Monday, 2 April 2012

What Makes Women Laugh?

Tonight, I attended a panel discussion at the Bath Comedy Festival about what amuses women. And before I go any further, I need to stress the irony of the inclusion of this event on the bill of a 10-day comedy festival that includes pretty much no female comedians (and not one headlining woman). A scan through the colourful 32-page brochure shows that while men are extremely well represented with coloured photos and portraits, women are ONLY included in group shots, including one instance of two bikini-clad women being draped over an older man.

The two lone events that are about women in comedy are not illustrated by photos of these women, but by a black and white cartoon of a dated WI-type dear in a frilly dress and hat (reproduced twice on facing pages, such is the difficulty of finding two different pictures of women). Poor show, Bath Comedy Festival, poor show. As Lynne Parker of Funny Women said: “We’re here at a comedy festival and there are simply not enough women on this bill.”

Both events were organised by Women On The Make – the first being a performance workshop, and the second a panel discussion. The panel was chaired by BBC producer and presenter Jenni Mills, and included Funny Women director Lynne Parker, Clare in the Community creator Harry Venning, and playwright Hattie Naylor. I scribbled notes throughout, so here’s a few highlights…

Jenni: Who’s your favourite funny woman right now?
Lynne: Because I work with new comedians, my favourites are among the new crop on the block. I love Andi Osho because she’s herself, she’s beautiful, she’s sassy and she’s funny, but she doesn’t play to stereotypes. I also love Susie Bennett, who’s been on the circuit for six years or so. She’s an interesting woman who talks about everyday stuff… and she’s just been signed by Peter Kay’s agent.

Hattie: I’m a great fan of Mrs Merton (Caroline Aherne), but also of Joyce Grenfell.

Harry: Victoria Wood, of course, but also Linda Smith, who’s underrated, and her scripts are a delight to read.

Audience contributions: Miranda Hart, because she belies her physical presence. Beryl Reid, who was hilarious and personified working-class witty and sharp women. Peggy Mount, and I wish there was a modern version of this big and brassy woman.

Jenni: Is there a gender divide in humour?
Hattie: If humour is good enough, men and women should laugh together. I’m very aware of who we expect to be funny, and how people’s appearances affect how we are amused by what they say.

Lynne: Miranda Hart has the physicality of a performer. When she’s on stage, she has a wonderful presence, and she comes on and you look at her and you expect her to be funny. Male or female, physicality has a lot to do with it. Susie Bennett is a big girl, and when she comes on stage you do smile. But it’s harder for women as there are less women stand-ups, so unless they come on with a degree of confidence, they’re not going to be seen as funny. An ugly man doesn’t have the same problem.

Hattie: A lot of the top women in comedy in the US are slimmer and more conventionally attractive. While the funnier women in the UK are odder to look at. [American] Tina Fey is terribly beautiful, very thin and extremely funny. But there’s something terribly odd about everybody laughing at a fat woman, which seems rather old-fashioned.

Lynne: I don’t think it matters if you’re fat or thin. Funny Women works with a lot of different types of women. You can’t generalise what a funny woman looks like.

Jenni: Is there a difference between what men and women laugh at?
Lynne: There is a difference in the way men construct humour to how women do. Women have tremendous bonding experiences when laughing together, such as on a girls’ night out. Women bond among their internal group with smutty stories, while men in checked shirts love to share knob jokes in late night comedy clubs.

Harry: They’re terrible those comedians…

Lynne: …Yes, they are. But they get gigs. Don’t get me on that soapbox!

Man in audience: Does anything other than sex make women laugh?

Lynne: Gay men make women laugh [here’s an article Lynne wrote]. Men like Graham Norton and Alan Carr are popular with women because they can relate to them. But Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre are also very popular with women, and both talk about domestic issues and about the women in their lives, which we can relate to. Peter Kay, in particular, talks about his mother a lot.

Jenni: Do you think there are enough women in comedy?
Harry: No. Clare in the Community was planned to be a TV series [it’s currently a successful radio series], but has been repeatedly rejected, despite commissioners saying there are no women-led comedy shows on TV, or shows about women’s professions. I have one but they’re not interested.

Lynne: I haven’t seen Watson and Oliver [BBC2’s recent sketch show starring two women comedians], but everyone in my group says it’s pants. Miranda Hart was a long time in development with her show, and it took eight years to get on to television. What irritates me in that the BBC in particular thinks they’ll just promote one woman at a time (first Miranda, then Sarah Millican and now Watson and Oliver). The BBC never fully backs Funny Women as they have an all-inclusive policy, yet everything else is done on quotas so why not women in comedy?

Hattie: You have to have a huge team to believe in you to get anything made. And it’s much harder for women to be believed in en masse. It’s no coincidence that we have more women novelists and poets, as they’re solo activities.

Lynne: In comedy, most of the big TV commissioners are women. But I don’t think that helps other women – I think sometimes they’re attracted to the male product, going back to the simple sex issue. We want more women to watch TV, so we put men making fools of themselves on TV for the women to watch.

Hattie: The internet is bound to change comedy, thanks to YouTube. There’s some unbelievably funny stuff on there, which is hugely accessible.

Lynne: The new frontier for comedy is the internet, but I’m a great pioneer of live comedy, which you just can’t beat.

For more events at Bath Comedy Festival, please click here

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