!
Having these speakers present such fascinating presentations confirmed that even during the male-dominated environment of the 1980s alternative comedy movement, female performers were always present. In some cases it was the female comics who often went on to have greater success than their male peers. For example, Pauline Melville started as an Alternative Cabaret pioneer, thanks to her unique brand of political character comedy. She has since left comedy to become a critically acclaimed and award-winning novelist thanks to books such as Shape-Shifter and The Ventriloquist’s Tale.
Despite progress, there are still parallels between the 1980s movement and the way female performers are treated in the current comedy scene. University of Kent’s Dr Oliver Double stated in his final keynote of the conference, that whether women are booked for gigs or not, depends completely on the attitude of the promoter. This unfortunately still rings true today, and whilst there have been organisations and initiatives created to provide female performers with an equal platform, there is still a lot of work to do to change the gender balance.
For more about the Alternative Comedy Now conference, you can read my full recap for the British Comedy Guide here.