The women who prove there is no gender bar to being funny

Comedy stars Alison Spittle, Stefanie Preissner, and Joanne McNally.

The traditional view of comedy as a male-dominated profession is changing because a host of female stand-up artists are showing that there is no gender bar to being funny, writes Esther McCarthy.

Our favourite funny women are having a moment, and in doing so, challenging what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

Irish woman are front and centre of this wave of success, with writers like Sharon Horgan and Stefanie Preissner gaining international acclaim and comedians like Joanne McNally and Alison Spittle invoking change through the power of laughter.

But challenges remain. It’s hard to believe it’s only a decade since the late Christopher Hitchens’ controversial essay on the topic, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’, was published in Vanity Fair.

There is no doubt that women are increasingly finding their voices on stage and screen. But is the old stereotype that men are the funnier sex still lurking about, even subconsciously?

“Yes I think it still exists but I think it is changing. Slowly,” observes Preissner, the author of hit comedy Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, whose book, Why can’t everything just stay the same? is out this autumn.

“It takes courage to be funny, because you have to risk being unfunny.

“You have to risk the fact that your joke mightn’t land, but you will fail to land 100% of the jokes you don’t try.

“I think men attempt humour more often and because of that they fail but also succeed more often. It’s that trope of your uncle who tells the terrible jokes, but would probably still be considered a funny guy because he tried.

“I think men are encouraged to be funnier more. And I think they have to try to be funny more often because the other sensibilities, the more sensitive or emotional ones, are seen as weak.

“Men need to compete with each other more to find a mate, historically, and I think it’s true of a lot of women that ‘humour’ is something they look for in a man.

“Someone who can make them laugh. But that’s not necessarily top of the list for what men are looking for so we have been socialised differently and have evolved that way.”

Preissner feels that the increase in newer communication platforms such as Twitter have helped enable women to find their voices.

“It’s a great medium for women. Men like to hold forth, have a whole room listening to their story as it wriggles towards its punchline.

“Women are great at sharp, funny observant one-liners. Maybe because we know if we go on too long, experientially, we have learned that people will tune out so we have mastered brevity. So Twitter really suits us.”

Stefanie Preissner
Stefanie Preissner

If the stereotypical viewpoint still exists among some, Preissner has no great interest in challenging it.

“It’s not something I really have time for, to challenge it in an academic sort of way. I’d prefer to spend my time writing my TV show and putting my witty, funny female characters on screen and let them do that work for me.”

Traditions and conventions may be continuing to change in a positive way, but is it still trickier for women to get a foothold in comedy than men, and if so, why?

“I think it’s a braver move for women, not of course because they’re less funny, but because it’s been a male-dominated field, and it’s an association that we have as an audience,” said
psychologist Colman Noctor.

Traditionally and in the past, Noctor says, the Irish household would feature the father in the workplace, the mother in the kitchen, and women were regarded as being in a quieter, caring capacity. That may have been our conditioning before, but even in the past 20 years, he feels that things are changing rapidly. .

As an adolescent psychotherapist at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin, he says he encounters gender issues less and less among the young people he works with.

“Even in the two decades I’ve worked in this field, I see more of a fluidity in society. I am sure that people who are victims of gender discrimination would disagree with me, but from what I see, young people now see gender as much less of an obstacle.”

He feels the ‘ladette culture’ has had mixed impacts but has definitely benefited women in terms of opportunity and career choices.

“The girl power issue does open doors for women to take on typically gender-dominated roles, such as comedy.”

If it’s funny, it’s funny

In stand-up and on The Republic of Telly, Joanne McNally (who regards herself as ‘a comedian’ and not ‘a female comedian’) has been part of the wave of success rippling through the domestic comedy scene. She feels it’s part of a global change.

Joanne McNally
Joanne McNally

“I came into comedy by accident. I think also there was this female bubble forming as well, so I think I came in at just the right time. I think that Amy Schumer did a huge amount for women in comedy that I think had a ripple effect globally, actually. It wasn’t just us, and we got a kickback from what was going on in America, I think.”

But she feels that women working in comedy can still be patronised when it comes to what they want to talk about.

“There’s this thing that women get up and only want to talk about their vaginas or menstrual cycles, and that there’s something wrong with that. Then Amy Schumer got up and talked about her vagina and menstrual cycle and it was hilarious. And we were like: ‘Actually, we can talk about whatever we want’.

“It doesn’t matter if (a joke) is about my vagina, or a book. It doesn’t matter. If it’s funny, it’s funny. That’s what comedy is. You talk about your own experiences, the things that are important to you. That’s why when you’re in your 20s, you talk about being single, and in your 40s, you talk about having kids. You mine your life.”

She hopes that the success of women like Schumer helps embolden other women to try stand-up.

“I’ve always said that — the reason there are so many men in stand-up is that they’re not as self-aware as women. A part of stand-up is accepting that you will fail very publicly. It’s about taking risks and not having fear. Then you get up and you go and you try again. Maybe we can’t shake it off as easily, maybe, but I think that’s changing now.

“I certainly think, in the beginning, when I walked out, I’d think I had to prove myself more. Now sometimes I think it’s beneficial being a woman in comedy because there aren’t a lot of us.”

Diverse opportunities

Alison Spittle, whose stand-up shows have drawn a loyal following and whose new show, Worrier Princess, debuts at Dublin’s Fringe in September, feels that the diversification of media has been a huge benefit.

Alison Spittle
Alison Spittle

“Because of YouTube, Twitter, radio, film, there’s now many ways of getting your comedy out there. There are very different ways of reaching your audience. I like doing podcasts.

“I think there’s a perception that there weren’t that many funny women before. There were plenty, but there were only so many avenues to people. I think it’s due to the diversity in ways that you can communicate with people. There are more opportunities for people. It’s been a benefit to a lot of people.”

But she doesn’t agree the ‘men are funnier’ stereotype exists. “I don’t think there is a perception that men are funnier than women.

“It is a male-dominated field, but I mean so much is a male-dominated field. I originally wanted to do radio, that’s male-dominated, I mean how many Irish women DJs do you know?

“I didn’t set out to do my career to prove people wrong. I set out to do my career because I love it.

“Sharon Horgan is one of my favourite people in comedy. And it’s not because she’s a woman, I just find her really funny.”

Sharon Horgan
Sharon Horgan

Bon mots from the ladies ...

Nora Ephron: “When your children are teens, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

Sharon Horgan: “I always, always want to make people laugh. In every situation. Even when it’s inappropriate.”

Mae West: “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.”

Joan Rivers: “I blame my mother for my sex life. All she said was ‘the man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For six months my husband and I slept in bunks.”

Amy Schumer: “Nothing good ever happens in a blackout. “I’ve never woken up and been like, ‘what is this Pilates mat doing out?’”

Tina Fey: “To say I’m an over-rated troll when you have never even seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair.”

Victoria Wood: “I once went to one of those parties where everyone throws their car keys into the middle of the room. I don’t know who got my moped, but I drove that Peugeot for years.”


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