Outside the Box: Stephanie Merritt Cheers the Female Comedians Daring to Stand Up and Be Counted

Article excerpt

There are three staple newspaper features that appear with comforting certainty at the start of every Edinburgh Festival: "Why the Fringe has got too commercial", "Why the Perrier matters/doesn't matter", and "Why aren't there more women in comedy?".

This last lament has to be qualified by the observation that there are, in fact, plenty of high-profile female comedians (Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Caroline Aherne, Sally Phillips and Victoria Wood spring immediately to mind), but those who have achieved a degree of professional success have done so largely through comic acting and

its subsidiaries--character comedy, sketch shows, cabaret. Straight stand-up remains such a male-dominated profession that, in the 23 years of the Perrier Award, only one solo woman--Jenny Eclair--has won, and women are rarely nominated; there simply aren't enough of them competing in the same league as the best of the men.

Various explanations are offered for this gender divide; they are usually based around the notion that unadorned stand-up requires a level of aggression that most women don't naturally possess, bless them. (My own theory is that stand-up comedy is how ugly blokes get laid, which is why so many of them choose to go into it. Men who wouldn't get a second glance if they drove a minicab seem to acquire a patina of sex appeal when they're on stage telling jokes. This illusion must be biological in origin, because it doesn't seem to work the other way around; men often find funny women a bit scary. But that's a different article.) Another explanation would be that the absence of prominent women from stand-up becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as with female footballers; until it becomes perceived as something that women do as a matter of course, few will see it as an option.

Lynn Parker is the director of Funny Women, a company set up last year to provide a platform for women in comedy and to raise money for charity. She has spent much of this year talent-spotting around the country at the heats of the Funny Women Awards, for which there were 80 entrants. "There was an overwhelming tendency for women to want the safety of hiding behind a character rather than going out there as themselves, which I think has a lot to do with conditioning from an early age," Parker says. "Stand-up comedy is essentially about showing off--it's an extension of the class joker, the bloke telling jokes in the pub, and that's not a natural environment for women. It's rare for the class joker at school to be a girl."

Parker was also disappointed that so many women seem to feel obliged to perform material that plays up to stereotypes--as if, to be funny, they have to prove that they can be dirtier or boilshier than the boys. …