A woman’s work is never funny: sexism in the comedy industry

It’s not particularly a secret that there’s a problem of sexism within the comedy industry. Just look at the small number of famous female comedians, or for an even clearer example, watch one of their performances on YouTube and look at the comments. It seems comedy is one of the few jobs in which it’s somehow still acceptable for people to decide that you will be unable to do it just because you have a vagina. Not many people nowadays would be brash enough to say that they think women are biologically incapable of engineering, or politics, but saying that ‘men are just funnier than women’ is an opinion, and therefore it couldn’t possibly be sexist.

I still see articles trying to prove that joke telling is something that only men developed in order to seduce women, and that’s why there are such disparities in the industry. I hate these articles and I wish people would stop getting funding to write them. Partly due to being woman who does stand up comedy, it is pretty damn discouraging, but mostly because none of them ever seem to actually make any solid conclusions. First of all, it is almost impossible to prove what women thousands of years ago found most desirable in a man; whether that was the ability to provide for her and her children, or in fact just really good puns. Second, it also implies that women had some choice in who they were marrying and/or having children with, which is definitely not true in all times and places.

Ask ten people whether a comedian is funny and you’ll get ten different answers, so you can’t even prove that a person is funny, let alone a whole gender. It is almost as if humour is subjective

Perhaps this argument would be more credible if the only time that someone made another person laugh is when men are trying to sleep with women, and not something that people do with one another in order to form or deepen social ties. Besides, ask ten people whether a comedian is funny and you’ll get ten different answers, so you can’t even prove that a person is funny, let alone a whole gender. It is almost as if humour is subjective.

Besides, there is no non-biological reason that women wouldn’t want to go into a male dominated profession that requires travelling to unfamiliar bars late at night and drawing as much attention to yourself as possible. Earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper talked to female and male comedians, and many of the female comedians described situations in which they were harassed, belittled, assaulted, or threatened. Most of them never reported what happened because it was just “part of the job,” and they didn’t want to seem “difficult.” In 2018 Chortle did a survey and found that out of 145 female comedians they asked, 26% had been sexually assaulted by one of their colleagues.

As things transition back to normal, this might be a good time for the comedy industry, like many others, to think seriously about whether things can continue as they are

That’s an absolutely shocking percentage that the industry needs to do something about. It drives women out or prevents them from getting work, either because they spoke out and are being punished, or because they didn’t speak out and now have to refuse gigs because they don’t want to spend time with the perpetrator. So far some moves have been made, but it’s extremely difficult because of how the industry is structured. The comedy industry in the UK, and across the world, is extremely decentralised, it’s pretty much just a network of venues, the only similarity between which is that they have at least one microphone that they sometimes let people say jokes into. Booking paid gigs depends on how well-liked a comedian is by promoters, many of whom will book one female comedian on each line-up, but never more than one.

Some of this restructuring might be possible after Covid-19. Online gigs are by their very nature safer than in-person ones, because even if other problems in the industry persist it remains difficult to molest someone through a screen. Personally, I don’t see virtual gigs themselves sticking around too long after quarantine. Laggy punchlines are rarely funny and Zoom icons just don’t provide the same atmosphere as a real crowd. But as things transition back to normal, this might be a good time for the comedy industry, like many others, to think seriously about whether things can continue as they are.

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