Can women be funny?

Valerie Ni Loinsigh


Lou Sanders opened her comedy act on Russell Howard’s Good News with the following. “I’ll explain what a macho gig is. Basically…hmmm…when a woman walks on, you’ll see them sort of thinking…hmmm, it’s a woman. This might be shit.”

Let me preface this, my first ever InDepth article, with a note. Note: I am wary of writing an article like this because when you dissect funny, well, it’s just not funny. And also that people will think that I’m a bitter baglady who can’t land a man and that’s the reason I’m writing about misogyny on the comedy circuit. I may be an embittered baglady who can’t land a man but that’s nothing to do with this article. It’s an exploration. Let me explore.

A boyfriend on the bus once told me women can’t be funny, ever. He told me there has never been one genuinely funny woman in the history of the world. I named numerous examples, he claimed they weren’t really funny. I told him I would become a stand-up comedian to prove him wrong. He told me that I was too pretty and too much of a girl to ever be funny. I told him I wanted a break and changed my number. And thus began a career in stand-up comedy based on a solid foundation of misogyny which still continues to endure to this day.

Really, it began before the (ex)boyfriend. I was a feral child, whose communicative skills didn’t begin developing until midway through secondary school. As a result, I spent all of my time playing sports with the boys and climbing rocks and couldn’t communicate with the foreign entities that called themselves girls because I was scared of them. Their talk was so much faster and more high-pitched than mine. Their posture was so much more elegant than mine. Their hair was so much more brushed than mine. Terrifying demons.

This muteness-around-women malady still haunts me to this day. I’m shit at small-talk and incompetent at femininity so my instinctual reaction to this has always been to try and turn my weirdness into funniness and somewhere along the way it began to work. Now they love me. They can’t get enough. I’m the man. Anyway, back to condemning misogyny.

One of my first experiences on the comedy circuit was supporting Des Bishop at Trinity Fringe way back when. Backstage, shortly after asking me did I have a bottle to pee in due to an un-thereness of toilet, he advised me to do some club gigs. And, as with most of the advice I’ve ever been given, I listened to it and reacted in a wildly overzealous, most definitely self-destructive way. I didn’t do a few club gigs. I did all of them. Amidst this tumultuous, unpredictable assault on comedy clubs, I could rely on one thing and one thing only. Misogyny. It wasn’t my aspiration to be a beauty queen that drew me to comedy, surprisingly. In fact, it was my lack of ammunition in the beauty department that made me brush up on my humour.  But no matter what club I played, I was introduced by MCs as ‘the sexy’ or ‘the beautiful’.

People don’t go to a comedy club to admire the aesthetics; they can go to an art gallery for that. It was incredibly belittling and as I felt utterly powerless, I didn’t put up a fight at the time and it began to feel like my appearance was one of my only redeeming features as a comedian.

The most horrendous introduction, I have ever received was from a man who is a friend of mine now and completely and utterly harmless. The fact that he didn’t bat an eyelid at the time, shows how entrenched misogyny is within the male comedy circuit. “This next comedian is great. I would know, I’ve slept with her.” Hilarious.

To be sure that I wasn’t just having a bad day and being a trifling bitch, I asked a comedy friend of mine for her thoughts. She asked to remain anonymous but she is a well-seasoned comedian who has performed at various Irish festivals and the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Your appearance is constantly referenced by MCs. Once, one said that I had a nice hoop (ass) after I got off stage. Very derogatory. Occasionally I have found some promoters to make comments too. It’s awkward because you may like someone and they compliment you, which is a nice thing, but then you feel a bit compromised.

“It’s because comedy is male dominated that the men are used to running things without women being involved. Also comedians get a lot of female groupies coming on pretty strong, so they may have a skewed notion of how to approach your average gal/fellow female comic.”

“I also had a few people presume that I was sleeping with an established comic with whom I had a professional relationship. I have been heckled for being a slut, called sugar tits, told I won a comedy competition because the judges liked tits, told I would get a gig if I sucked someone off. This of course is after people saying, “God you were funny and normally I don’t like female comics”, which I also find offensive. The same would never be said to a black, Jewish or Asian comic. Could you imagine it? That said, it’s a good time for women. Bridget Christie won the Edinburgh award for a show about feminism.” It took me a long time to realize that the emphasis on my appearance was not due to my lack of comedic ingenuity, but theirs. It should never be a necessity to comment on a woman’s physical appearance when introducing her. Unless she is wearing her jokes. Or, I guess, if she’s naked, then it would probably be necessary.

But are women even funny? What a funny question! I cannot speak on behalf of an entire gender. I despise when people do, especially when they are speaking on behalf of the other gender. Such as when a man says “women aren’t funny”. What a lucky man you are, to have met every woman in the history of the world and also to be able to offer a qualitative definition of what “funny” is. Please, tell me, I would love to know. Inject me with your humour. But wash the needle before you do so, I wouldn’t want to catch your delusional sense of grandeur.

Some men are stubborn and narrow-minded and actually believe that women aren’t funny. I believe that negative, exclusive attitudes come from a personal insecurity. I believe that if a man tells you that you aren’t funny because your gender is not funny that that very statement is not coming from a database of research that he has carried out on the subject but rather from his need to assert his dominance over you, due to the his own lack of talent. Some women are stubborn and narrow-minded and believe that women aren’t funny too.

A man I once did a show with claimed “Valerie, you find all women funny. Why don’t you find ‘insert-a-female-comedian-whose-name-I-can’t-remember’ funny? She’s the one who is actually funny.” This statement assumes a few things. Firstly, that based on my appreciating the humour of women I was doing a bad thing. And secondly, that the woman he referred to was funnier than most women because even he, a man, found her funny.

To say that men have one taste in comedy and women have another taste would be completely reductive. There are so many types of humour. Really talented comedians can perhaps tune into more of these than the average person, but everybody has a sense of humour. Everybody is capable of being funny. I have never known a successful male stand-up comedian, with full mental health intact, to make the qualifying statement that women aren’t funny. This summer, I was appointed Head of the Comedy Department of Long Lake Camp for the Arts in New York. This involved me inventing my own curriculum and running it with three different sets of teenagers over the summer. We had three full-length shows, a weekly radio show and a satirical magazine. I found it extremely refreshing to mentor young teenagers on stand-up comedy and I really hadn’t expected this to be the case. Most refreshing of all was the realisation that some of them were completely unaware of the notion that there is a divide between the abilities of male and female performers.

It was an amazingly supportive environment. Not once was there a reference to there being a “token woman” at the comedy show, which is a key feature of any Irish adult comedy gig, a heavy insinuation that you’re there because you are a woman and not due to your merit.

What I think I found most uplifting was finding girls who could approach comedy without the impression that they were doing something that was unnatural for their gender, without being made to feel like they were up against it and, most importantly, without feeling like whatever they did well or badly would be considered a precedent for their entire gender. There was no insinuation that the future of the gender was resting on their petite shoulders.

That said, there were a lot of female students who I believe would not have even considered trying out comedy had I not been female myself.  They didn’t have any preconception of not being funny because they were gals but it simply may have never occurred to them to try it out had I not been there promoting it, as a gal.

This highlights the needs for role models. Plural. Not just one example of one funny woman who every other girl tries to emulate, but several women doing their thing, in their own style, to their own taste, so that youth are presented with possibilities. Because there will always be people who make statements like “women are not funny” and then name ONE example of ONE woman who has done something tasteless/offensive to back up said statement and we must always be able to throw back examples of funny women at them.

And if that fails, then ask them this, “Who the fuck are you to say women aren’t funny?” and secondly “Who the fuck are you FULL STOP?” I’ll end on a joke: I read a fact recently that said that Irish women are the most self-deprecating women in the world. Isn’t that surprising…that I can read.

Matthew Mulligan

Matthew is Editor for the 62nd volume of Trinity News. He is a Sociology and Social Policy graduate and was previously Deputy Editor of tn2 Magazine.