'Women Have More To LOL About Than Periods' - What It's Really Like To Be A Female Comedian In 2017
The Debrief: We spoke to comedians London Hughes and Stevie Martin ahead of Comic Relief about their experiences in the industuy.
How often do you see more than one female comic on the same panel show? Okay, how many can you name as having their own shows? It’s not as easy to do as you’d hoped it would be, is it? And it’s not that there just aren’t any women on the comedy circuit – far from it. There are loads of fantastically funny females doing the rounds. But when it comes to the big gigs, there continues to be an astonishingly stark lack of women in the spotlight.
The brilliant London Hughes is no stranger to the tale of the struggling female comic. In fact, she’s written some really funny material about it. In a special sketch for Comic Relief, London addresses just how ridiculous life can be when you’re a woman trying to make it in comedy.
It’s a spoof trailer called Keeping Up With The Komedians starring London alongside Jessica Fostekew and Camile Ucan. From trying to pursue a career while pregnant to poor wage packets to going from famous one minute and irrelevant the next, the sketch itself is obviously really funny. But that doesn’t stop London from getting real about the industry’s issue with women.
‘All of the things I covered have either happened to me or female comedian friends of mine’, she explains. There’s even a bit in the sketch where London’s character Kacy is told that she’s ‘really funny for a woman’, and yes, that happened to London in real life too.
‘I thought, I can’t do a sketch about women without taking the piss out of that. Her wanting to be funny and the fact that a woman told her that she’s 'funny for a female' and she took it as a compliment – like, that stuff actually happens – it’s just ridiculous, so I thought I’d put in a character that would play on that’.
It is ridiculous. But why is it still something that we're having to address in 2017? Because I'm sure we'd all have hoped to have come further as a society than that. ‘We’re just taught to believe that women aren’t funny to the point where even women are believing that they’re not funny’, says London. ‘The media, society, the world we live in has made us believe that to have that level of wit, that you actually come across as funny, then you have to be a man. And if you look at it, it’s just mad. There are so many unfunny male comedians’.
London explains that you're more likely to find successful 'unfunny' male comedians out there than women, which isn't all that surprising if you think about it. In a way that many of women might be familiar with in our own areas of work, there's more pressure on us to be great than there is on men. 'We have to up our game because we’re not allowed to be mediocre', London says. 'Whereas I can tell you a plethora of mediocre men that have great careers so I think the whole thing of women not being funny is just ridiculous and that’s why I made the sketch really –if you laughed at that sketch and you’re a guy then it dispels the rumour.'
Stevie Martin is another super talented woman who also created a sketch for Comic Relief with her sketch group Massive Dad, and her experience hasn’t been all that far from London’s. She gave the example of a time some extra actors were brought in for a sketch they were filming. ‘One guy was pretending to be a stall and I had to sit on him. I was trying to squat but couldn’t so I was like [to him] “I’m really sorry” and he was like “it’s not your fault, you didn’t write it”. And I was like “But I did…”’.
Did you just get really agitated and dramatically roll your eyes? Me too. You’d think that an understanding of the fact that women have more to lol about than periods is common knowledge, but apparently, it’s not. ‘There’s so much presumption that there’s someone else out there writing the material’, Stevie says. ‘Because there’s got to be a man somewhere because a) it’s funny and b) you’ve not referenced tampons once’.
She explained that when producers do say that they want more women, though, that’s about as far as they’ve gotten with the idea. ‘And then when you try and get into specifics there’s a lot of “could you just do something that’s about being a woman?”’.
Male comics don’t get producers approaching them to say ‘it would be really good to get a more "man comedy" out there', Stevie says. ‘My sense of humour doesn’t come from the fact that I’m a woman, it comes from the fact that I’m hopeless at most things or sarcastic about something and the things that I notice aren’t… like with the Comic Relief sketch – it’s looking at the classic old fashion flat share sitcoms and kind of taking the piss a bit out of it? And that’s universal.’
There's the impression that there's only space for one super successful female comic at a time. And because of this, Stevie has found one of the main difficulties to be just how easy it is to fall into obscurity. 'We've had a couple of instances where someone's gone "oh no, we can't do something with you because we're already doing something with Lazy Susan" who are a female double act. And we're like, well we [Massive Dad] are very different.'
'The biggest challenge is competing with people. Women in comedy are very supportive - it's a really nice environment but there's less space for us to operate.'
But how to we fix this outdated perception of what women in comedy can or can't do? London thinks the answer is in America. ‘As we look to America, female comedians are killing it. You’ve got Amy Schumer – Amy Schumer’s probably one of the biggest comics in America let alone the fact that she’s female. You’ve got Lena Dunham, you’ve got Mindy Kaling, you’ve got Broad City. I could list a long list of American female comics killing it and we’re just like five years behind America. We always copy them eventually’. The popularity of American female comedians extends over on this side of the Atlantic too. So yes, hopefully, the UK will soon follow suit.
Stevie looks at it a little differently, though. 'There are two ways to go about making a change', she says. 'There’s one way which is making a change really really directly – doing comedy about [the issue] which is very important and people are doing it. The other way which is basically just doing what we hope the world will soon understand as normal. We're very quietly, occasionally correcting people when they call us a female sketch group because they don’t call male sketch groups "male sketch groups". We just always prefer to let the material do the talking which is why the Comic Relief sketch we did that could have been done by a man or a woman.'
Diversity is clearly an issue that we haven’t been able to put to bed yet. And as much as it’s a ball ache to keep having conversations about something that, in 2017, has no place being a problem, it’s something that we can’t afford to stop talking about.
There's space for women in comedy - we know it, the women working in it know it and deep down the people making the decisions probably know it too. Let's just hoping more people on the inside wake up to the fact that women are just as funny as men are. With or without period jokes.
The sketches from London and Massive Dad are part of the Comic Relief Originals Series - to watch even more sketches from a host of emerging comedy talent, go to the Comic Relief YouTube channel.
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