Women in Comedy

I love comedy. If I saw comedy metaphorically standing across an imaginary crowded room, I’d have a literal tingle in my pants. “Oh my god, is that comedy across the room?” I’d think as I adjusted my trousers and tactfully stared, yet avoided eye contact with it. It seems we’d coincidentally been invited to the same party. It seems I’d been invited to a party. One wild thing after another. With my crotch concealed, I turn back to my friends who think I’m super cool and all really like me. I try to rejoin the conversation which is about how cool I am and how much they like me, but all I can think about is that moment when I first lay eyes on comedy and how it made me feel. I felt at home, yet stimulated by challenge. Content, yet impassioned. Sipping on my fruitfully alcoholic house-wife-made cocktail I try to stay composed but my giddiness turns into a childish grin. My heart beats faster as my feelings grow stronger and with one eye across the room, and one eye out of focus I chew on my straw for inspiration. Too nervous to make a move, I attract attention by laughing louder, standing sexier and blinking more aggressively. Flawless. Mid hysterics through the set up of my friend’s story about gelato I turn my head with a majestic whip lash of a hair flick. Regaining consciousness, I scan the party only to catch the back of comedy as it walks swiftly out of the room. That’s when I knew I needed it. I couldn’t possibly live my life without it. Oh gee wizerrs my censored brain thinks. Panicked, I scramble through the crowd as you ignore the logistics of my convenient arrival outside before comedy got away. Spontaneously I hurdle myself towards it.

“Sorry, I accidentally bumped into you by accident, not on purpose” I mumble. You’re super-hot and I would totally bang you, it says with its eyes. “That’s alright,” it says with its lips. It touches my arm and bends to pick up the tampons that fell out of my bag with the crash. “Super?” it says. We smile. With tampons between its fingers, it reaches into my bag where our hands collide. With the brush of our bodies, our lives together flash before my yes. Happiness, togetherness…a constantly reliable emotionally repressive defense mechanism. We stare into each other’s eyes like we’ve always lived in them. If I saw comedy standing across a crowded room, I would dedicate my heart, my mind and forever to it. Then I’d bang it.

I love comedy. Stand-up, sketches, improv. I travelled across the world to get myself a spot at the American Comedy institute and even have a Bachelor’s degree in the damn subject. But I’m not funny. You know why? Because I’m a woman. And it’s pretty much common knowledge that women aren’t funny. Something to do with good jokes and funny anecdotes slipping out of our gaping vaginas every month along with our plans to go swimming and unmade babies. That’s not blood staining your persian white bed sheets that your mum gave you for your birthday, that’s my sense of humour. And no, it probably won’t come out.

You would have thought that in our modern world of Tina Feys, Kristen Wiigs, Amy Poehlers, Tig Notaros, Maria Bamfords, Sarah Silvermans, Ellen Degeneres, Garfunkal and Oats, Kate Mckinnons, Carrie Brownsteins, Miranda Sings and Kristen Schaals (I’ll stop nerding out) that we’d be over this silly, old fashioned idea that ‘boobies’ is funnier as a word than the people who have them. (Boobies is a very funny word). Yet, everyday when I venture onto the internet to watch videos of my favourites, I get bombarded with comments like, “Why can’t I just find one bitch that’s funny!” “Pretty face, ugly voice, bad comedy.” “most female comedians can’t make me laugh” and one of the most horrendous comments I’ve seen recently, “why does this kitchen have a microphone and a big yellow sign???”. The blatant sexism even spills over into compliments, when people finally confess that they find a female comedian funny, with comments like, “I gotta say, she is a really good comedian, female or not”, “this was one of the few female comedians on here that I thought was hilarious” or this guy’s shock when he thought “this is actually pretty good”. I’m assuming that these people have never laughed at their mothers, sisters, wives or daughters, because yes, that sweeping generalisation claiming that women are not funny is a direct insult to them too. As a side note, I can confidently believe that us females have got quite a good sense of humour; indeed, we’ve managed to live around these ridiculous, insulting views without killing ourselves. At the end of the day, I’ve never seen a video of a male comic where the comment section is littered with heated debates over gender roles and “biological truths” about men and women’s behaviour. If it’s not funny, it’s because he’s an individual, gender unreferenced, rarely having to do with his penis.

One of the primary and most widely used justifications of the idea that women aren’t funny is based on ‘evolutionary’ and ‘biological’ claims. The primary one is that women don’t need to be funny like men do, because since the beginning of time men have been trying to attract their women trophies, and a sense of humour is a great way to score sexy time. This view creates a very two dimensional, skeletal representation of humans – who are, in reality, intricate, emotionally-layered beings. Our purposes, desires and ambitions are plentiful and our interactions are complex and meaningful. To state that humanity’s only intention is for men to attract the other sex and mate is far too simplistic. Besides that, do men not seek witty, funny partners, thus making humour advantageous for women? Regardless, humour isn’t just a tool for sexual attraction, it serves so many other purposes which are rarely addressed.

Yes, a sense of humour can get you laid because it tends to denote a person who is relaxed, easy going and fun; this can also extend to building bonds beyond sex, creating friendships and closeness between people. A similar sense of humour can express shared values and perceptions of the world. People are more likely to get along with each other when they see and understand the world in the same way, quite simply. Ultimately, a funny person is a person with wit, self-awareness and a consciousness of the world around them. Thus people can use this type of intelligence to gain attention and popularity – a desire for both men and women.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, comedy remains a coping mechanism, helping to ease life’s suffering. Humour begins the healing process by trivialising our pain and breaking it down into something that’s no longer strong enough to hurt us. After all, a joke is tragedy plus time. Humour is, in this way, key to survival; being funny is the perfect tool to overcome stress and hardships. If anything, it is the marginalised parts of society who need humour and comedy more to deal with the privileges that they weren’t born with.

The next question I hear is, ‘well if women are funny then why aren’t there loads of female comedians?’ This argument states that female comics’ lack of success confirms that women are not funny. If so, we can assume that the world around us reflects people’s true talents through the ratio that we see them represented in the media. However, if we apply the same logic to other aspects of the entertainment business, we can see that a smaller representation of certain groups does not make them less worthy or valuable.

For example:
Great artistic women would mean lots of of successful female artists
Good female writers would mean lots of successful female authors
Beautiful non-white models would mean lots of successful non-white models
Good non-white actors would mean lots of non-white main characters in film and television
Strong women would mean lots of female action heroes
Talented ugly actors would mean lots of ugly rom-com stars
and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, success is not an automatic reward to talent. Just because we have an abundance of pop music doesn’t mean that pop music is actually good. Even if you happen to be an avid listener of the beloved Taylor Swift, the mainstream media hasn’t and still doesn’t represent minority groups. For the most part, especially the comedy scene, female comics are trying to break onto a predominantly white man game. The reason that white men are more widely known and popular is because they fit the mainstream image of comedy. Regular people watch them because they are easily accessible, continuing to spread them around, thus making them even bigger and ‘normal’. Therefore, television and film continue to run with this image because it is making them money; the minorities, although possible, struggle to make it in. Thanks to the age of the internet and sites like YouTube which have a level playing field and even platform for people of different races, genders, and sexual orientations, comedy nerds like me are able to indulge in all the weird and wonderful and often awkward things that people have to offer.

But for the most part, we’re seeing fewer women in comedy because we live in a culture that dissuades them. After all, didn’t I start this article with the claimed idea that women aren’t funny? Shockingly, the more you tell someone they can’t do something, they believe they can’t do it. When that’s been happening for centuries, it’s a hard idea to drop. Even I spent the first years of my life thinking that women weren’t funny – and that was as a woman trying to pursue comedy. What an internal conflict that was. But ultimately it’s difficult to imagine yourself in an industry when you’ve never seen someone who even vaguely looks like you being successful in it.

The message that we as women shouldn’t pursue these dreams is incorporated into nearly everything in the world around us. We see women’s worth rooted almost solely in beauty, with billboards of retouched, ‘perfect’ female specimens. But when it comes to finding fully fleshed, three dimensional women represented, the search becomes slightly harder. Even from a young age, every family movie from a Pixar to a Dreamworks stars a boy. Even if the character isn’t human and gender shouldn’t really matter, that main character will almost always be a boy. More often than not, they win the trophy girl at the end of the movie. We are not the heroes of our own lives and we’ve been told this time and time again. Women are the pretty things on the side. We don’t tell the jokes, we laugh at them. Now, we are asking why we don’t see women in comedy? Because it’s not normal.

I was once asked with a shocked tone, “You’re a comedian? You look more like a singer.” My immediate response was “what does a comedian look like”? Comedy doesn’t have a face, that’s the beauty of it. Comedy is a joke, a film, a fat kid falling through a chair. It doesn’t have one image and it can be found anywhere, in everything. I have no doubt in my mind that anyone could get up on stage with a microphone and make at least one person laugh. So that’s what I’m going to do. Despite the fact that I’ve been told over and over again that women aren’t funny. Despite the fact that I’ve been told over and over again to be just a pretty co-star, one that the hero gets to win. I’m going to take my vagina on stage and tell some jokes. Laughter will be the sound of my protest.


Born and raised in Singapore to English parents, Eryn Tett attended university in Southampton, UK at eighteen to study comedy writing and performance. She is currently at the American Comedy Institute in New York.