Supporting women in comedy

It’s 2020 and women in comedy still face challenges, setbacks and under-representation in the industry.

In 2002, Lynne Parker set up Funny Women to give female comedians a voice in performing and writing. A year later she launched the Funny Women awards. More recently, in 2018, comedian Helen Lederer set up the annual Comedy Women in Print prize.

However, leading comedy news and listings website Chortle, with its database of comedians in “Britain, Ireland and beyond”, lists just 347 women against 1522 men. Fewer than a quarter of the comedians are women.

While acknowledging this disparity between male and female comedians is a positive first step, what can the industry and comedy lovers actually do to support women in comedy?

I spoke to five female comedians for their thoughts.

Standup Hannah Pennauer, who has performed since 2018, considers the disparity between male and female comedians to be widely acknowledged in the industry but believes “not much is being done about it.”

Brighton-based comedian Rebekka Turner thinks that while there are some comedy nights and events designed to support female comedy, such as the Funny Women Awards, “they are far few in-between.” She states: “I’d like to see club nights have less predominantly straight white male line ups.”

“I think female comedians need more professional encouragement”, she says, “and there needs to be further acknowledgement of female issues in the industry, for example the issue of feeling safe in the venue and on the way home”. Turner references that getting home safe after a late-night gig can be concerning to some women comedians. “These issues may be a criterion as to why more men apply to gigs than women”. The comedy industry must start to recognise that women’s issues are different to men’s and create better support systems for aspiring female comedians.

Turner adds: “The public could try to make female performers feel at ease more, be less dismissive, and leave positive feedback after a show. Quite often, you don’t get to fully acknowledge the appreciation at a physical night, so it’s nice to see it in a comment afterward.”

However, the issue of equal gender representation in comedy remains bigger than demographics. Standup Sarah Slater is the former owner of a comedy venue in Bristol, with performance experience dating back to the 1980s. Although she notes that the ‘women aren’t funny’ attitude has improved considerably since the ’80s, she believes “the appearance of female comedians is taken into account too much, they are not allowed to be too attractive and they are not allowed to be too ugly”. She says that the unconscious bias which can encourage people to measure a woman’s ‘funniness’ by their appearance must change in order for the industry disbalance to weigh even.

Recent drama graduate and aspiring comedian Verity Sharpe believes: “the problem is in the grassroots. It’s really hard as a woman to say ‘I’m funny’ because that’s not the realm women are allowed in. A lot of men think they’re funny, including men that aren’t, but they have the confidence to believe this of themselves, whereas women seem to be more conditioned to question their abilities”. This could be resulting in fewer women aspiring to a career in comedy.

Comedian Maren Thom, who has 20 years of experience in the London comedy scene, also believes that the lack of women in comedy is an institutional issue and that, from a young age, boys are taught to ‘banter’ and girls are taught to ‘be nice’. This limits the creativity of women comedians because they feel obligated to fit into a certain box of ‘safe’ comedy. She believes this may be leading to many women being too nervous to try out controversial and risky material. She refers to risky and controversial material as the “unsafe space” in comedy, because it is not always a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

Thom believes: “the industry and society need to provide more unsafe space for women, so they have the freedom to express a wider variety of comedy genres”. This is turn might invite more diversity to the comedy scene.

Speaking to these five women shows modern feminism to be an essential tool of creating better representation for women in the comedy industry. Teach young girls in the playground they are funny and welcome in the world of ‘banter’, and they will grow up to feel they belong on the stage of comedy. Give women the space to be heard and the confidence to succeed.

Women don’t belong in a separate box titled “female comedians”. It’s 2020, and it’s time for the huge box labelled ‘comedy’ to simply open up and let women in.

Feature photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash. It shows the word “laugh” in orange neon letters against a brick wall.