Funny women
Stand and deliver
Is stand-up comedy still a man's world? Jo-ann Hodgson finds out
by uploaded: 07-03-2006
The world of stand-up comedy is one traditionally barren of women-folk, whose role it once was to giggle coyly into their handkerchiefs. Then came the alternative scene of the 80s, the bitter aggressive tongue that spewed out intimate female details and words capable of verbally castrating men who mocked. But with female comedians increasingly appearing on stand-up bills and having their own gender-specific contests, are the funny women of today on a level playing field with their male counterparts?

Lynne Parker, producer of Funny Women - a competition which searches out comedic talent from women with fewer than three years’ experience – doesn’t think so: “Promoters view comedy as a man’s world,” she says; “it’s not what society expects of women and it can be very threatening to men, but we’re fighting back slowly. We are not the butt of jokes any more.”

Now into its fourth year, Funny Women provides a year-round platform for female comedians and has launched top names such as Sarah Adams, Zoe Lyons and last year’s winner Debra Jane Appleby. Winners and short-listed nominees of the awards tour Britain’s comedy circuit, including venues at the traditionally male-dominated Edinburgh Fringe.

Lynne, a former journalist turned PR guru, wants to encourage more women to have a go at stand-up, believing that showmanship doesn’t come as naturally to them as it does to men: “Because it’s all women, the competition is a level playing field. If the contestants had to perform with men on the club circuit they might not get up the courage to do it.”

Yet 2004 winner Zoe Lyons warns of the dangers of female-only platforms: “Funny Women and other such events are very important and have their place but they are fairly safe environments and the world of stand-up isn’t safe,” she says. “ You need to get out there and try everything if you are going to succeed.”

Zoe trained as an actress at The Poor School in London and has since added stage and radio acting, TV presenting and an appearance on ITV’s reality show Survivor to her CV which typically includes long stints as a waitress. She also reached the final of Channel 4’s So You Think You Are Funny competition, a talent hunt for aspiring comedians of both sexes. Zoe admits that the realm of comedy is still male-centric but doesn’t see her career as an isolated case: “Yes, it’s very male-dominated world but so are a lot of worlds. If you were a female commercial pilot I think you’d find yourself lacking friends in the locker room.”

Being a short-haired, tattooed lesbian who hosts a gay-friendly comedy night in Brighton, Zoe typifies the female stand-up caricature. It is an image that helps some audience members justify their dismissal of female comics and Zoe still gets a few accusatory heckles of ‘dyke’ at her shows. But she insists that her material reaches subjects more diverse than merely sexuality and gender: “The people who still believe female comedians are all butch lesbians who talk about nothing but periods, weight and men obviously haven’t seen female comedy recently. As a female performer your material is tightly scrutinised but men are still able to get away with wank jokes.”

Getting her cello accepted as part of a comedy routine has proved more of an issue than gender for Rebecca Carrington. However, Rebecca – an impressionist, classically trained musician and multi-linguist - has found the attitude to gender in comedy is distinct to that of music and theatre. “I shocked a guy when I first started doing comedy in New York,” she says. “He couldn’t understand how an English girl could go into comedy if she wasn’t a lesbian or on drugs.”

Rebecca was also black-listed from a cruise line for saying the f-word twice while acting as one of her comic characters, a reaction that she puts down to being a woman: “My act is not crude at all and I know there were male comics on the cruise who got away with a lot more. I couldn’t because I was a posh-speaking bird from the south.”

The popularity of character-comedy and sketch-shows on television has risen dramatically over recent years. With it women such as Tamsin Greig (Black Books, Green Wing), Doon Mackichan (Smack the Pony, I’m Alan Partridge) and latterly Catherine Tate (Big Train, The Catherine Tate Show) have found a platform for success as comedy performers.

Lynne Parker accepts that female stand-up is not a regular fixture on our screens because of the nature of the beast. Stand-up is rarely shown in prime-time slots, as it often requires interaction with an audience. She celebrates the acknowledgement of these women as equals to the men they share the camera with, although Zoe is slightly more cynical. “There are some great female comedians coming out of character comedy and sketch shows,” she says. “But women are often still used to set up the joke rather than deliver the punch-line.”

Whereas the mainstream television audience is beginning to accept the fine qualities of female comedy, it may yet be a while before the more insular stand-up crowds consider women to be ‘up with the best of them’. But with their own competitions and comedy tours, funny women are in no hurry to change the minds of the non-believers - they just want to give their fans the last laugh.

The Funny Women comediennes host an annual charity event, which is held on 8 March, International Women’s Day. This year it will be held at Café Royal on London's Regent Street with proceeds going to the charity V-Day: Until the Violence Stops, which campaigns to end violence against women as well as supporting key charities such as Women's Aid and Refuge to help survivors.

Heats for Funny Women 2006 start in May. For more information see
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Zoe Lyons, 2004 Funny Women winner

"The people who still believe female comedians are all butch lesbians who talk about nothing but periods, weight and men obviously haven’t seen female comedy recently"

Rebecca Carrington does funny stuff with a cello