Happy International Women’s Day! Here, comedy blogger and stand-up Ben Keenan celebrates women in comedy – and talks to some of the funniest females in the industry right now.
The idea that women aren’t funny is as old and tired as the male comics who purported the notion. I grew up with three incredibly strong women in my mother and two sisters, but apart from their amazing resolute strength and tenacity they had a wicked sense of humour. They would gently goad each other and myself and that in its own way built my confidence because it taught me to handle getting the pi** taking out of me. So in honour of my sisters and mum, and to every women out there funny or otherwise, here’s a look at some of the first women in comedy and some to look out for now!
The first lady…
There are a few differing opinions on who can lay claim to the being the first lady in comedy, Phyllis Diller is the person widely acknowledged as being the first although she would most likely quip that she ain’t no lady!, paving the way for the likes of Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball and many more.
Phyllis Diller was a bored housewife and a part-time advertising copywriter – itself an achievement for the time especially in America. She would write little skits and one-liners for her fellow dispirited housewives in a show of solidarity and more importantly to humorously highlight the subdued and sterile life that had been thrust upon these young women; left at home to deal with their sometimes large broods and all the banality of domestic life that went with it. What a breath of fresh air she must have been! This is the lady in her prime ripping on her Mother-In-Law… Savage!
But it wasn’t Phyllis who was the first female stand-up, it was a little known African American lady called Moms Mabley.
Moms Mabley should be universally well known, but sadly as we know America at the time was still very much a segregated society even in the more enlightened parts of the country, born in the 1890s Moms’ act was pretty much confined to the black vaudeville circuit which was known rather tongue in cheek may I add as the Chitlin Circuit. It was here that she defined herself as Moms’ more for her mothering and mentoring than anything else. Her routines would poke fun of the ugliness of racial bigotry that was a scar on her society at the time and still sadly can be. She spoke candidly and unashamedly about her lust for young men and ironically was said to be a lesbian in real life, a true pioneer and taboo crusher!
She finally got the success and recognition she deserved in the ’20s and ’30s where she became the first ever women to play at the Apollo and would go on to perform there more than any other male or female performer, she would also star in films alongside the likes of Nat King Cole.
There aren’t many decent recordings of this great women. But hopefully you can enjoy this, and this is essential…
Another women who was standing her own ground in a largely male dominated comedy world was the glamorous and extremely funny Jean Carroll. While other comics of her time had to be onstage with a male counterpoint (see Gracie Allen, George Burns or Lucille Ball) or hide behind a dowdy or crazed persona, Jean was as audacious as she was beautiful. Although by today’s standard the content of her material would be considered tame, in the ’40s it was considered radical, and liberating for the female comics that would follow in her footsteps. Here is a very early TV appearance. You can imagine that her unedited live material would be much more risqué.
These women weren’t deliberately setting out to be pioneers or trailblazers, it’s just that they had the courage to say ‘enough is enough, we are as funny and as talented as you but we just have to shout a wee bit louder’. So many years later has our attitude to female comics changed? Maybe. Maybe not.
The likes of Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Samantha Bee, Melissa McCarthy, to name but a handful, are starting to get more and more box office success, but is it enough to shift attitudes and finally bury the old tired cliché about funny women for good? I hope so. Because it’s a stale rhetoric and completely out of line with the ethos of comedy which is simply to make people laugh. Regardless of your gender, race, religion or sexual preference. I couldn’t give a toss if you were a four-legged, mixed race, transgender Mormon, if you make me laugh, we’re all good.
So now let’s hear from a few of my favourite female comedians on the topic…
First up is Katie Pritchard relatively new to the world of comedy by her own admission, when I saw her I thought she was a seasoned performer, hugely likeable with an easy charm and great energy. Her song about Henry VIII had me in stitches, and her portrayal of him as a bored grown-up lad is spot on! Find her, and go watch her via Facebook.com/katiepritchards and Youtube.com/c/KatiePritchardtube.
Katie says, “I’ve not been in comedy land for long, and I’d like to stress right now, that I really am just a baby when it comes to my experience in comedy, but I do find it interesting how much sexism there is in the industry. So, when I began, doing my first attempts at ‘comedy’ a few years ago, it was quite hard to get a gig, and often, I would be the only girl on the bill, and on top of that – I do musical comedy – so, being very, very niche indeed, it was tricky to get gigs and feel like I wasn’t the odd one out. Then, a few months into my comedy career, an up and coming female comedian was contacted on International Women’s Day to say that she had been taken off the line-up of a gig that night because there were already ‘too many women on the bill’.
“And since then, it was like everyone in comedy was desperate to prove that they weren’t sexist in any way shape or form. All these gigs trying to make their line-ups 50/50 or at least 70/30 men and women, to make more of a gender balance at their gigs. And I think that has been an extremely important thing. Even though this is only happening lower down the ladder, and perhaps not as far up that comedy ladder as it should, it makes me feel positive about the future for women in comedy. Eventually people from my alumni of comics will trickle up to comedy stardom and take this idea of gender equality with them. Maybe even one day, gender won’t matter to people, and they’ll just laugh at a comedian because they are funny. But…one step at a time…”
Next up is my good friend Katie Bridget O’Brien, who is just the most amazingly funny person I’ve seen live in ages! I caught her SuZanna GonZo: Dark Lady show a few months back at Shoreditch House and what struck me at once was how well she had developed her comic persona and how she worked the crowd, truly captivating stuff, let’s hear what she thinks!
Katie says, “I started out doing satire as The Muffia (feminist performance group) as a lot of our live art work was developed using humour, we wrote a spoof show for Edinburgh 2009 called Tight Women but feminist dipped comedy hadn’t taken off just yet so our skits about reviewing hymens or rapping about under age sex, ‘How low would you go’ and discussions on body image didn’t have the softest of landings on the comedy circuit. We lasted 20 seconds in the Manchester Comedy store Gong show, a moment I am still proud of. #TopTip, best not to open with a metaphorical gag about raping kittens for a mainstream stand-up audience. Interestingly enough Viv Groskop interviewed us for the Guardian at the time, which was a great boost; she was very curious about the concept of being a feminist and funny at the same time, could this be possible? Little did we know she had her eye on the comedy candy herself.
“I have never felt like it was harder for me to do comedy as a woman but I would say there seems to be a level to which you can reach. It’s easy to get open mic spots, a lot of the (single) guys running the nights welcome women to come and perform for various reasons as you can imagine. I am not complaining as fellow female comic (now on the TV every week) once said at one of my comedy nights, ‘sometimes its just easier to go home with someone than get the night bus home’. There was a general nod of agreement from some of the ‘female’ comics in the room.
“Ultimately the question for the craft of comedy is; is this person funny? I think it is important to be defined as a good or great comedian rather than a female, gay or black comedian. How do people describe Eddie Izzard? I have never seen him marketed as a Transvestite or Tans Comedian. He is not a spokesperson for these communities and I am sure he wouldn’t want to be.
“I have a couple of very successful and hard working comedian friends based in the US and I am not sure if it is the same in the UK but they find it very hard to get the lead roles or top spots. It is still dominated by men. After the huge influx of brilliant female talent in the last seven or eight years I would be curious to see what the ratio is on TV and Film for female comedy roles. I do think a lot has changed in what is perceived as funny and we are progressing all the time, but like music history, we must not forget there have always been great female comics. Mae West famously wrote a lot of her own lines, she is somehow never talked about even though one of her lines is probably said everyday somewhere in the world: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” It would be considered very ignorant to think ‘woman can’t be funny’ in cosmopolitan societies today. I have chosen comedy for various reasons, I am continuing to search for new ways to express my funny and I am not discouraged because I am a woman.” See more from Katie at Kbob.co.uk and suzannagonzo.com.
When I sat down to write this I didn’t really know what to expect, it has been really lovely to delve back into history and see how women fought for their right to be on a stage let alone as a comic, and equally to hear from my fellow contemporaries on the topic. I know it’s only a few examples and a few opinions but thankfully that’s because there are so many funny women!