Jul 21, 2014 Theatre
Above: Comedians Justine Smith and Michele A’Court. Photo by Stephen Langdon
This story first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Metro.
I like to talk to my shampoo bottles while I’m showering. I tell them things I think are funny. They have lukewarm reactions, but I think I’m fucking hilarious, so I’m not going to stop.
Last year, I made friends with a comedian and he said he practises lines in the shower. I took this as a sign. And so I did my first stand-up show.
I’d been interested in stand-up for a long time. I got into it because I’m a classic Shore kid: I like pretending that I’m tough and from the street. Yo. (It’s called Lordeing it.) This means I frequent places that are just edgy enough for me to feel out there, but safe enough for me to use the toilets.
One of the best places for this is Auckland’s comedy club, The Classic. It has a worn bar, effortlessly hip staff and a past life as a porn cinema that, together, create an air of nonchalant cool. When I go, I feel like I’m part of something edgy, raw and awesome. Plus, I won’t get hepatitis when I touch something.
Going so frequently showed me how much I loved comedy. But every time I go, to the pros, the rookies, the raw nights, there’s only ever one woman doing stand-up. Female stand-ups are as common as middle-aged communists.
I know this is talked about in every club, in every city, in every comedy circuit. But I still want to know why.
Female stand-ups are as common as middle-aged communists
Michele A’Court was a trailblazer for New Zealand in the 90s. She opened the door for the female pros currently dominating the circuit. But by Scott Blanks’ count — he runs the Classic so he’s the godfather of comedy here — there are still only about five or six professional female stand-ups in the country. The ratio of male to female, in New Zealand as in the rest of the world, is 10:1.
You hear reasons. We have the ever-resurfacing “Women aren’t funny, dear”. We have the possibility of a sexist audience or industry. Perhaps the lifestyle doesn’t suit women, or maybe women just aren’t tough enough. Or maybe we don’t know.
Women aren’t funny? It’s a reeking, rotten thing, aired by Christopher Hitchens and repeated by the sort of person who also starts sentences with, “I’m not racist, but…”
It returns so often, it makes female comedians incredibly angry. When I emailed my first, asking to talk about women and comedy, she responded with “It would be useless to discuss what you’ve proposed.”
I almost cried.
It had taken me three hours to work up the nerve to write the emails, spell-check them, have Mum proofread them (“Are you sure I sound grown up?”) and finally send them. And my first response was that.
Then I realised she thought I was asking her whether women could actually be funny. I would have got a better response if I’d asked for a nude picture of her posing with a saucepan and a blow-up sheep.
After all, there’s a list the size of the Magna Carta of funny women. Blanks rattles them off: Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Caroline Aherne, Pamela Stephenson… Look at, in New Zealand, “Rima Te Wiata! Rima is considered one of the greats of New Zealand comedy. But she didn’t do stand-up.” Instead she did sketch, like many of these women did.
You can’t create sketch shows, sell them to TV and get audience ratings without being funny. So perhaps, there’s a tiny chance women are a little funny?
I think we can leave aside Hitchens’ arseholey assertions. As comedian Justine Smith says, “Women are fucking funny.”
Blanks agrees. “When the audience crossed their arms and said [he puts on a nasal whine], ‘Ooh, a woman… is this going to be funny?’, the male comedians were backstage being like, ‘Grow up for fuck’s sake!’”
Is that it? A hostile audience puts women off? But haven’t things changed?
When the stand-up scene was starting out, it was certainly tougher for women. A’Court nods when I say this, her Hollywood-star sunnies slipping down her nose.
Even in jeans, she oozes a glamour which makes the table next door keep taking sneak peaks. I want to flip my hair and shout, “Yup, that’s right guys, no biggie, but I’m with her! I’m the one she’s drinking coffee with. You jelly?”
“There was this feeling,” A’Court says, “of, ‘Oh, it’s going to be shit. It’ll just be political and period jokes.’” Second-wave feminists making political statements.
“But it’s not like that now. There have been enough of us, and we’ve been around for long enough.”
A’Court, the unforgettable Irene Pink, Jan Maree, Justine Smith, Urzila Carlson, all among the established pros who blew away the humourless female stereotypes.
But gender-blind audiences may be a big-city thing, like shunning Starbucks and the morning sneakers with pencil-skirt look. As A’Court has memorably written in her own blog, since published in the Guardian, she went on stage in “a town called Butt-Fuck Nowhere, and the guys in the audience went, ‘Oh, a woman, this will be good, let’s watch this bitch die.’
Then I did my first five minutes and one of them said to the other, ‘Oh shit, she’s really good. Let’s go outside for a smoke.’ It was a really small town, and they didn’t know comedy. So…”
She pulls the finger. The table next door stare like she’s just mooned them.
So if Auckland is not like that, why is there still a shortage of female comics? Sexist management?
Blanks owns our only professional club. From what people said, I thought he’d be some grizzled ex-punk rocker, chainsmoking thin black fags and answering everything with, “As I was saying to Keef…”
Instead he’s tanned, friendly and wearing shorts. As soon as he starts talking, you realise no one knows the history of comedy better. He loves it. He breathes it. If anyone wants to give it a shot, he wants you on stage at Raw Comedy nights. Blanks, sexist? No.
I don’t know about the rest of management though. I’m not even sure who “management” are; no one wants to name names. I like to imagine 70s-style, union-hating, corporate-suit types with severe moustaches. A’Court says comedy bookers line up only one woman, just like they’ll book only one Maori or one disabled comedian. Women are the minority slot.
Smith agrees. “There’s normally one or none.” But she feels sorry for the industry; it doesn’t deserve its sexist reputation. “I’ve never felt disadvantaged on the live scene, not even once.”
What about TV? Hmm. Care to elaborate? Not on record.
I don’t push it because she’s fearsome. And awe-inspiring. The love child of Boudica and Joan Jett. I thought comedians wouldn’t be funny offstage, but Jussi Smith is priceless. And she says “fuck” a lot, which somehow makes me giggle.
Other female comedians I talked to also made disgruntled noises about TV. Quips about chimps in dresses and stories about how the guys roll their eyes kept resurfacing.
Blanks puts it delicately. “Television is always behind the live scene. The live scene is more reflective of reality, where female comedians are much more accepted.”
I suppose TV has to care about how pretty it looks and whether it’s going to get ratings. Whereas the live scene doesn’t care if you look like Vlad the Impaler crossed with Helen Clark on crack.
If TV is playing hard to get, then it can be tough to make a living from stand-up. That could be another reason why there are so few female pros.
Corporate work, then? As Blanks says, “TV and corporate work goes hand in hand.” If you can get the TV time, you can get the corporate jobs. And that’s where you make a career. A live show would pay you about $150; about enough for a wild night out with Jussi afterwards. A corporate gig might pay $3000.
How did A’Court become a full-time comic? She learnt to behave herself at corporate gigs.
You’re begging a bunch of strangers to laugh at the deepest, most humiliating moments of your life
That might all be a problem for women with a bit more sag than sass. But not for young women: our favourite hobby is pimping ourselves up. We are the generation who go to the gym to spend four hours checking out our own arse. If we were funny, wouldn’t TV snap up us vain little bunnies?
A’Court says it’s hard to be a comedian and a parent. You’re going to work at night, working until midnight, and then the baby wakes up at 6am. It’s exhausting.
Also, comedy is self-absorbed, and needs time for sustained, solitary thought. “You don’t get a chance to write your material because halfway through a thought process your child needs a sandwich.”
But that doesn’t explain why young women aren’t getting into it. We have no kids, no mortgage, and no difficulties with self-absorption — as I said, it’s our favourite hobby.
It’s a tough job and maybe women aren’t very tough. You’re begging a bunch of strangers to laugh at the deepest, most humiliating moments of your life.
Jan Maree, an arse-kickingly awesome straight talker, says, “Rejection is hard. You have to become really tough. Starting out, I got great advice from male comics.” But it was honest. Like, draw-your-breath-in-through-your-teeth-like-the-noise-Mum-makes-when-I-drive honest. “There are a lot of women who can’t handle that.”
She mentions a young female comedian practising a joke involving a party popper and a tampon. “I’ve been nominated for most offensive gags many times, but that offends me — and I said, ‘It’s not funny,’ and she got upset.”
She’s not being a bitch, she’s being professional. She’s giving a performance review; no one improves through ego candy. But when it comes to it, she says, “I don’t think girls are as good at taking that as guys.”
Is that true? There are girls, especially young ones in dark lipstick and double denim, who are very fragile. But there are also lots of young guys who are exactly the same. After a while, if you’re writing, speaking or performing, if you really want it, maybe you learn how to handle the criticism? Isn’t resilient ambition just as prevalent among young creative women as men? Are girls shyer?
Go to the Viaduct at night and watch girls like me dance. We twerk like we’re black and from the Bronx, even though that should be really embarrassing. If we can do that on the dance floor, surely we can do it on stage?
I don’t think we have many problems with wanting to be noticed. Even sober, the girls I know are articulate, confident and eager for an intellectual scrap. My generation is not afraid of the spotlight.
It’s true a lot of men find funny women intimidating.
“Guys are like, ‘Oh no, she’ll rip the dick off me!” says Smith. “I get asked all the time whether my boyfriend minds that I do stand-up.”
Both she and A’Court laugh when I ask if women comedians get groupies. No. “And the guys we do get are fucking fruit loops,” adds Smith.
I know women doing stand-up does scare a chunk of guys, and we still want to be liked. After my first gig at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, my girlfriend came up to me, full of sympathy, and told me, “You’re funny but you’re scary. You put guys off.”
How ironic. I got into comedy because I wanted to impress the guy who I was in love with in high school. He loved Black Books, so I decided to learn to be funny. I also started listening to bands with names like Purple Broccoli, and wearing too-small clothes. Only the love of comedy has remained.
It worked, though; he did find me funny. And in general I’ve found female funniness can attract and repel in equal measures. Maybe it was different for Christopher Hitchens, but guys now rave about how funny their chick is.
So why aren’t more of us getting up and cracking jokes?
“I don’t know,” admits Smith. A’Court, Maree and Blanks don’t either. There’s no good answer, is there?
If you’re out there and you have the urge to be funny in public, just do it. If it scares you shitless, then it’s definitely something you should do. Or at least try once and never talk about again. That’s okay too.