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Women in Comedy: Why Is There Still A Lack Of Visible Female Comedians?

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With the number successful female comedians, including the likes of Victoria Wood, Tina Fey and Sarah Millican, anyone with an ounce of common sense would think the 'Are Women Funny?' debate had been laid to rest years ago.

But with women counting for just 10% of comedians and male comics continuing to earn bundles more than their female counterparts, it seems the age-old debate - infamously argued by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, 2007 - is still ongoing.

Many female comedians continue to battle against the idea that women aren't funny, while TV panel shows and comedy bills remain overwhelmingly dominated by men.

But although the situation may seem bleak, the women in the industry remain optimistic - many believe there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The BBC recently pledged to ban all-male panel shows (*blows trumpet*) and female comedians are beginning to explore other avenues to get their foot on the ladder.

female comedian

The absence of women in comedy isn't due to lack of female talent in the industry but little opportunity, says Lynne Parker, the founder of The Funny Women Awards - which is now in its 12th year.

"I've seen more than 2000 female comedy acts since we first started the awards," she tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. "There are loads and loads of funny women out there. It's just a case of finding them."

Lynne blames the lack of female visibility on those booking acts to appear on TV panel shows: "Bookers have the power to have an equal number of men and women on each panel."

But, she claims, many choose the same acts again and again without seeking new talent. “A lot of mediocre male comedians get booked, but really great female comedians don’t,” she says.

The exclusion of women echoes throughout the comedy circuit, with many turned down for gigs due to their gender.

Earlier this month female comedian Jenny Collier experienced such rejection. After posting a screenshot of the cancellation email, her story went viral and many comedians stepped up to share similar experiences.

Tweet posted by @Jenjencollier

Carleen Macdermid, member of improv group c3467x, has had similar experiences and says she is often judged on her gender rather than the merit of her performance.

"When I play stand-up nights featuring mostly women, the compliments I receive focus on my set and jokes," she reveals. "But on the nights when I'm the only woman or one of a minority, I find the compliments are completely different. Audience members are often surprised that a woman could be so good."

So are BBC-style moves to enforce diversity the answer? The women we interviewed are overwhelmingly in favour.

While Meera Syal MBE, who rose to prominence through hit comedy show Goodness Gracious Me, believes that gender doesn't necessarily dictate a comedian's success (instead she says it is down to individual choices), she agrees that new female comedians should be given an equal chance to men.

"There should be greater diversity in comedy," she tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. "In my opinion, homogeneity destroys originality and so comedy shows should strive to include as many contrasting acts of both genders and varied backgrounds."

"It's a shame that in the 21st century we are still so underrepresented that such measures have to be taken!" says Andrea Mann, comedy editor of The Huffington Post UK. "But visible role models are vital to inspiring women and girls to fight for their right to sit at the table alongside men."

Carleen says: "If people were given the opportunity to train their palette to enjoy more variety, through the employing of women and ethnic minorities, then more variety would be demanded. In the meanwhile, those comedy viewers who are already tired of seeing the same six white men present every show on terrestrial television should speak up now and speak up often."

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Andrea believes that an audience's pre-determined notions of gender and performance can often be boiled down to one thing - status.

"The comedian on stage has very high status and people are more used to - and more comfortable with - associating such status with a man," she told HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

In fact, many argue that the very nature of stand-up comedy is geared towards typical alpha-male personality traits.

"The idea of 'joke telling' and 'commanding the room' - rather than observational 'story telling' or letting others command the room - is, generally speaking, a more male than female trait," says Andrea.

As such the industry may not be as accessible to women and their community-based methods of communication and interaction.

But anyone who thinks that all women can joke about is periods and childbirth should think again.

From sketch and character comedy to improvisation, women have proven themselves to extremely diverse performers.

On one hand, women are not unafraid of pushing boundaries. "The Mighty Boosh are renowned for their dark, surreal humour, but there are women doing similar things in comedy," says Lynne. "But Funny Women Awards past winners Twisted Loaf are also very dark, as is some early French & Saunders stuff."

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150 Funny Women - Past And Present
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On the other hand, Meera says that women shouldn't shy away from traditionally 'female topics'.

"Comedy is based on personal experience, so naturally a female comedian will refer to her female experience, just like a male comedian would," she says. "If men don’t narrow their audience by complaining about their wives or talking about their cars, why should that be the case for women?"

She adds: "The female experience is only considered ‘the other experience’ because unfortunately, as with most things, men dominated the field first. In order to lose the ‘other’ status that women have adopted over time, I think that it’s important for women to keep representing female experiences in order to normalise it. Once something is visited repeatedly, people become desensitised to it and it then becomes natural."

By touching 'softer' subjects that traditional male comics wouldn't have dreamed of, women have allowed men to tackle different areas such as parenting.

"Women have moved the goal posts for men," says Lynne. "Twenty years ago comedy was much more hard-hitting - you'd never have a man do an entire set about buying sanitary towels for his wife!"

Whatever their thoughts on quotas and subject matter, one thing that most female comedians can agree on is that hands-on mentoring is also key to nurturing female talent

This is happening; in the US, Will Ferrell recently launched a female-focused film and TV production company Gloria Sanchez and Jo Brand is working closely with The Funny Women Awards to promote female talent.

But for female comedians who aren't lucky enough to be taken under a successful comedian's wing. There are still plenty of avenues to explore.

The internet, particularly Twitter and YouTube, have become great levellers.

"If you're talented and funny, and create great comedy, you will be noticed," says Andrea. "The world of comedy has been opened up for anyone who previously may have felt unable to enter it (whether due to gender, age, their job or location, for example)."

And if all else fails, the overwhelming message for women looking to break into comedy is simple: go out and gig.

"Don’t sit talking about it," says Lynne. "There are lots of places to gig. Get yourself in front of an audience. Some of it will be shit. Some won’t."

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