Published on February 18, 2013 | by Leanne Addison & Henrietta Hitchcock


Have you heard the one about ‘female comedians’?

Tina Fey has had much success as a comedienne in the US and the UK [Gage Skidmore]

With the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique being published in February – a book praised for sparking the second wave of feminism in the ’60s – there has never been a better time to raise the issue of women in comedy.

Men seem to dominate the comedic scene; Michael McIntyre, Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr and Micky Flanagan all perform to sell out audiences.

Female comedians are one of those minorities that people have a strange reaction to; it’s not that people want to say women aren’t funny – it’s just assumed that men are funnier.

In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Christopher Hitchens asked the question “Why aren’t women funny?”

His words may or may not hold weight but his ‘research’ is fairly limited, as he said: “Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.”

Whilst a snide and mildly humorous article, was Hitchens touching on a valid point? He went on to show evidence from a study at Stanford University, in which 10 men and 10 women were placed in front of a series of black and white cartoons.

Hitchen’s wrote of the findings that women were “slower to get it, more pleased when they did, and swift to locate the unfunny.”

And in the women’s corner

In typical Hitchens fashion controversy strikes when he said, “For this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?” Even if this is true, does it really constitute whether or not that women are funny?

“There are so many hilarious women comics I look up to in London alone.”  Comedian, Monica Heisey

It seems women are already fighting their own corner in comedy; Sarah Millican was one of 2012’s biggest comedians, but the audience of Millican’s sell-out tour were mainly female; with boyfriends and husbands dotted around the theatres.

It is fairly obvious that Millican’s stand-up centres around women far more, with lewd jokes about herself and everything else that makes most men squirm.

The same goes for Jo Brand, who is said to have men crossing their legs in fear whilst watching her routines, with famous jokes such as, “They say men can never experience the pain of childbirth. But they can, if you hit them in the goolies with a cricket bat for 14 hours.”

Female comedy can be mostly centered around women, but if women are not going to watch stand-up, or are not as interested as men, then their audience may not be as prevalent.


American author Fran Lebovitz is a woman famous most of all for her talking, writing – or inability to be able to – and her brash and painfully truthful opinion.

She once spoke of feminism saying, “Well, now they have done it, and I believe that women have gotten pretty much as far as they’re going to get. Which is better, but not great.”

“It seems to me that people, especially women, especially women who have all these choices, are now looking for things that aren’t oppressive exactly, but are pretty suffocating.

“What used to be called middle-class respectability looked like it was going to disappear, but it didn’t. It has returned. It just returned in a different costume.

“If you do it in a loft instead of a split-level in the suburbs, it’s still the same. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be allowed to do it; I’m saying it is suburban. This is why New York today seems suburban to me—all kids and babies in strollers. It’s 1950s domestic life. The sidewalks are the same size, but now you have twins and dogs.”

Lebovitz makes a fair but contentious comment, and perhaps one that could explain why female comedians may just not be getting the audience. But is that the full extent of the problem?

Misogynist jerks

Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham is the writer, creator and star of new US comedy Girls [David Shankbone]

Monica Heisey, a young Canadian comedian, who focuses on improvisational and sketch comedy, argues that she “hates, hates, hates the phrase ‘female comedian’ because who describes David Mitchell or Jimmy Carr as ‘male comedians’?

“I think the same negatives that women in any field of experience apply to being a female comedian – some people are misogynist jerks, but you find those everywhere and there are fewer and fewer all the time.”

Heisey mentions a progressive blog that comedian Jen Kirkman has created; ‘MA’AM Men Against Assholes and Misogyny, which acts as a forum where men who are sick of seeing women, comedians or otherwise, treated poorly by their peers or “complete jerk strangers”.

“There are a lot of interesting essays about respect for women from famous guys and regular guys, and it’s really heartening to see.” Says Heisey.

When you first enter the homepage of MA’AM, you are greeted by gratifying messages; “A place for men – not afraid to call themselves feminists – to write from their heart to help educate men who may still hold some sexist attitudes towards women.”


It is definitely a huge step in the right direction, but this still doesn’t answer the question of why there is such a minority of women in comedy.

“The same reason there are more male CEOs and famous male authors and chefs and literally almost any other profession,” comments Heisey. “Women have historically been held back from doing what they want.

“Women born as recently as my mother’s era grew up being told that good girls don’t speak too loudly or too often.” Comedian, Monica Heisey

“Although as I said it’s getting better, the fact is that women born as recently as my mother’s era grew up being told that good girls don’t speak too loudly or too often, and there are some dinosaurs who still think that way.

“But there are more ‘big’ female comedians all the time, and that’s just going to continue. I’m not going to do the funny lady list thing, but there are so many hilarious women comics I look up to in London alone.”

The thought that women have not been emancipated enough yet to even think of doing stand up comedy is interesting, and perhaps comedy as a career is a very new thing amongst women, especially with such a long period of time for most people from starting in comedy to getting even remotely famous.

Award winning women

With all of this aside, 2013 has seen women making giant leaps on the comedy circuit; Jo Brand won the Best Female TV comic at the British Comedy Awards, with Dawn French winning a BAFTA and has been nominated seven times.

Along with that Josie Long has been nominated for several years running at Edinburgh festival, as has Roisin Connaty.

Young and old women alike are working their way up the ladder, and the scene seems to be growing faster and faster.

It seems the argument of whether or not women are funny is outdated; there’s a new argument on the scene.

Rather provokatively, Hollywood journalist Nikki Finke recently commented that, “Beautiful women can’t do funny.”

She went onto say, “Only women who grew up ugly and stayed ugly, or through plastic surgery became beautiful, can pull off sitcoms or stand-ups… because it’s all about emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you. So stop casting beautiful actresses when you should be giving ugly women a chance.”

Laughable as this comment may seem, there may be truth in it.

Lena Dunham; creator of cult coming-of-age series Girls writes, directs and stars in the show, which has just started its second series in the US, having won the Golden Globe for best comedy series this year.

Girls and the city

Sarah Millican

Sarah Millican rocketed to fame with her honest and frank jokes on being a woman [Flickr]

Dunham, who plays the show’s main protagonist Hannah, seems to spend much of her time on screen in her knickers.

New York Post writer Linda Stasi wrote, “It’s not everyday in the TV world of anorexic actresses that a women with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it at all.”

Dunham’s core aesthetic to the series Girls is a painfully honest account of what it’s like to be a girl in the city; body fat and all, she writes for the normal girl; she addresses female insecurities, but makes you think it is OK.

BA Magazine Publishing student Tia Cooper, 21, says, “There’s nothing aspirational about the girls in Girls, their lives don’t seem much different to mine. My friends and I literally squirm with embarrassment at some scenes because we’ve been there!”

Dunham has created a show that strikes a chord with everyone, even men, joining a number of American female comics who are leading a troop of up-and-coming female comedians into security.

Female American comedians such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – former Saturday Night Live co-stars and real life best friends – kicked off 2013 by presenting the Golden Globes, and in doing so proved that award ceremonies don’t have to be a sinfully boring three hour snooze-fest.

TV exposure

Fey and Poehler helped the Golden Globes pull in 19.8 million US viewers – a 17 per cent increase on last year’s figures when Ricky Gervais hosted the awards for the third year in a row.

Both women were nominated, Fey for 30 Rock and Poehler for mockumentry Parks and Recreation. However, both lost out to Lena Dunham for Girls, but it was a win for female comedians all around.

There is definitely is not a lack of female comedians in the UK; you just have to look at the comedy club listings to see that.

Perhaps the lack of exposure for women is the thing standing in the way; more TV means you sell more tickets on tour.

However, 2013 has certainly started well for a few female comedians, but the balance between male and females selling out arenas is by no means equal.

Whether that is because of the audience comedy attracts, the lack of women on the circuit, or the fact that people just don’t find women funny, it is to be seen. But women are coming through, and there’s a lot of them.

As Fran Leibovitz once said, “Being a woman is of special interest only to aspiring male transsexuals. To actual women, it is simply a good excuse not to play football.”


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