I take some comfort and a great deal of pride in the possibility that the 2020 Funny Women Awards is one of a very few comedy awards to continue running this year in the face of the global pandemic and total lockdown. It feels good and I couldn’t have done it without the incredible team around me.
This is even more bittersweet in that four years ago in 2016, when our sponsor of five years withdrew its funding due to a change in marketing direction and the fallout from the Brexit referendum, I was ready to pull the plug.
Two very dear friends sat me down over lunch and told me that I didn’t have to do this anymore, there was nothing left to prove and my health and wellbeing were more important than Funny Women.
At that time, the idea of walking away was very seductive as I was burnt out. I could use the time to write the book I had barely started, be around for my family and friends and even go on holiday in August instead of the Edinburgh Fringe! Who knew what the world had in store for us this year.
I sat on this thought for six months and decided that I wasn’t done. The community that I’d built around Funny Women for women to empower themselves through comedy, had grown into a new kind of monster that roared every time I even thought about walking away. It wasn’t just about comedy any more – we were working with women in business, politics, media, indeed anywhere where women needed to be heard and represented as equals.
Despite the continued misogyny of the circuit, the representation of women comedy, particularly in broadcast media, has increased over the 18 years since I created Funny Women.
Miranda Hart, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Michaela Cole, Roisin Conaty, Susan Calman, Katherine Ryan, Daisy May Cooper, Mae Martin and many, many more have all come to prominence with their writing, performances, hosting panel shows and even ballroom dancing! They all follow in the hallowed footsteps of French and Saunders, Ruby Wax, Jo Brand (our ‘matron’), Tracy Oelman, Jenny Éclair, Jan Ravens, Sandi Toksvig and again many more from a generation of women who were around at the birth of ‘alternative comedy’ scene nearly 40 years ago.
So, with a nod to my friends’ advice to take stock and think about giving up, I instead delayed the next Awards by six months into the autumn of 2017 and ran the competition over into early 2018 – hence the confusion of the missed year. Then last year in 2019 we had some funding from Sky which meant that we could further refine and develop the Awards. This year was set to be the best ever.
We had the promise of sponsorship and a healthy balance sheet thanks to a bumper year of corporate work. We had launched our HERlarious programme at the end of 2018 and worked with great clients like Lloyds of London, UK Hospitality, Marketing Society, Airbanb, Canada Life and NatWest safe in the knowledge that the income we generated would go some way towards supporting our community outreach and the all-important Awards. I also changed the status of Funny Women to a community interest company to reflect this fact.
I could finally rest a bit easier.
Then the Universe dealt its bitter blow. COVID- 19 hit at the heart of our communities cruelly and quickly. World leaders and politicians rubbed their eyes in confusion and disbelief while millions of people around the world got sick and died in front of them. We stayed home to keep safe and nature embraced the pause. We were rewarded with sparkling blue skies, dolphins in clear seas, birds singing and wildlife thriving. The world had been stopped in its tracks and we were forced to really think about what we are doing to it and why.
Having worked so hard to get Funny Women back in the game, there was no way I could walk away, although I had to seriously consider this possibility. Another old friend once said to me that I tackle life as if I’m always trying to ski uphill which is a good analogy. I’ve weathered several crises with Funny Women and then I get a taste of ‘skiing downhill’ and keep on keeping on.
So, with the support of our amazing Awards Director, Becky Singh, and the commitment of the whole team, I greenlighted the 2020 Funny Women Awards. Most of the initial activity was conducted online anyway so we have run pretty much as usual except for no live heats for the Stage Awards. Instead the original video submissions were judged even more vigorously by our panel of industry judges over 10 virtual heats until we arrived at our top 16 semi-final acts.
The mechanics of the next semi-final stage, which we are running online, are daunting for the acts but we are here to support them and everybody wants to put on a great show. Talent and commitment deserves our time and respect.
As well as the Awards we’ve pivoted a lot of our activity online from comedy ‘Workouts’ to HERlarious Virtual Reality business events. We produced an amazing online panel show, ‘Have We Got Women For You’ hosted by Jo Brand to raise funds and celebrate our 18th birthday at the end of June. Another bonus is that Funny Women has become a carbon-neutral business by minimising our travel and taking more events online. We’ve proved to ourselves that the virtual world is there for us and I’d like to believe that this is the Universe showing us how to do things differently.
It’s the small things that matter – and I’m pleased that we are celebrating the new talent that’s out there this year. Please support us as we conclude the 2020 Funny Women Awards. We need you in our audiences and please keep your donations coming. Together we can keep on changing the face of comedy.