We've come a way in female comedy. When I created Funny Women just over 10 years ago it was the 'single white female' of the comedy circuit. With the help of an experienced (male) comedy promoter, we encouraged and cajoled around 70 women to enter the first ever Funny Women Awards in 2003 for one main prize. Now we attract over 300 women (and growing year on year) to enter for five different categories. It's still not effortless and there are still critics of our female-centricity, but I'm proud of all those women who have entered the competition over the last 10 years and gone on to show the world that women are funny, comical and creative.
I say the world, because I am now intent on exporting what we've learned here in the UK to women in other continents. Last month I was a guest speaker and workshop facilitator at the fifth annual Women in Comedy Festival (WICF) in Boston, fortunately before the horrific marathon bombing. I had gone with the aim of attracting American acts over to the UK, to import some of the chutzpah that seemingly gives our US counterparts their edge, and offer them some insight into the British comedy scene.
Sass and perceived success aside, what I found out about the US circuit was depressingly familiar with misogyny prevailing and still way too many all-male line-ups. If I needed convincing , one look at the forthcoming programme for the famous New York comedy club Caroline's was enough to shatter my image of an emancipated egalitarian live US comedy scene. It was all in my head. As in the UK, the girls may appear to be on top with some extremely high profile television roles and writing credits but this creates a false sense of equality. Behind the scenes the same barriers apply.
I was honoured to be on the Writers' Panel at WICF where we discussed the specific issues women face in terms of writing for television and getting published. Jill Goodwin, who has been a staff writer for the Late Show with David Letterman since 2010, described the politics of the writers' room and the absence of women's voices in a way that is also endemic here in the UK.
We queried the need for women to write for women (yes, really!) but how can a man know what it's like to give birth and attempt to make that funny? Yet when women write for women, take Tina Fey as a shining beacon of success why don't you, and it's comedy gold. Then men love it too - it has an authoritative voice and it's needed throughout the industry.
So it was from Cambridge Massachusetts, home of Harvard, with this experience fresh in my mind, that I found myself two weeks later in another very British Cambridge, the UK seat of learning. I was there to run one of my Stand Up to Stand Out workshops and we produced our first ever Funny Women show as part of Cambridge Wordfest. Despite the hectic schedule it gave me licence to reflect academically about our female experiences of making people laugh both in the US and here in the UK.
Whilst I believe that American women lack some of the famous British reserve that no doubt holds some women back from taking the stage, the fact remains that the same cultural prejudices and sexism gets in the way. God knows, we have it good in Western society - in the Middle East you could be stoned for telling a rude joke! Remember all that hate mail that the British Muslim comic, Shazia Mirza, received in the years following 9/11?
So how is that women have been able to raise the bar? We are great at putting our money where our mouth is and although all-female comedy line ups were rare when I set up Funny Women in 2002, it is extraordinary how many all-female comedy shows now take place for charity - indeed we collected a few hundred quid for the local Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre by shaking a few buckets at an appreciative Wordfest audience.
As well as growing commercially, Funny Women has gone on to raise tens of thousands of pounds for charity with events or collections taking part in its programme several times a year. Its links with relevant charities is part of the company's culture and we are currently working with domestic violence charities Refuge on the Funny Women Awards, and Rise in Brighton, and breast cancer charity Coppafeel for a very special charity night in 10 days time called 'Tits & Giggles'. Not to mention the charities that will benefit from our forthcoming Challenge event where we've trained a dozen business men using our female comedy techniques to perform stand up for the first time!
While our net worth for charity carries huge weight it still doesn't always cut it with comedy promoters and bookers, who continue to book male acts, rather than giving stage and air time to a whole new generation of female comics.
It's time to take a rain check guys. The stock of female comedy is rising and along with an ever growing community of female comedy promoters like What the Frock, Laughing Labia, Femmes by the Thames and Laughing Cows in the UK and Comedy with Wings, Ladies of Laughter and WICF in the USA, we all co-exist in the same space in the quest to even up the gender balance. If female acts are in such demand for charity events then they are good enough to book for a regular comedy gig or a panel show both sides of the Atlantic.
For details of all upcoming Funny Women shows, events and workshops click HERE.