So, I was thinking about comedy while listening to the latest Bill Burr podcast and, like many times before, I wondered why it is that female comedians don’t really cut it in the same way as men. This is stand-up I mainly refer to, because there is an exception or two in the wider world of comedy.
I don’t have the time to go into this to any great degree, but I think it comes down to the same thing that it always comes down to when looking at the relative abilities and achievements of men vs women: it comes down to the element of risk.
As part of some new work, I recently interviewed the headmaster of a boys-only school in London. I was interested in how he might outline the differences between boys and girls and how best to educate them. In other words, what made boys tick? He confirmed what I already knew and added some new perspectives. It isn’t the Handmaid’s Tale; it isn’t getting in touch with their emotions, it isn’t empathising with the supposed plight of women down the ages.
Boys like risk. They like action. They like competition. And they like to win.
As we all know, to pursue victory, you risk defeat and defeat is typically more likely than success. But this has no impact, in the main, on boys willingness to risk failure. The rewards for success are often intangible and sometimes even seemingly pointless, but they matter all the same.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve raced my young son to the front door of our house for no reason whatsoever. I’ve also lost count of the number of times he’s ‘won’. It’s important to me that he wins and enjoys winning, just as it was important for me growing up. Nobody instructed me to do this sort of thing with him, it’s just that I know, like every man knows, that winning and losing is an essential part of boyhood and manhood. I also think that winning is a habit and I want him to develop that habit.
The issue then becomes, of course, how we define ‘winning’ when it gets a little more complicated than getting home first. That’s the real challenge of fatherhood, I suppose, particularly with a son and particularly under Feminist governance.
Why ain’t she funny?
Anyway, as I’ve wondered for a long time, why do I not find female stand-up comedians funny?
Some years back, long before I had any explicitly defined concepts of men and women as I do now, I found it pretty uncomfortable to watch female comedians do their thing on stage. There was something forced and ill-fitting and simply unfunny about the women I saw trying to make the audience laugh. I could detect it in the audiences too. They wanted to laugh, they were there to laugh; they’d paid good money to get some laughs. And yet, here were these women in the trade as stand-up comedians, but who were not really able to do the business.
In the time I’m talking about, there were only a few female comedians like Jo Brand, Sandra Bernhard and Joan Rivers. There were also some others, but I can’t remember their names and neither, I suspect, can you.
In the comedy of these women, men were very much the target of comedic abuse. It was all they had and they went with it even when it wasn’t funny; a sort of snatching, abrasive desperation. Back then, I thought the same thing I think now, although I didn’t have the advantage then of the framework of male psychology I’ve developed now. What it was then, as it is now, is that female comedians do not generally take risks.
What we look for in comedy is a line and edge and direction that may not work, but the guy puts his heart and soul into the attempt. It works or it doesn’t. You love him and you buy his DVD, or else you forget his name as soon as he walks off stage.
These men put themselves in the firing line. He’s saying: “this is me, take it or leave it”. Women don’t like to put themselves in a win or lose situation like that and they don’t like to put themselves in the fierce light of scrutiny. That’s why they wear make-up and push-up bra’s and high heels; she wants to maximise the field of those who will accept her. The idea of being rejected for who she is anathema to her. She expects and needs to be accepted on her terms and comedy doesn’t much allow for that.
Women don’t like these consequences and they definitely don’t like the odds. Further, women don’t like to be laughed at and you need to be impervious to that before ever stepping foot on the comedy stage. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t like to laugh at women, but we are very comfortable laughing at men. Add to this the sheer amount of work one needs to put into a comedy career just to put beans on the plate, never mind the few that eat caviar, and it becomes clear why so few women enter comedy at all, why so few end up staying and why so very few could genuinely be called funny.
Let’s be honest; in our world, women don’t have to work that hard. They don’t need to take risks in order to achieve; in order to attract a mate; in order to procreate (and practice it frequently) etc etc. After all, no woman is selected by a man because of her achievements in her chosen career. Life is quite short , particularly if you’re a man, and people tend to go with what works to get along or to get ahead.
For women, that means concentrating on herself to make herself attractive. Climbing the slippery career ladder does not add to her attractiveness . For men, achieving means concentrating on doing something outside of himself to accomplish the same goal.
As I’ve said before, men are human doings first, and human beings a distant second. In contrast, women are not human doings at all. They are what they are and what they are is everything. They don’t want to be success objects and men wouldn’t care if they were. This is so well established now, it’s almost becoming old hat.
There can be only one
In my experience, I can only point to one female comedian who I think is genuinely worthy of the description. There are many nearly-funny women, but only one who I categorise in my mind simply as a comedian, the same way I class Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais, Russell Peters, Dave Chappelle, Doug Stanhope, etc.
She’s Catherine Tate and as far as I know, she is specifically a character and sketch artist and is not a stand up comedian. That means she is automatically in the second tier of comedic achievement, as far as I’m concerned (at least in the recent era of comedy, who can say about the old time greats whom we only know from the character-based comedy?).
Nevertheless, this woman is simply funny and she is a very good comedian (I’m speaking specifically about The Catherine Tate Show, I’m not familiar with her other work). When I think of why that is, it comes back to risk and what she is willing to do to get laughs. She is not precious, she does not aim for the female market only, she has no fear, she does not take herself too seriously and she succeeds as a result. This is behaviour only rarely demonstrated by women; they do not need to go there and very rarely make it if they try.
It could be that she has a male-patterned brain (See Simon Baron-Cohen), but this might be a bit misleading. A good comedian isn’t funny because he’s male, he’s funny because of what it means to be male. I’m not sure if male-brain patterning would go far enough because her experiences in life are still those of a woman. So, we’ll just call it great talent and leave it there.
I also have to say that I recently watched a film called Bridesmaids (research material, honest) which has elements of self-abasement humour that suggests that more women can achieve real comedy at last, at least when it’s written for the screen. The scene where the bride-to-be ends up taking a dump in the middle of a busy road in a wedding dress is hilarious and is simply not how women generally behave in order to get laughs. This is traditional male comedy being successfully delivered by women. Rare, but perhaps on the increase.
To sum up, men succeed in comedy because the nature of men makes it possible. Women generally don’t succeed in comedy because they are not accustomed to risk and simply don’t have the trial-by-fire experiences of being a man to forge any comedic potential.
Let a woman walk a mile in his shoes, or maybe 3000 miles to represent his life, and then maybe she’ll be funny. But typically? To borrow from the mindset of all too many women: stand-up comedy needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle.