If I were to ask you to imagine a stand up comic, you’d imagine a lone figure in a spotlight, armed with nothing but a microphone, standing against a background of a red brick wall (because all imaginary comedy clubs look like Comedy Central in New York). Chances are, you’d also imagine that this figure is a man.
If I were to ask you to imagine a stand up comic, you’d imagine a lone figure in a spotlight, armed with nothing but a microphone, standing against a background of a red brick wall (because all imaginary comedy clubs look like Comedy Central in New York). Chances are, you’d also imagine that this figure is a man. Chances also are that if you go to a comedy club, or catch a student stand up night, you’d see a lot of male acts. Chances also are that you might well be one of those people who take this state of affairs one step further and conclude that “women aren’t funny.” But then again, if you’re that kind of person, you probably also want to vote for Donald Trump and think Attack of the Clones is the best Star Wars.
Sexism is alive and well in the comedy scene. That’s not a vague claim; I’ve spent six years doing comedy, performing in Cambridge, London, Norwich, Cardiff, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Brighton and many other cities. I’ve opened for professional acts in cavernous Edinburgh Festival halls, and told jokes to four men all called Dave in a pub somewhere in Ipswich. So when I say that the comedy world is rife with sexism, it’s because I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve also see homophobia, transphobia, and tacit racism. I’ve seen respectable comedy club owners post things like this without a trace of irony:
Yet at the same time, so what? We live in a society which has an alarmingly high tolerance for sexual harassment and violence, for institutional and interpersonal sexual discrimination. Furthermore, if #OscarsSoWhite taught us anything, it’s that discrimination exists in all forms of art and culture, so it comes as no revelation that stand up comedy is not immune from this. But the question remains as to why stand up feels so much like a man’s game.
In my free time, I co-run a feminist comedy night in Cambridge. We run on a principle of trying to offer something beyond a male dominated form of comedy; drawing influence from the Rape is No Joke’s campaign, we aimed to provide a comedy club where there would be no jokes about rape, child abuse, jokes that punched down, rather than punched up. The two years we’ve run the club have seen some fantastic acts and some truly exceptional shows, yet at the same time, I’ve been conscious of the difficulty of booking female acts. A few days ago we did an International Women’s Day show, with an all female line up, and organising this was difficult to say the least. It’s better than it used to be – I remember trying to organise gigs where finding an act who wasn’t a white, straight male was considered a bonus. Barriers within comedy, it seems, come in two forms. Firstly, there’s a question of the form of stand up. Is there something inherently “male” about doing stand up? Secondly, is – broadly speaking – the content of stand up off putting to women, BME people, LGBT+ people and disabled people.
Stand up comedy is an exposed performance. Most of the time, the comedian is the sole object of the audience’s attention. Performing stand up is not like performing in a play – there is no script, (often) no costumes, no set and no other cast: in other words, nothing to distract attention away from the comedian as the embodied performer. Speaking personally, I have found performing stand up more intimidating than any other kind of performance. The moment I step on stage, I’m being judged. I am a six foot three, skinny man with very long hair, piercings and tattoos. I tend to wear metal band t shirts, torn jeans, and old army boots. All my life I’ve been criticised because my appearance diverges from what is considered normal. I’ve lost count of the number of times I take to the stage and before I’ve even opened my mouth, I’m being heckled (“Oi mate, are you a girl?”). For six years, my opening line has always been some joke about the way I look, simply to disarm any criticism in the minds of the audience.
Of course though, my experience of being heckled for looking a bit weird is very different from the experience of someone belonging to an oppressed group. But it does, however, give me a sense of empathy towards what they have to do. A close friend of mine is a black woman of African origin. She’s been working the circuit for almost ten years, and her first joke of the night is always, always to address some stereotype about Africans, or immigrants. After one gig, I asked her why she did this – given that she clearly didn’t believe any of those stereotypes – to which she rolled her eyes, sighed, and said “It’s a defence mechanism. Better I own it, than someone else tries to own me.”
What this comes down to, I suppose, is body politics. Stand up inherently fixes the audiences gaze on the performer’s body.. If we take that gaze – as it often is in comedy clubs – to be male dominated, the way that body is viewed can be discriminatory. Hence the ridiculous number of times I’ve been at gigs, and a woman takes to the stage to wolf whistles, or shouts of “get your tits out.” One of the saddest experiences I had was at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago, when I befriended a transgender comic who was just starting out. We both did a set at a well respected free show. I did my five and then she took to the stage to whoops, and jeers. “What’s in your knickers, love?” someone repeatedly yelled throughout her set. She finished the performance – bravely – and then vanished in tears. She hasn’t gigged again since.
Of course, any comic needs to develop thick skin. Stand up is an unpredictable art form – you can hone down a ten minute set to perfection, deliver it to roaring laughter at shows, and then watch it die with the wrong crowd. But what I’m saying is that, more often than not, being anything other than a white man in stand up opens you up to more sites for judgement, more chances for audiences to tear into your developing confidence. Put yourself in the shoes of someone from an oppressed group with some good ideas for jokes – it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want to open themselves up to even more discrimination.
But the form isn’t the only issue. The content of performances can put up a barrier to new comics. From the gender perspective, there are plenty of examples of famous comedians engaging in lazy sexist humour for supposed “shock value.” Jimmy Carr, for example, delights in making light of rape (“Nine out of ten people enjoy gang rape,”) or branding his shows “RAPEier Wit.” Jokes about rape and sexual violence are portrayed as edgy, acerbic, and radically dark. These jokes, too often, make the survivor the butt of the joke, mocking them for being violated and abused. Perhaps it’s possible for someone to write a joke about rape which attacks rape culture, and the people who rape. Perhaps. I’ve yet to come across one.
Similarly damaging are jokes which fall into lazy stereotypes about groups of people. Jokes that women aren’t funny, performances that treat minorities as being responsible for their own oppression.The psychologist Melissa Fine talks about the knowledge/being schema, the idea that a commonly held piece of “knowledge” – or stereotype – (“women are not funny,”) can affect an individuals sense of their own being (“I am a woman therefore I am not funny”, “The next act is a women, she is not funny.”) So humour that punches down, so to speak, does have a wider impact outside of the nature of the joke. And this, I think, is where the crux of the matter lies when it comes to content – humour can either punch up, challenging dominant narratives and groups (breaking the knowledge/being schema) or it can punch down, attacking people at the bottom of society, and thus reinforcing the stereotypes.
The recent Sasha Baren Cohen film “Grimsby” has been quite rightly slated for its sneering attitude to the working class. Chris Rock once said that comedy should always punch up; it’s a heroic little struggle in the form of ten minutes of jokes. Stewart Lee, in the New Statesman, takes this further by concluding that comedians who take leftist or anti-hierarchical views, or come from oppressed groups are tragic clowns, because no matter how funny they are, they have lost by the very virtue of not enforcing the status quo.
So what’s to be done? Some comedy clubs now have gender quotas for acts, while others have, like myself, set up specialist nights to combat discriminatory attitudes. Ultimately, the answer to these problems is neither simple nor clear, but unless something is done, by both audiences or acts, comedy will remain a man’s world.