Let’s Hear It for the Girls
A Run Down on the Benefits of Comedy Nights Featuring All-Female Line Ups
As with many things in my life, I started running comedy nights featuring an all-female line up completely by accident. In 2009 I received a phone call by Hazel O’Keefe, who founded the first such night - Laughing Cows - way back in 1998. She’d been let down last minute by her regular MC and the gig was in 2 days’ time. I agreed to stand in as the compere. On the night the opening act was thrown by the small numbers in the audience and ended up doing 10 minutes instead of 20, so I had to fill in. Then the headline act couldn’t make it and I ended up not only mcing and partly opening but also headlining. It was clearly one of those nights. Luckily the audience went with it and it ended up being a fun evening for all. After having now been truly thrown into the deep end and surviving, I was asked to become the resident MC. A couple of months later the promoter of the London gig decided to stand down, and I again stepped into the gap, and that, as they say, was that.
What’s interesting is that people find it odd to have all-female line ups but consider it perfectly normal to have all-male ones. I remember coming back from a show in Reading and bumping into two club comics at Reading Railway Station. “Where were you gigging?” they both asked - the standard question of comics bumping into each other late at night. “At an all-female comedy night”, I replied. “That’s not fair”, they chimed in unison. “Where were you playing?” I asked. They’d both been playing a mainstream comedy club in town. “How many women were on the bill at yours? I enquired. “None”, they replied rather sheepishly.
So why have all-female line ups in the first place? Hazel O’Keefe began Laughing Cows as a reaction to a conversation she had with a comedy promoter. “We were discussing female comics,” Hazel explains, “and I asked why there's never more than one female comedian on the bill and he said, oh we wouldn't take that risk."
To a certain extent that promoter had a point. Too many women on the bill at a mainstream comedy night may well put people off. A general prejudice still abounds that women aren’t funny, and like all prejudice, it’s based on a widely-held belief which is neither founded on fact or experience. I’ve often been told after a gig by some comedy punter that they think I’m good despite not normally liking female comics. You’ve clearly been watching the wrong ones, is my usual retort. When I ask them to name who they have seen – they usually can’t actually name anyone.
So consequently if you go to a mainstream club, it’s possible you won’t actually see a woman on the bill. Partly because there are fewer female comics, partly because, along with non-white male comics, we’re still considered by some as a “speciality act”. (I kid you not. One now well-known, non-white comic was told he could never be put on the bill with a woman because they could only programme in one speciality act at a time).
However people do like to see themselves reflected in the entertainment they watch. It doesn’t have to be all the time of course. I can happily watch a decent war film where the token female character, assuming there is one, is either the dutiful wife or the prostitute (invariably with a heart of gold). However, every now and then I need to watch something I can at least relate to in part – having never been a dutiful wife or in sales. As a result, all-female line ups often appeal to people who feel marginalised by the mainstream comedy clubs. (Whether they are or not is another topic for debate but there is definitely a perception among some that mainstream comedy is not aimed at them).
At these nights featuring an all-female line up, audiences not only feel welcome but also feel safe - not only in the type of comic they can expect to see but in the general environment. It’s probably no surprise that these nights attract a heavy female presence as well as a large, gay audience. As Janice Connolly, better known as her stage persona, Barbara Nice, says: “Women only line ups have traditionally meant that lesbians can come with partners and friends and not be concerned that they will be made to feel uncomfortable”. They are also attracted by the complete dearth at these nights of blatant misogyny or homophobic jibes which might be served up at some of the more mainstream nights.
As a comic, I’ve had to listen to some outright misogynist material. In this country it would seem women can be belittled with impunity in a way that few other groups in society can. I’ve heard comics ‘joke’ about raping a female audience member to the apparent general amusement of the audience, and if the butt of the joke doesn’t find it funny, she’s regarded as the one with the problem. However, when I heard a MC make a similarly misjudged joke about lynching, the audience groaned as one rather loudly. They were definitely on the side of the audience member who, not surprisingly, didn’t find the comment particularly hilarious. That’s not to say of course you can’t joke about women per se.The comic Mike Gunn has a great routine about things that are important to women which aren’t important to men. It’s very well-observed, it’s very funny and in the end, like a lot of good comedy, the joke is on him.
However downright misogyny parading as irony does the rounds as does crude material on sex from 20-somethings, labouring under the mistaken belief that they are being shocking rather than - which is normally the case - simply being tedious. None of that is of great appeal to the audiences that tend to come to all-female comedy nights. Here the atmosphere tends to be rather that of a fun night out. There’s usually no heckling, no drunks getting lairy, no comic having to abandon her set to fire-fighting the audience; it’s just comics and audiences having a lovely time. Janice Connolly’s take on it all is that “I feel freed up to be in the company of women. It was a laugh - we were supportive of each other and the audience of women were vociferous in their enjoyment - laughing freely without any sense that they were "laughing too much" - or "too loudly" both things have been said to me when I was at college by the rugby players who were the King Pins”. All this has the added advantage that comics love to play these nights. After all, if you have a warm, receptive audience, it makes it so much easier for the comic to relax and have a great gig and most importantly for any comic’s development - to take risks.
Of course there are plenty of mainstream gigs which are a joy to play and lots of excellent male comics that these audiences would no doubt love – Andrew Bird, Ian Stone and Nick Revell, to name the first 3 that come to mind. Trouble is as an ordinary comedy punter you don’t necessarily know who these comics are. As for the female comics, it makes a pleasant change to gig with other women, an opportunity not usually afforded to us. With the added advantage, you can also do jokes which you probably couldn’t do in front of a more mainstream (i.e. more male-dominated) crowd. Moreover, in the words of Janice Connolly again, “In my mind mainstream comedy has become very predictable and safe. I think because female comedy is relatively fresh that there is a lot of invention and variety in the material that audiences are treated to.”
We live in an unequal world. For the same inherent reasons that the Tories are thinking of having all-female shortlists rather than all-white, public-school-educated shortlists for men who are preferably also millionaires, underrepresented groups need to have an outlet, to feel supported and to be seen. Moreover, in an industry, where opportunities often seem to be contracting, they create work for comics and an audience for comedy which might not have existed otherwise. They also allow newer comics to perform in a warm and supportive atmosphere. And perhaps most importantly of all, they give strong women a platform to take centre stage, in all their manifold variety, and say what they hell they like and be funny along with it. And for that alone, long may these nights continue!