In 2008 I wrote this clumsy but well intentioned piece about my love for American comedians Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, citing them as two of the best SNAPS! to the dated and so-obviously-incorrect-why-do-we-persist-with-it argument about women being as funny as men. I then went on to list a few of my favourite female comedians in an extra effort to prove that which should be bleedin’ obvious.
I say should because this article in the Guardian today about the lack of women on UK comedy panel shows - and in particular the reader comments below - reveals that this is still an issue that many people still doesn’t quite have a grip of. It’s fascinating that so many posters, including a number of women, are happy with the conclusion that men are just funnier than women.
I should be clear what I’m unhappy with here. The Guardian article itself is predominantly about the gender imbalance on weekly panel shows such as QI, Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You and 8 out of 10 Cats. It’s the commenters below who try to explain this as being about relative female unfunniness and it’s that idea I have an issue with.
Firstly the article is right to point out this is a numbers game, and one that is stacked up against the ladies. With one woman and three men making up the average panel then even if airtime is evenly distributed it’s likely that less than 25% of the good jokes will be from a woman, given there’s usually a male host. Secondly, whether the shows admit it or not, there is an element of tokenism about a lone female guest (and even then not all the time). Being the only anything means you carry a little representation expectation. Some comedians might like that idea, but when you’re ‘representing’ half the population it’s a heavy weight of expectation to shoulder.
It’s also worth remembering that any woman on a show with four guys is a de facto male environment. No matter if it is the BBC or if all the men are the SNAG-iest metrosexually of co-panellists, the numbers dictate that the agenda will be mostly male. Again, perhaps some women might enjoy and thrive in that environment but I’d assume that a more even playing field would bring out the comedy best in most people.
I reckon even if you put Joan Rivers on a panel show with four of the unfunniest male comedians on the planet she’d still have to adapt her material to suit the room – something that doesn’t play to everyone’s strengths. Similarly you asked Amy Sedaris to host a show and invited say, Sarah Silverman, Sharon Horgan and Lauren Laverne as three of the four panellists, any male comedian making up that fourth spot would find themselves struggling to keep up.
This is not to suggest I think there is a huge difference between male and female humour or what men and women find funny, because I don’t think that’s true either. It’s just that a room with 99% women is different to a room with 99% men and people of either gender will feel more comfortable in front of one than the other. Again, just a supposition, but I suspect comedians who feel more comfortable are likely to be better at being funny.
The inspiration for the Guardian’s article was actually another overseas news story; the outcry in the US media about the appointment of Olivia Munn as a reporter on Comedy Channel’s the Daily Show. The criticism seems mainly to stem from a view that Munn has been employed more for her looks than her capacity to be funny. The interesting angle here is that the worst of the venom emanated from an online women’s magazine (“Jezebel – Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women”) which thinks the Daily Show is sexist because Munn is only the second female reporter hired in the past decade.
Aside from the fact that the female staff of TDS responded as one in an open letter to the media to deny any sexism on the show, it’s a little condescending – sexist even - to suggest that a woman good enough to score a job on what is probably the smartest, wittiest show of its kind anywhere in the world only managed it because she’s ‘attractive’. The implication goes beyond an attack on the Daily Show. It says that there is an acceptable look for female comedians and that Munn does not fit it. Quite who does fit is not clear, but it’s nice to see Jezebel (“Celebrity! Sex! Fashion for Women!”) doing great things for the esteem of young female comedians everywhere.
Since 2008 I’ve ummed and ahhed about my own post about Tina and Amy and other female comics. Partly because there are so many great comedians I didn’t mention and I want to go back and add them in, but also because highlighting women comedians detracts slightly from the most important fact - that they are funny – and perpetuates the idea that this is in some way unusual.
So until today I saw my post as a bit of misguided fluff that grew from wanting to talk giddily about funny people I like (and some of which I have big crushes on). Perhaps it still is pointless fluff, but thanks Jezebel and certain Guardian readers for showing that there are still idiots in the world who need reminding that funny is funny and it really doesn’t matter what shape your genitals are as to whether you can make people laugh (although obviously if you have a cock shaped like a root vegetable, that’s definitely funny …)