On Mondays we post pieces that fit that month's theme. In April our theme is "April Fools". We're making the most of the excitement of comedy festivals around the nation and asking funny people how it's done. Today Alexandra Neill, comedy writer and co-director of the National Young Writers' Festival, has a thing or two to say about ladies in comedy.
Picture source: flickr/nataliejohnson
Comedy is an industry dominated by a certain kind of person - a kind of person who is young, white and male. Science, as far as I’m aware, is yet to provide any real evidence as to why this is the case. Perhaps society has just imbued young, white men with a supreme sense of self-confidence, who knows. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there are significantly less female comics than there are male ones.
I went through this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival program and tried to calculate (very loosely) what percentage of solo shows feature female comics vs how many feature men. Men out numbered women approximately 3:8. The interesting thing about this is that MICF is not governed by any curatorial force; it’s a festival which you apply to be a part of. Perhaps the disparity is evidence that there’s just less ladies. But why?
Pretty regularly, when this issue is raised someone will come out and say that women just aren’t as funny. Clearly this is rubbish, but because it’s a conversation that, mystifyingly, the world still feels we need to be having, let’s just get it out of the way right off the bat. Here’s a better question: are twenty-something white guys funny? The answer to this question is exactly the same as the question of whether or not women are funny – some of them are very funny, some of them are quite funny, and some of them aren’t that funny at all. But hey, comedy is subjective. Gender has nothing to do with it.
In a lot of cases, sexism within comedy isn’t overt. It’s not that female comics are disregarded or dismissed because of their gender, but they are often overlooked. The line-up of almost any group show or open mic will feature men in a ratio much higher than 3:8. I used to go to weekly comedy nights when I lived in Newcastle and you’d be lucky to see a woman once a month. If by some miracle there was a significant amount of women in a line-up, then suddenly it was a big deal. The Facebook event will proclaim: It’s All About The Ladies! I actually saw a poster recently with exactly that tag line. The catch? There were only three women on the program. There were five men. All about the ladies!
Beyond the realm of stand-up, the problem is even more pronounced. The majority of people who write comedy for television (especially in Australia) are men. If you look at the credits of any of Australia’s topical comedy shows, you’ll notice an immediate disparity. Mad as Hell has seven writers. Several of them are excellent comedians but none of them are women. Spicks and Specks has four writers, none of them are women. The Roast does a little better with three of their eleven writing staff (including the five presenters) being female. Beyond the ABC it gets very difficult to provide any examples because they bury the credits under the immovable weight of difficult to navigate websites (but that’s another story).
I used to occasionally contribute jokes to Good News Week. Realising how few other women there were within the writing staff was strange. On the one hand, the people I worked with were wonderful and talented and encouraging. On the other hand, they were all men. I can’t help questioning my chances within the industry long term because if there aren’t any women now, why is that likely to change? Why are there so few women doing this job? When talking about this issue Nich Richardson, showrunner at The Roast, said that there were simply less women applying for the jobs, therefore more men were employed. Which begs the question – what is it about comedy writing that discourages women from getting involved? Do you think it has something to do with the fact that they’re the overwhelming minority?
The thing about this which I find most frustrating is that it’s more than just annoying, it’s actually counterproductive. The way which topical comedy shows are written is that everyone churns out a lot of jokes – a lot more jokes than will actually be used on air. Statistically, some of those jokes will be good. Hopefully you’ll have enough decent material to make a show.
If two people are writing about the same topic on the same day then, chances are, sometimes they’ll come up with the same joke. There’s only so many ways to insult Tony Abbott, after all. This happens a lot more than you’d think and it’s basically considered an occupational hazard. Here’s the thing – if the majority of your writing staff hails from a similar background then the chances that they’ll write similar jokes increases; drawing from a similar field of experience is likely to produce similar results. The nature of this process means that the more diversity you have among your writers, the more angles they’ll be able to look at a story from. Diversity means that the pool of material is likely to be larger.
The way I figure it is this – if your entire writing staff is made up of middle-class white guys then you’re probably not writing the best comedy show you could possibly be writing.
At the very least this imbalance is something that needs to be examined. Currently, when we talk about gender disparity on television, we talk about the people in front of the camera. Parity behind the scenes is rarely talked about and yet it’s as important, if not more so, than what we see on screen. The same can be said of stand-up. If you look at The Imperial Hotel (a venue at this year’s MICF) which is managed by Angela Thompson (who happens to be a woman), you’ll notice that it comes very, very close to achieving gender parity (five solo shows by women compared to six by men).
There’s no easy answer here. Women aren’t just missing from one area of comedy, they’re under-represented (and misrepresented) across the board. Something I can say for sure is this – if you’re young and female and you want to get into comedy, it’s easy to find all this discouraging. It needs to be talked about. If we talk about it and examine it until we’re all completely bored of the whole conversation maybe, just maybe, we’ll look up one day to discover that it isn’t an issue anymore. Women are funny. With any luck, the world of comedy will work this out soon.
Alexandra Neill used to write for Good News Week. Currently she is a Co-Director at the National Young Writers Festival and spends her spare time tweeting (@paper_bag_girl) and playing Dungeons and Dragons. She blogs at http://www.alexandraneill.com/
Next week Lou Sanz wraps up our April Fools series with a post about the dangers of seeing comedy in everything. Same place, next Monday!
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.