Monday, 16 January 2012

Why is Sarah Millican a minority? Comedians and promoters talk about the lack of women on the comedy circuit.

The other day, a flyer fell out of a local listings magazine advertising a comedy club. Of the 24 events being profiled on this flyer, only one featured a woman.

This in itself isn’t news. The absence of funny women on TV screens and on the comedy circuit is well documented, with a recent resurgence of articles about this (including my own). Yet still there are no conclusive answers as to why female comics are continually being overlooked.

The trite answer could be, well, women just aren’t very funny. But that’s not true. If it was, Victoria Wood, Sarah Millican, Miranda Hart, Jo Brand, Catherine Tate, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Shappi Khorsandi, Ruby Wax, Rhona Cameron etc would have been forced to sign on a long time ago. As comedienne Kate Smurthwaite confirms: “There is a long, long history of awesome funny women: Lucille Ball, Hattie Jacques, Joan Rivers… But the truth is sexism in comedy is getting worse, the door doesn't seem to be truly open to a new Victoria Wood, Jo Brand or French and Saunders.”

And they’re only a few of the women who have made it as comediennes.

While comedy is of course subjective, I think we can agree that of the endless male comedians doing the rounds, many of them simply aren’t very funny. So are they there just because it’s safer to have an unfunny man than a funny woman? Are comedy bookers and TV producers threatened by intelligent and witty women, so much so that it’s easier to book Russell Howard again and hope for the best?

“It’s such a shock”

Comedienne Josie Long, who says if she talks about sexism she’s accused of “moaning”, opens up about the problem in this YouTube clip. Josie says: “[We’re] brought up to believe you’re on a level playing field, and as an adult you’re suddenly brought up to date with how much you’re going to be affected by sexism, and it’s such a shock… About once a day, someone says to me ‘There aren’t any funny women’, or ‘Women aren’t as funny as men’, or even, ‘I like you but I don’t normally find women funny’. Something to say they’re judging men against women in the arena of comedy, which is ridiculous.”

Chris Coltrane is a stand-up comedian whose biography lists these three things among his loves: comedy, socialist politics and feminism. So Chris seemed like someone to ask what he thought was behind the lack of women on the comedy circuit – and his answer backs up what Josie says: “The interesting thing is the amount of self-denial people have. I always hear female comics tell stories of audience coming up to them after a gig to say, ‘I don't like female comedians, but I like you’, as if that female comedian were somehow an exception, a blip that science can't explain. Rather than just judge each individual person on their merits, they've decided they don't like all women comedians, and then are surprised and astonished when they're proven wrong. But even when they are proven wrong, they won't adjust their beliefs. They're like True Believers in that respect, and that makes it incredibly hard to reason with them to prove them wrong, because for the True Believer, no amount of evidence can change their mind.”

However, Steve Lount, who runs The Comedy Box club in Bristol, disagrees that there are many funny women to choose from and says that if more existed, he’d gladly book them: “There are so few female acts out there, and fewer still who are any good in my opinion. Promoters and club owners want to see good acts on their bills and they also want to offer variety, so it isn't in club owners’ interests to deliberately avoid booking female acts - although anecdotally I have heard that some audiences don't respond well when a female act is announced onto the stage. But that has never been the case at any of my shows. We have never set out to create some kind of anti-female mentality in our venues.

“Stand-up comedy is a meritocracy. Yes, some personal taste does come into who you book and there are plenty of male comics who I also avoid booking. But my aim has always been to book the most interesting and best acts my budget will allow, disregarding their gender, disability, race or creed.”

‘It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy’

One of the two stock answers from anyone trying to defend the dearth of female comics is that women aren’t very funny. And Chris thinks this attitude extends to many in the audience, too: “As you say, the number of people who genuinely think women aren't funny is shockingly high, and you can imagine that illiberal club owners will run their booking policy accordingly. Of course, this means it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. So that then raises a new question, of whether clubs should always cater to the perceived desires of their customers, or whether they have a responsibility to try to liberate their minds and make them less sexist. I'm sure you can guess what I think!”

Josie stresses: “There’s not fewer women than men. If you go to open spot clubs, it’s at least 50/50. It is, it really is. If you go to workshops it’s half and half. Then what happens is I think people genuinely get ground down, and in my own experience I’ve had jobs that I didn’t get but then a model or a presenter does get. If you look at a panel show, it’ll be male comedian, male comedian, female presenter… If you look at Mock The Week, the people who got really famous off that were all men. And all the people doing arenas now are men. The only person who’s touching that is Sarah Millican, or possibly Shappi Khorsandi. There’s not that many women who’ve been allowed to break through in the last few years.”

Kate, however, thinks that the culture of high street misogyny has a lot to answer for: “It might sound strange but I think the so-called lads’ mags have to take some of the blame. They’re just soft porn, but in order to get themselves off the top shelf they had to present themselves as ‘men's lifestyle’. But what the hell is that? There are already tons of sports mags, gardening mags etc so they're about ‘funny stuff’. So this perpetuates the myth that funny is a male preserve, and of course the two get mixed together, so now funny equals sexism in a lot of cases.”

The recent C4 Mash Up of 8 Out Of 10 Cats with Countdown (broadcast on January 2) showed that the all-male comedians from 8 Out Of 10 Cats desperately struggled with the idea of the two intelligent Countdown women, so instead the men quickly resorted to sexually objectifying the women to belittle their obvious intelligence and put them in their place – as totty. It was embarrassing to watch, for the men who were shown to be nothing more that misogynistic cowards. But it did add some weight to my thoughts that men are frantically clinging to their funny bones as some kind of power struggle – as if by allowing women a platform to make others laugh, then women will make even more headway towards one day achieving gender equality. It’s pathetic.

‘There is absolutely no shortage of funny women’

The other stock answer in defence of why there are so few successful comediennes is that, apparently, there just aren’t as many women as men trying to make it as comedians. Something Kate, who teaches on a stand-up comedy course, disproves: “There is absolutely no shortage of funny women. At workshop and open mic level there are honestly more women in comedy than men. When I teach, I often have classes with only one or two guys in.”

But what about the promoters and TV producers who mostly book male comedy acts? “There are definitely promoters out there who will only book one woman per night,” says Chris. “I've heard people say that the reason some clubs deliberately book less female comedians is because they don't think the audience will react well to more than one female comedian, as if the audience will patronisingly let one woman give it a go, but no more than that. I can actually imagine that this is true, sadly.”

Comedy promoter Steve is less convinced that female comedians face as many barriers as have been suggested, and he believes it’s more down to many women being less suited to the lifestyle of a professional comic. He explains: “There is no bar to female stand-ups at club level. Female acts decide themselves if and when they want to perform, in exactly the same way a male act will. But, as with live music, I don't believe live stand-up is that appealing a lifestyle to female performers, which can be quite a lonely and depressing existence – lone writing, travelling and hotels.

“Whereas there is a surplus of female talent in acting, dance and comedy improvisation, I also believe there might be a more equal representation in sketch comedy. But what do these other performance arts have in common over stand-up? Human and group interaction, which females are generally better at than their male counterparts. This might explain why you see more females at comedy classes and open mic nights. These events are a lot more sociable than actual professional nights. But this is just a theory and probably not worthy of academic scrutiny.”

Kate can identify a deeper sociological problem behind the gaping void of women performers: “We've always bewailed the dull, repetitive stand-up pointing out the difference between men and women. But even ‘cutting edge’ acts like Chris Rock do it. And there are a huge number of comedy shows that are marketed on it: Men Behaving Badly, Two and Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Friends, Coupling, How I Met Your Mother… all of those shows are more or less EXCLUSIVELY about jokes about men and women and their cliched differences. The men are always horny, the women easily shocked. Speaking as an unshockable horny woman, I don't get it!”

She continues: “But also it perpetuates itself. If the clubs book lots of male acts doing sexist material, then they'll attract audiences who appreciate that.  Comedy does become something that is generally perceived as by and for men.  It's tough to challenge that: clubs will lose audiences in the short term if they buck the trend, but in the long term they'll benefit because more women will want to come and there'll be more variety among the acts and more great talent to choose from.  I think to be honest, some of the guys currently doing well are very, very afraid of clubs booking more women because they're not sure they'll be able to compete.”

Promoter Steve adds: “There aren't that many female stand-ups who I think are worth booking but I'm always on the look out for new talent. No good promoter/producer worth their salt would stop looking for new people.”

“The fact is we do book female acts”

The Comedy Box in Bristol is the comedy club I’m referring to in the opening paragraph: the club with only one female comedian on the 24 in its programme (and only one woman headlining a show until May, according to its website). The club is run by Steve Lount, who tells me: “The fact is we do book female acts. Last week, we had Sally-Anne Hayward, next weekend we have Mary Bourke, the weekend after we have Katherine Ryan, a couple of weeks after that we have Nat Luurtsema. Our print always features the headline acts or touring shows plus support or guests, which we don't name. As it happens, this season we only have one female headlining act, which is Isy Suttie.”

Steve adds: “There are only a few female acts that I think are worth headlining. Headliners at The Comedy Box have to be experienced at doing 45 minutes plus and yet we do book female acts who are capable of doing these ‘extended sets’. These acts we have booked in the last 12-18 months include Josie Long, Jo Caulfield, Sarah Millican, Zoe Lyons, Shappi Khorsandi, Lucy Porter and Andi Osho. Recently, we tried very hard to book Roisin Conaty who we think is an act who is definitely one to watch but she wouldn't take the booking.”

I contacted Off The Kerb Productions, too – which also runs the aptly named Laughing Boy Comedy Clubs. Off The Kerb is one of the biggest comedy promoters in the UK, and after more than 30 years in the business it boasts acts as huge as Jonathan Ross, Michael McIntyre, Dara O’Briain and Alan Carr on its books. But despite having just under 40 artists listed on its website, Off The Kerb promotes just three (THREE!) women: Jo Brand, Shappi Khorsandi and Suzi Ruffell. I asked Off The Kerb for a comment, and they replied to say someone would get back to me… but nearly a fortnight later I’m still waiting.


It’s impossible to reach a conclusion to this big issue in one blog post, but the volume of interest and range of theories expressed about the dearth of women on the professional comedy circuit does prove this is an issue that inspires a lot of emotion and demands more attention. As Kate Smurthwaite says in her closing comment below, if you see a good female comedian doing a show – email your local comedy club and ask them to book her… create the demand!

Kate concludes: "The good news is clubs are all about their audiences. If you see a great female act, please, please contact your local comedy club and request them by name. Just a 10-word email might make the difference between getting that spot when that TV producer happens to be in the third row that changes the face of comedy forever… ideally to mine!"

For more information:

Funny Women is THE place to go to fill all your comedy needs. They're celebrating 10 hilarious years, and you can visit their website by clicking here.

Kate Smurthwaite wrote an article on this last August, and you can read it by clicking here.

The F Word interviewed comedienne Ava Vidall in October about sexism in comedy, and that piece can be read here.


  1. I went to a comedy club in Bristol once with a friend who was applying for a bar job there. I'd heard my brother often complain about how he didn't like women comedians because they always talked about their bodies and periods. That's an aside but significant i think.

    At this comedy club is was all men, and the two main acts spend the entire time indulging in really nasty, graphic sexism. The sets were all based on how grotesque women's bodies and body parts were. It culminated in the headliner talking about 'dykes' (I don't think straight men should call women dykes) and then pointing at me and my friend and saying 'not like those young dyes there' (not that it matters, but we weren't a couple!).

    I left thinking how can people say Jo Brand is sexist? Or that women's comedy is all about periods? When i have just had to sit through men spouting vicious misogyny for two hours.

    If that's funny, then call me a humourless feminist!

  2. "We totally do book women! OK there is only one woman on our books. There you go - we DO book women!". Chris is right - this lot are True Believers. Like creationists and homoeopaths, they are simply not worth the oxygen talking to them will consume (think how many CO2 emissions you'd save!).

  3. I went to an all-female show in Camden, not once but twice! It was brilliant, however after two (or three) shows was never to be repeated.

    I prefer female comedians, I don't have to sit through unfunny sexism and poo/bum jokes.

  4. there is a good old boy system out there...I have come across a lot of gigs where I can't get a booking because I’m not one of the boys!!! Or I turn up at a gig and the male comedians won’t even talk to me…until after I blow the room apart! I’ve been introduced as “the next comic has a Vagina , feel free to get up and get a drink.” I’ve had male producer’s ask me how much I weight, before they book me… What?! Why do they need my weight??? Have they ever asked a male comedian that question…and I’ve been told that I won’t get booked a certain gig because the main booker doesn’t rate female comedians. I’ve been doing stand up for 20 years…I know full well the hard ships of being on the road…to say that women can’t hack that kind of life style is ridicules!!
    I’m off to the states in May I have gigs booked in New Year, Texas , LA…and I have been offered gigs in five other states…it’s the good old boy wall that drives women out of comedy.
    Cheers Jojo Georgiou

  5. Really interesting post.

    My experience as a life long fan of comedy, and the past few years a performer at the Edinburgh Festival is this:

    I believe in terms of live performers there is a better gender balance than television, or that particular club that is referenced in the blog, would suggest - though it could, and should, be (much) more balanced.

    I'm aware of a more general point of general conservationism particularly recently in television comedy, which personally, I find very troubling.

    Growing up I would watch as much tv comedy as I could, and the best for me was always adventurous, politically progressive, intelligent (even if often "daft") and joyous.

    For mainstream television comedy - especially since the success of Michael McIntyre when his Roadshow filled the timeslot of Jonathan Ross after his BBC suspension leading to a large mainstream audience being exposed to, and more broadly embracing, the form of stand-up - alternative comedy seems a long long way away. I watched the Apollo show this week and 2 of the 3 comedians (all male) were to me sickening, and really were like "alternative comedy had never happened", with aggressive (and insidious) sexist, material backed up by audience reaction shots of seemingly complicit laughing women, which as an editor am well aware could - and most probably were - cut out of context to boost the apparent reaction to the material.

    For me this is terrible, as I see TV comedy at it's best being a space that can, and did, really explore "difficult" and challenging ideas in a way more easily digestible, or at least leas easily dismissable way, by the mainstream. A good routine, or even line, can perfectly distil a good idea.

    Of course not every comedy routine *needs* to have a message, but it's great, in my opinion when it does and that's a positive one. Sadly what has been on tv the past few years overwhelmingly feels like it's message is condoning and maintaining a patriarchal position, when I sincerely believe the serious comics' role in society should be to generally question all authority, and specifically smash that patriarchy.

    However the flipside of the interest in stand-up as a form is now is a time where if new comics with (what I consider) good material start doing shows, there are audiences - on that thought I applaud the post's conclusion that good comedians should be championed and recommended, and if the clubs won't listen, let's open our own . . .

  6. Thank you all for your comments, it's very interesting to hear your thoughts especially when, like Jojo, you've had experience of the industry first hand. I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to put on an all-female comedy night in Bristol to a) prove that women are funny and b) prove that there is audience demand, but resisted due to a) reluctance to add another project to my plate and b) mild fear of failure (I know, I know: have faith) - but the support that these posts get makes me think perhaps I should put my money where my mouth is and put such a night on. That being the case - if you're a female comedian and you'd be up for playing a gig in Bristol (probably for no money, but am sure we could run to a drink or two!) - then get in touch.