The Edinburgh Fringe festival is drawing to a close. Female comics including Bridget Christie, Jayde Adams, Zoe Coombs-Marr, Kate Lucas and Michelle Wolf have been receiving scores of five-star reviews. Coombs-Marr, Wolf and Adams are nominated for Edinburgh Comedy Awards this year, Sofie Hagen won Best Newcomer last year, and Bridget Christie won the main Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2013 – despite female comedians only accounting for fewer than 15 per cent of the circuit. And yet people persist in saying that women aren’t funny. Nearly every female comedy performer I know has experienced an audience member saying post-gig, ‘I don’t normally like women comedians, but you made me laugh.’
The late Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the famously controversial op-ed ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, was right about one thing: it’s probably fair to say that women employ humour less often in everyday life than men do. But this doesn’t mean that we are biologically incapable of being just as witty and hilarious. It merely means that, in general, we don’t look for the humour in situations in the same way that blokes do, or try to amuse people as much. I don’t understand why anyone is surprised by this: everything girls are taught while growing up works against us when it comes to writing and performing comedy.
From an early age, we are socialised – by parents, teachers and even strangers – to believe that we should be polite and well-behaved. While our male counterparts are indulged when larking around and misbehaving, covered by the excuse ‘boys will be boys’, there is a big list of things that young women are told that ‘nice’ girls shouldn’t do: swear, shout, be bossy, be ‘unladylike’, be inelegant, provocative, clumsy, bitter or cynical. Many of these things are essential to performing effective stand-up. Clowning around is not considered seemly for girls, and nor is shrieking with laughter or telling rude jokes. While boys rib their mates mercilessly for sport, girls are encouraged to be supportive, caring and nurturing towards their friends, rather than quipping about their shortcomings.
And things don’t get any better as we get older. Women’s magazines are often completely humourless; any jokes tend to be very weak. Instead, the pages are full of articles about how we can look better, be sexier, please our men and keep them happy. In contrast, men’s magazines are frequently hilarious, and often contain features on how to tell jokes and deliver funny chat-up lines. The one exception to this rule was a women’s joke book that appeared on the cover of the now-defunct magazine New Woman in 2002. It prompted me to write my first comedy script, which was picked up by the BBC: before reading the book full of sharp one-liners, I genuinely hadn’t considered the possibility of being funny for a living. No wonder there are more than six male comics for every female stand-up.
Are men to blame? No. Both genders have sexist expectations of how women should behave. Society will evolve for the better over time. In the meantime, attitudes towards women simply make the achievements of successful female comedians all the more admirable.