At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I’ve been to MICF for the past four years and have seen hundreds of shows in that time (last year I somehow managed to see 52). I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Far fewer women than men register to be a part of the festival. Last year, men outnumbered women at a ratio of 3:8*. What if I only saw acts that fell within that minority? Would my experience of the festival be different?
The answer (just to throw away any suspense) is no – my experience wasn’t different at all. I saw a more diverse range of shows than I have in previous years, but that was unrelated to gender: I challenged myself to see different things this year. Sketch, burlesque, and shows that tended toward theatre. Looking at the program with an eye for diversity, I saw more diverse shows – which isn’t rocket science. When I set myself this challenge, I had always planned to write about the experience. I was going to write about what I learnt, how it changed my perception of comedy. A solid plan, except… it didn’t. Nothing profound came of the project. I decided I think ladies are probably better at comedy than dudes, but it’s pretty hard to get a whole article out of that one piece of misandry.
One of the hardest things when I tried to write about it all is that even the act of celebrating women in comedy, marks them out as separate, as somehow different from the statistically dominant male cohort. I still use the phrase female comedian. I will use it (and variations on the theme) all through this article, and I have used it when talking to people about the shows that I saw. I’ve tried and failed to find an alternative, aware that it is a phrase many in the industry would like to see dead and buried.
Anne Edmonds (above) discussed this issue in her show, ‘You Know What I’m Like’, saying that the last thing she wants is to be called a ‘female comedian’. Too often, Edmonds said, she feels as though she is expected to carry her entire gender on her shoulders; if someone sees her perform and doesn’t think she’s funny, it is easy for them to use that to form a belief that no women are funny. One woman is expected to speak for all women. This concept is problematic in any context, but in comedy it becomes even more fraught. Comedy is a subjective medium. No one person will laugh at all jokes. Different things make different people laugh. Equating all female comics with each other implies that they and their work are a singular entity – you either like female comedians, or you don’t.
Corinne Grant condemns the phrase ‘female comedian’ in the recently-published anthology She’s Having a Laugh. Her essay, ‘I’m Not A Female Comedian’, makes a convincing argument as to why those comics who happen to be women have earned the right to lose the gender qualifier: ‘I cannot remember the last time I did an interview about stand-up where my gender was not more important than my profession. I’m never just a comedian, I’m a female comedian.’ While there are zero good things about that situation, there is an irony in the fact that Grant’s essay is included in a book that contains ‘Australia’s Funniest Women’. ‘Funny woman’ is awfully close to being a synonym for ‘female comedian’.
The argument, of course, is about much more than the phrase itself. What both Edmonds and Grant are really targeting, are the ideas that surround it. As Grant says, too often female comics are asked about their gender first, and their comedy second. Being a woman in the business of comedy is somehow still an achievement worthy of remark, and far too often this fact is remarked upon before anyone gets around to mentioning the jokes. Sexism is entrenched in the comedy world. Women face these issues at every turn – in journalists’ questions, in MC’s introductions, in gala line-ups and in reviews.
During this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, The Guardian posted a video (below) that ties in with many of these issues. It features five comedians – three international and two local – discussing some of the challenges they’ve faced during their careers. They are all women. At no point in the video or in any of the surrounding headlines or copy does it mention this. To date, there are 19 comments on this article. Every one of them mentions gender first, and comedy second (if at all). One commenter slams the comedians featured as dull and unfunny, saying: ‘I was expecting this to be funny di i [sic] blink and miss the jokes? If you wish to showcase funny women at least have some jokes maybe?’ Apparently, the video proves that women aren’t funny, and is ammunition against anyone who diverges from this opinion. Arguably even worse than that comment, was this: ‘As all the “comedians” to whom the article refers are girls [emphasis commentor’s own] (the pictures at the top of the piece are also a bit of a giveaway), the headline and subsequent references should probably use the proper feminine form, “comedienne.”’
It is almost impossible for women in comedy to escape comments of this nature. Even in the case of the Guardian’s video, where the all-female line-up was apparently accidental, people feel compelled to bring gender to the fore. It is impossible to discuss comedy performed by women (as diverse and wonderful as it and they are) without being dogged by the persistent idea that the phrase ‘female comedian’ is somehow an oxymoron.
More and more people are fighting back against this. The Guardian piece (comments aside) does a fabulous job of highlighting and celebrating the comedians it features. As a more diverse range of comedians find audiences, it becomes harder and harder to dispute the fact that there is a demand for different comedic voices. There are an increasing number of spaces that seek to actively foster female comics. Both Melbourne and Sydney’s comedy festivals featured all-women galas – Upfront and Frocking Hilarious respectively. While the more popular galas – like MICF’s opening night extravaganza – still feature less women than men (and it is almost impossible to imagine them featuring only women) they feature more women every year. Year-round, comedy rooms such as Sydney’s Wolf Comedy place a firm emphasis on booking a diverse range of comics, including a high percentage of women.
My experience of the comedy festival wasn’t changed by seeing only women. Beyond the similarity in chromosomes, no common element connected the shows I saw. The way I watch comedy was not altered. Part of me hopes that the phrase ‘female comedian’ has an expiry date – and that the time is approaching when a gala could feature only women without it being a big deal. Another part of me can’t help but think that scrapping the phrase implies a time when it is beyond usefulness. We are a long way off reaching such a time. It is hard to imagine a world when diversity in comedy no longer requires attention, acknowledgement and action, but instead becomes irrelevant.
Female comedians (in my experience) are a diverse, incredible, talented bunch. They work damn hard, and they deserved to be spoken about in sentences and articles and conversations that never once mention their gender. But they also deserve more spaces – physical and critical – which celebrate and champion them. Though negative serotypes of female comics are reductive, they continue to be prevalent. For now that means that gender continues to be on the table. Rather than attempting to drop the qualifier altogether, we should be focusing our efforts on shifting the emphasis from female, to comedian.
* I didn’t do a count this year because I was too busy circling all the ladies.