September 4th 2014: the day the reigning Queen of Comedy, Joan Rivers, sadly died. I was pretty upset when I heard the news. For the people I spoke to about it, Rivers seemed to be the exception to the “female comedians aren’t funny” consensus. I don’t know where I was when this apparently became the case, because I’ve always thought women are hilarious.
Those closest to me know that when I was young, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have either said Avril Lavigne or a comedian. Joan Rivers was undoubtedly one of the most famous female comedians on the planet; she was known for her cutting wit and ability to laugh at herself when criticised, mostly about her looks and multiple plastic surgeries. For a lot of comics that’s what their job is: self-deprecation. Jo Brand laughing at her weight, Sarah Millican joking about how much cake she eats and Shappi Khorsandi’s stand-up routine turning somewhat bitter after her divorce…
While I respect these comedians, it’s exactly what everyone is expecting from them; jokes at their own expense, or aimed primarily at women (that’s fair enough, they are women, after all). I think it’s important that these women can laugh at their flaws, but it’s created a lull in the exposure of women’s comedy in Britain. Clearly my stand up career has not taken off, nor will it ever, but in light of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, I thought I’d take a look at the British Comedy Awards over the past 4 years and try to work out if the British comedy industry is covertly sexist.
Women like Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and Dawn French paved the way for female comedians in the UK in the 1990s; successful TV shows like Absolutely Fabulous and French and Saunders were the staple programmes of my childhood – maybe they weren’t age-appropriate, but they gave me someone to look up to. Was the success of these double acts down to having someone to bounce jokes off of? Or was it that they were absolutely fabulous? (The latter, of course.)
In the coming years, it began to seem that the same few names were just floating around the comedy circuit: Jo Brand, Miranda Hart, Sarah Millican, Miranda Hart again… and it seemed that the same jokes about eating too much cake were being told over and over. These women have some great routines in their arsenal, but why is it that they are only remembered or recognised for their jokes about how fat they’re getting? This is what the younger generation of aspiring comics have to go on – that and “female comedians aren’t funny” are going to do wonders for aspiring comics’ self-confidence.
These names have been popping up frequently at the British Comedy Awards since 2009 and 2010, along with a few recurring nominees like Nina Conti. This is great, of course. It means these women are getting recognised for their talent; however, I also found that there are hardly any female nominees outside the ‘Best TV Comedy Actress’ and ‘Best Female Television Comic’ categories, which sound rather similar to me. At the 2014 awards, I found that in the first 6 categories all the nominees were male. The 7th category, ‘Best International Comedy Programme’, saw Lena Dunham’s Girls scooping the win. “Now we’re getting somewhere!” I thought, yet I continued to find that the nominees for the rest of the categories were all male-led shows, obviously excluding the awards for ‘Best Female’.
Now, I’m going to throw around a lot of dates here, but I promise there’s a point. The only category put to a public vote is ‘King or Queen of Comedy’. In 2014, Jo Brand was the only female nominee (I feel like she would have made a self-deprecating weight joke about how ironically slim her odds are in this situation). The title ‘King or Queen of Comedy’ was only introduced in 2010, with the first winner being Miranda Hart – who also won ‘Best Comedy Actress’ that year. Surprisingly, in 2011, there were 3 female nominees. That’s right you guessed it: Miranda Hart, Sarah Millican (who won) and Jo Brand. From 2012 onwards, Jack Whitehall has been the reigning King.
In 2013, the category for ‘Best Female Television Comic’ included nominees Mel Perkins and Sue Giedroyc for the The Great British Bake Off. Now, while we all love Mel and Sue, in my opinion, while presenting GBBO, they are not classed as comedians! They seem to be mostly reading from prompters, i.e. a script someone else has written. Surely this is unfair to the other nominees? It suggests that this category is of less importance, that whoever picks the nominees just chose any two mildly humorous presenters because they are women. The idea that Mel and Sue were placed there to fill space doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me. The appearance of a new nominee in the mix diverts attention away from the fact the same few names (I think you know them by now) are the only female comics getting exposure. To me, it seemed that in these years the networks, or even the public, couldn’t be bothered to search for new names.
Comedians like Olivia Coleman, Jessica Hynes and Tamsin Greig have been nominated for awards in past years, but have lost to the likes of Miranda Hart. Is this because people can’t be bothered to vote for a different kind of female comic? Do they just want more cake jokes? Times are changing, with comedians like Aisling Bea, Sara Pascoe, Roisin Conaty, Andi Osho and Isy Suttie. These women are showing that female comedians are no joke; changing things up on the mainstream comedy circuit by hardly talking about their weight or their partners, they automatically become more relatable to everyone in the audience instead of just the women in the room.
Aisling Bea won ‘Best Female Television Comic’ at the 2014 British Comedy Awards – one which Isy Suttie was nominated for, yet these other women who are in the mainstream comedy circles were hardly talked about, if at all. Over the past 5 years or so, you’d see an occasional recurring female panellist on shows such as Mock The Week – usually Gina Yashere – who I suspect had been asked to come on in an attempt to make Andy Parsons appear funny, but her name would slip from your mind after watching. This has changed over recent years, as more and more female comedians are becoming regular guests on numerous panel shows instead of reappearing on one every so often. So why were the 2014 British Comedy Awards not representative of the amazing year it was for the newer female comics on the scene?
Katharine Parkinson, who plays Jen in The IT Crowd, won Best Female Comic in 2014, and quite rightly so; her performance is second to none. But does the fact that she’s the only female lead cast member mean she had more opportunity to stand out in that category? It’s a ‘glass half full’ situation. While looking up the past nominees, I found myself thinking “is comedy sexist?” I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is completely; there are just not enough women getting the exposure that male comics do.
It’s evident that countless British sitcoms are written as an all-male lead cast with one lead female and it’s no wonder why; the award for ‘The Writer’s Guild of Great Britain’ has been won by male writers since 2001! Graham Linehan, who won the award in 2009, worked on the shows Black Books, Father Ted and The IT Crowd. All three have a majority male cast. This isn’t to say that Linehan is sexist, it could just be the writing formula that works for him to create successful shows. It makes sense that he would create more male characters, as he understands and identifies with them. Writers create what is familiar to them or what they have experience of. This raises the question: is it female writers that are not getting the exposure? So what else can be done to keep this surge of recent female talent in the public eye? The answer is simple: more female writers! Infiltrate from within! We should be making room for newer names to step up to the comedy plate, which is what fantastic festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe are for.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival hosts stand-ups, writers, producers and directors alike, so be sure to check out their programme online, there’s a whole host of comics putting on shows! In particular, I would recommend searching for Jenny Bede, if you haven’t heard of her – she has an amazing flair for parodies. Perhaps the British Comedy Awards aren’t the place for a fair representation of female comedic talent. I was recently asked “why aren’t there more female comedians?” The answer? There is! You just have to look for them.
Words: Georgia Gallant
Image: Rita Gomes