Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why are (virtually) all stand-up comedians male?

It seems almost too obvious to ask. If not slightly stupid for pointing it out. They are though, aren't they? There are female character actors that are very funny. There's Caroline Aherne, there's Catherine Tate, there's Sharon Horgan from the utterly utterly utterly fantastic *Pulling* - but out of the top of our heads - collectively here - let's try coming up with some female comedians that don't wear wigs and put on silly voices. That just appear as themselves and tell jokes.

There's Jo Brand and... there are a few others, but mainly it's Jo Brand. Victoria Wood? Whoopi Goldberg? There are some younger ones who I've seen on the telly - that have been pretty good - but they're not famous enough for me to know their names off the top of my head.

So why is that? Is stand-up comedy some sort of male peacock behaviour? I used to think that the best comedians were somehow damaged or socially inept, that comedy was a release valve for those that would normally get bullied or ignored. *Class Clown Syndrome*. Or the youngest in the family needing to get attention. So historically (if we go back into the end of the last century) the best (male) comedians usually had a chip on their shoulder about something or other - something chafing them and forcing them to be successful and funny:
  • They were from socially deprived areas like Ken Dodd (Knotty Ash, Liverpool), Charlie Chaplin (the slums of Cockneyland), Billy Connolly (tenements of Glasgow) It was a bit like all the best footballers & boxers of the time - the theory was - you don't get hungry for success, if you've never *been* hungry.
  • Alternatively, the best comedians were a bit mental & depressive like Spike Milligan or Tony Hancock. Mental isn't the polite way of terming it, but... a bit nutty.
  • They were often pretty ugly. Les Dawson & the rest of the comedians on the 1970s Granada tv show 'The Comedians' were never likely to be presented with the GQ Man Of The Year Award for style & grooming. Jimmy Tarbuck was never, to my knowledge, asked to appear as a centrefold in *PlayGirl* wearing only a gap-toothed smile.
  • Or else they had another reason to feel agrieved about the world. They got picked on cos of their ethnicity; they were Jewish like Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce & a host of other New York comedians.
  • Perhaps they were hiding their secret homosexuality like Kenneth Williams & Frankie Howard. Or just into wearing ladies' clothes like Eddie Izzard.
  • Whatever it was - these inner demons or repressed memories of childhood abuse - gave them a comic edge as performers. You could even create your own comic edge by being angry about political & social issues like all the *Alternative Comedians* of the 1980s. People like Ben Elton, Bill Hicks, Denis Leary.
So Richard Pryor, black, poor, uneducated, not the most handsome, brought up in his grandma's brothel, prone to depression, addicted to every drug he could get his hands on, eventually sick as his sickest jokes - was probably as legendary a comedian as you could get. He had nothing and he had everything at the same time. The comedian's comedian.

Is the most important thing out of all of those facts that they couldn't get off with women (or men if appropriate)? On a sociobiological level that seems to work as a theory. All these socially troubled men, with just the odd - and she usually was *odd* - woman like Joan Rivers to prove the rule.

So is that fair enough? It's a fairly conventional theory. And seemed to work. Sad faced clowns = funny performers.

But haven't things changed? And if they have, why have they? (hang on, that sounds like the essay I should be writing right now, instead of this billshut...)

But when you turn on one of the myriad of comedy gameshows - the comedians on there - the likes of Russell Howard & Jimmy Carr & Marcus Brigstocke don't seem to fit the pattern. Or they don't fit the working-class underdog comedian pattern.

That's possibly where I've made my mistake. These gameshow fellas are educated middle-class chaps like Dudley Moore (club-foot), the Pythons (homosexual or borderline insane), or Alan Bennett (homosexual, poor as a church mouse). No. The theory still works with them old fellas.

So while Howard, Carr & Brigstocke might have the occasional funny line or two, they don't have the scary, vibrant presence of comedians that have that edge of suffering, of danger, or anger that you get from Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, or even Frank Skinner. And handsome as he is, there's a touch of Spike Milliganesque insanity in Russell Brand (ex-smack head & non-recovering sex addict).

But it's like *being a stand-up comedian* is more of a conventional job these days. An option to consider post-university. One that a previous generation of University graduates wouldn't have considered if it meant that to succeed as a stand-up they had to start off by getting a job as a Butlins' red coat, and get booed off stage at working men's clubs in Rotherham.

It's not like I'm saying it's easy. These comedy chaps still have a job to do, but they're probably a wee bit less likely to get beaten up. Probably. And these joke teller fellows, they're like Bob Monkhouse or Clive Anderson; they're funny, but they don't have funny bones. They're handsome - well, maybe not Jimmy Carr - they could probably succeed in other jobs. They don't have to be comedians. They could work at Shell like millionaire's son Jimmy Carr did. (Though to be fair to Carr, he has enough oddness to fit into quite a few of the earlier categories.)

So if it's more of a conventional job these days - when are we going to see more women at the top of the profession? Is it a simple biological issue - the Damaged Male Peacock Theory of wanting to stand up on stage and get attention? Or is it simple prejudice?

Or can women just not be bothered? Do they prefer to dress up and do sketches?

If anyone knows any fantastic female comedians, thus far unmentioned, I would be happy to listen. But perhaps the producers of 8 out of 10 Cats, QI, Mock The Week might want to know the names as well. Cos Jo Brand needs a day off every now and again...

N.B. Anyone thinking that this blog is basically an excuse to bait and goad lurking fans of the very handsome Marcus Brigstocke are entirely correct.


  1. Jo Brand is about it. Lucy porter and jo caulfield and other people who are meant to be funny and I can't remember their names, are just ok.
    I don't think they deliver lines well enough. And they always bang on about periods and stuff. Women are also generally more self conscious and less self deprecative than the average man.

    Men make better writers, any seriously good novelist or journalist is male. I guess they write better comedy too.

    Marcus Brigstocke is very funny. He's not a girl. Nor are any of the other people that make me laugh lots.

  2. Joan Rivers.. not especially funny in the sense of you look at her and laugh........ but her one liners are a hoot.