Dandenong comedian Tegan Higginbotham

Of the 202 Australian stand-up shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, less than 25% of the acts were by solo women or women-only teams. I wasn’t particularly surprised about this, since gender imbalances are common in other creative industries (such as writing, as we know) but my inner feminist was still left feeling rather pummelled. My intention had been to support younger, female comedians in their work and though I still could, by seeing acts by Hayley Brennan and Tegan Higginbotham, my choice seemed very limited.

We all know that there are funny women out there. UK stand-up extraordinaire Shappi Khorsandi was one of the festival’s biggest acts. Judith Lucy and Cal Wilson, who are also performing, are household names. Higginbotham’s act, ‘Million Dollar Tegan’, was exceptional in its comedic timing, engaging use of narrative, linguistic wit and personal honesty. Outside of the festival, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Magda Szubanski, Jo Brand and the current golden girl of humour, Tina Fey, are practically enshrined within the comedic canon. So why are there so many more men on the stand-up circuit?

Germaine Greer (who is extremely witty herself, I might add) responds to this question by assessing socially accepted gender norms. Men tend to be the funnier sex, she argues, because they depend upon cultures of banter, buffoonery and quick-wittedness in order to bond with one another in ways that women generally don’t. Men’s comedic skills, therefore, are developed early and become embedded within their patterns of relating to people, making stand-up comedy a more readily accessible profession for them than it may be for women.

UK stand-up performer Josie Long’s experience provides a more industry-specific approach to the issue. She comments that even though both sexes often seem represented equally on open-mike comedy nights and in improvisational workshops, there is still an attitude both within the industry and in public that privileges men in comedy, and which really grinds female stand-ups down over time:

Three hundred times a year, I’ve had somebody say to me, ‘There aren’t any funny women out there’ or ‘Women aren’t as funny as men’ or ‘I don’t like women comedians’ or even ‘I like you but I don’t normally like women’ … Some sort of hint that for some reason they’re judging men versus women in the arena of comedy. If I add that up, that is 2100 times I’ve been undermined in my career that my male counterparts never, ever have.

But there seems to be no simple solution to the view that women will never be as funny as men. A recent Guardian article outlines how Chortle (the UK industry website) released an almost all-male shortlist for its 2012 comedy award, echoing the current trend in literature prize shortlists. According to the article, though, half of the Chortle selection panel were women, suggesting that an increase in the number of women in the industry may not be enough to shift a cultural attitude.

Unfortunately, this cultural attitude has led to extreme forms of harassment for female stand-ups. New York’s Gaby Dunn has blogged about her experience of being heckled by a man to the extent that it not only derailed her act and led her to feel publicly humiliated, but also threatened her so much that she felt physically unsafe. After the gig, Dunn hid out the back of the bar until her boyfriend came to pick her up.

If this woman can’t even feel physically safe in her workplace, how can she expect to be assessed according to the quality of her work? Surely a female stand-up’s funniness should be measured purely by whether or not an audience laughs at her jokes. But the question remains: how do we get to a point where such judgements are solely based on performance, and not at all loaded with assumptions about gender? To borrow Long’s terminology, how do we change the rules of the comedy game to ‘comedian vs comedian’, rather than ‘man vs woman’?

The academic in me cries out for research questions to be answered: how does humour form in different cultures? Is women’s humour really any different to men’s? Have we allowed men to define what is considered ‘funny’ through their prominence in the industry? And what does it mean to be ‘funny’ anyway? The punter in me takes a more time-friendly and immediately practical approach. She says: Get over it. Pay to see more female comics. Keep seeing male comics too. Review all shows as harshly or as graciously as the performance allows. Publish said reviews. And repeat ad infinitum.

Julia Tulloh is a Killings columnist and splits her time between freelance writing and working in early childhood policy.