Are women funny?

by Michele A Court

MichelleBy Michele A’Court.

I have been making a living out of being funny for the past 21 years. Maybe a little longer if you count hosting “What Now” from 1987, a children’s programme heavy on the comedy sketches and witty banter. But even if you don’t count that, stand-up comedy has certainly been my major source of income since I started doing it in 1993.

Every year, many times each year, I’ve been interviewed for print, radio and television and asked whether I think women are funny. Or whether they’re as funny as men. Or whether it is harder to do comedy if you’re a woman. Or why there are fewer women than men in the industry. Or some other gender-angled query about the work I do.

I’ve been giving pretty much the same answer every time. Clearly, it hasn’t been a good answer because I keep being asked the same question – three times already this year (it is March) and as recently as yesterday.

I don’t ever want to answer this question again. It makes me tired. It forces me to think of myself as “a woman who does comedy” rather than as “a comedian” which is how I actually think of myself.

As far as I can tell, it’s not a question asked constantly of women in other creative industries. People don’t ask if women can act, or paint, or dance, or write, or sing, or play music. Comedy still seems to be a place where we’re regularly made to feel “other”, where we’re asked the kind of questions that make you wonder if maybe you weren’t supposed to turn up.

It makes me feel as though every time I walk on stage, or sit on a TV panel show, I carry my gender on my shoulders. And that my success or failure isn’t just about me (which is enough to think about, frankly) but that I am representing every other woman who does comedy, or who might want to do comedy some time. That if I screw up – or any other woman screws up – we’ll all be ruined forever. “See, chicks?” they’ll say, pointing at one of us, “not funny.”

They say that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. I’m thinking that if I’m asked the same question over and over and keep answering it, I’ll be barking by Easter.

So instead, I am posting this to my website and here on the Ruminator, the next time someone asks some version of the “women” to “funny” ratio (probably on Thursday) I will direct the interviewer to this post. Here, then, are the actual questions I have been asked many times, and the answers I have given.

Are women funny?
Watch women in groups. Mostly, what women are doing is laughing. When women get together they tell each other fun facts and stories about their lives and make each other laugh. We don’t tell jokes so much – we get the set-up and punchline confused, generally. But, when you think about it, jokes are a way of saying, “Hey, I’m not funny but I met a guy once who was and this is what he said – I’ve learnt it off by heart”. So telling jokes doesn’t necessarily speak to natural wit. We tell our own stories.

Christopher Hitchens famously argued in a 2007 Vanity Fair that women aren’t funny – or haven’t developed their comedy skills – because they don’t have to. Comedy, he said, was a mating tool and women don’t need that particular arrow in their quiver because they are pretty and make babies. But men, Hitchens said, get fat and bald so to attract women they either need wit or wealth. Ergo, men have evolved their comedic skills to a greater level.

I’m not sure Hitch was entirely wrong, in general terms. But even if women don’t need to be funny to get laid because they smell nice and have soft hair, individual women clearly still have the drive to entertain, and a comedy gene in their DNA they can harness and develop. Also, I’d suggest that not every creative endeavour is about getting laid.

Do female comedians get laid?
Oh god, yes. There is nothing a man finds more attractive that a smart, loud, opinionated, razor sharp, witty, confident woman standing under a spotlight with a microphone in her hand. Just the one man, mind, but he’s a keeper.

Why are there so few women comedians?
This is a global phenomenon and, after being forced to think about it for two decades, I believe there are three related reasons.

  1. It is a stupid job. The pay is lousy, the travel is brutal, the hours don’t work with being the primary parent, there’s no security, clear career path, sick-leave or holiday pay or maternity leave. A lot of the women who start out in comedy move into other areas of the industry where there is a career path and all those other things that go with a proper job. Interestingly, every comedy festival in the world is run by a woman and largely staffed by women. If there’s a proper job going in comedy, a woman will have it.
  2. Women are socialised out of being comedians. The comic is the most powerful person in the room – the one with all the ideas and the opinions and the microphone. Women are socialised (and yes, this is a huge generalisation but it has enough truth to be worth saying out loud) to facilitate power, rather than be the one with the power. It is a weird thing to be the one person telling the other several hundred people what you think, to be the only one talking. The only time that ever happens to me – that the group will permit me to be at the centre – is when I am on stage.
  3. It is a lonely job. Women often choose collaborative work in duos or groups rather than solo performance (there are great examples of men in double-acts and ensembles, too, but they’re still a smaller subset in the venn diagram of male comedians). Women are social creatures and like their creativity to come with a side of social interaction. We don’t knit in a shed, we knit in a circle. Given a choice, we wouldn’t mind another face to look at on stage and a metaphorical hand to hold in the Green Room.

Is it harder to do comedy as a woman?
I don’t know. I’ve never tried doing it as a man.

What is the hardest thing about being a female comedian?
Answering the questions about being one. Everything else about it is just like being a comedian.

Are there fewer opportunities for women?
Sometimes I get a job because they are specifically looking for a woman. Sometimes I don’t get a job because they specifically want a man. It is still rare for there to be more than one woman in a show. Producers tend to go for only one of any of the following in a line-up show: woman / magician / differently-abled / gay / non-European / musical comedian. You can generally, however, have any number of white dudes with beards and flannel shirts. They don’t stand out so much and skew the overall image.

Are audiences harder on women comedians?
It depends on how much comedy they’ve seen, and even then any negative presumptions are only for the few seconds while they watch you walk from side-of-stage to the microphone. After that, funny is funny. I did a gig in Australia in 2008 in a little town called Butt-Fuck-Nowhere where I’m not sure they’d seen women let alone women who do comedy. As I was introduced, my husband heard a dude say to his mates, “Oh, look, a chick. Let’s watch the bitch die.” Then a couple of minutes later he said, “Fuck it, she’s good. I’m going outside for a smoke.” So you get that. But not often.

Why do female comedians always talk about their periods?
We don’t. I haven’t done a period joke since the one I wrote in 1994 about Paul McCartney. Comedians talk about what we know, and write about the idea that is making the most noise in our head which insists on being turned into a gag. I haven’t been inspired to write about periods since I had my uterus removed in 2003. Thanks for asking. But in defence of a good period joke, let me paraphrase something another comic once said: If Chris Rock bled out of his penis 5 days out of every 28, he’d probably mention it on stage.

Why are female comedians so foul-mouthed?
We’re not. A lot of people just notice it more when a lady swears. There was a review once of a line-up show I was in back in the 90s, and the reviewer said I swore more than anyone else on stage. There was an audio recording and I had time on my hands. I counted. One of the boys said “fuck” 28 times. I said it twice. If people notice it more when a lady says it, I can’t help them with that.

Women are entitled to use all the words including those lovely explosive ones, and the ones that describe our lady-parts. The thing about comedy is it is supposed to sound like an authentic conversation. I swear a bit in my head and also my kitchen. I’m going to talk to an audience the way I talk to my friends.

Your husband is a comedian, too. Who is funnier?
It’s not actually a competition. We laugh a lot at our place and we don’t notice who starts it.

Are women funny? 
You asked me that before. I’m going to answer it one last time. As I said at the beginning, I’ve been making a living as a comedian for 21 years. If I’m not actually funny, that’s a seriously clever trick.

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Sarah Harpur March 3, 2014 - 7:56 am

Thank you Michelle. I love you. Whenever I get asked that same freaking question, from now on I will also direct them to this post.

Chelsea March 3, 2014 - 8:33 am

Ditto Sarah’s comment. Thanks Michelle!

Chelsea March 3, 2014 - 8:40 am

Also, one last comment. I’m competing in the Australian RAW comedy quest, and in my preliminary heat there were 30 people. Four of those comedians were ladies. Four comedians made the cut to Round 2, and 3 of them were ladies. Just thought that was an interesting result!

Shaun March 3, 2014 - 8:58 am

Well said Michelle!
I think a little of this ‘public opinion’ that woman aren’t funny stems from earlier 1980s stand up, when it was seen and edited for TV that woman would only talk about periods and their private parts etc. However the entire act was far more crafted than that; I sometimes hear that about NZ comedians on the whole – ‘NZ stand up isn’t funny!’, but when I visit comedy clubs around NZ (which I do a lot), the crowds love it and are laughing their a** off!
I just enjoy a particular styles, if it’s a man or a woman delivering that…it doesn’t bother me, I will laugh at great material and well crafted delivery.
PS – Michelle, I have seen you perform a few times and you have been superb.

Craig Ranapia March 3, 2014 - 9:18 am

“Why are female comedians so foul-mouthed?”

I’ll have to track down the source, but I recall Jo Brand being asked that question and answering: “Because pricks like you keep asking fucking stupid questions like that.” Which is hard to argue with. 🙂

Robyn March 6, 2014 - 1:51 pm

I love this piece so much. I started seeing live comedy when I was 16 (which is, like, 23 years ago) and despite it being a male-dominated world, there were plenty of hilarious comedians out there who also happened to be women. If you can make me lol, that’s all I care about.

(Funnily enough, I remember that Paul McCartney period joke. It was very much a product of the ’90s!)

Archy March 6, 2014 - 6:23 pm

Ah Michelle, you are so cool. I’ve been a fan since the 80s when you were on What Now with Danny Watson 🙂 Me and siblings in our sleeping bags on the lounge floor of a Saturday morning… good times.

More recently I heard you on the radio (arvo panel maybe on NatRad) saying that you don’t identify first as female but just as a human being. That made such sense – I feel the same way.

So thanks. And keep being awesome.

David March 9, 2014 - 2:09 pm

Awesome article. I hope it helps to limit those annoying and ridiculous questions. If these questions are being asked it suggests our society has still a way to go in achieving true gender equality. I long for the time when no one gives a rats arse who’s on stage, only whether they are funny.

I remember seeing you on What Now when I was a kid and thought you were fantastic! Now seeing you on 7days and other comedy related things my thoughts have not changed. Thanks for all the entertainment! Keep it up!

Clayts March 23, 2014 - 1:33 pm

Excellent piece Michelle – I like to think of myself as a balanced person, but a number of your arguments I’ve never even thought of. Love it. Clayts

Michele A'Court June 11, 2014 - 7:11 pm

Just for the record, I have been asked about the women-to-men funny ratio four times since writing this in March. (It’s now June.) It has been a joy to simply refer the interviewers to this post rather than going through the answers again. I have so much more time to do other things!

Lara June 29, 2014 - 6:01 pm

I’m a woman. And I think women are funny. I actually often find them funnier than men, and I’m talking stand-up comedy here.

If they’re going to tell a rape joke women are way more likely to get it right, to make me laugh.

Too many times men get it wrong. It’s just not funny. They get a whole bunch of shit wrong actually, and I find myself laughing less.


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