Musings arguments and gig reports from your favourite Goth lesbian transsexual vegan recovering alcoholic and drug addict sceptic rationalist atheist comedian chameleon and caricature.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Don't put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington...

"Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling." Zizek

Forgive me Blogspot for I have sinned, It's been 5 months since my last blog post.  A lot's happened I moved out of my lovely little flat and moved in to a room in a shared house with a garden and a trampoline.  I've started cycling and getting treatment for my anxiety and depression and I'm actively taking part in my recovery from my various addictions, accepting life on life's terms etc.

Basically, I'm happy.  BOOO HISSS! And this has had a negative impact on my comedy writing.  It's hard to be funny when you love everything.  Well unless you're Pat Monahan and I suspect he's hiding a dark secret, no one can be that happy all the time.

But the reason I've decided to start back with this blog in particular is because I keep getting dragged in to an argument on twitter, an argument with people who ostensibly are attempting to fight my corner, but in reality do not understand the industry I work in at all and are making up "facts" to fit their views, not looking at what actually happens and trying to alter it at that level.

I now know how corporate finance executives trying to explain credit default swaps to non industry people must feel like.

Basically Mock the Week has come under fire for being sexist, not in it's content, but in the number of panel members who are female, where their guests are roughly 18% female.
That sounds like it's terrible, but when you consider that about 10% of the professional circuit of stand-ups are women, you can see that that's quite an improvement on that.  And Mock the Week is better than a lot of other comedy programmes on that score, On Live at the Apollo for instance, 10.04% of the comedians are women, and of those 1/3 is Jo Brand, the others are Joan Rivers (1/4) and the rest are Shappi Khorsandi, Sarah Millican, Gina Yashere and Andi Osho.

But even that is a fairly fair representation of the industry in terms of numbers if not diversity.

The 20% figure that's been bandied about in relation to the number of women working in stand-up came from looking through the Chortle website's list of stand-up comedians, this will give you a false reading, partly as it includes comedians from the open mic circuit who are in no way professional comics, it includes people who've visited the UK for gigs including doing runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and who are therefore not part of the circuit and overall gives a fairly unrepresentative sample.

From experience I can tell you that it's roughly 10% of the professional circuit that are female.

But why is this?

It's an interesting question, because in every other aspect of the industry it's a lot closer to 50%, and in some areas of the industry there are far more women than men, such as comedy agents.

So why are there so few women performing stand-up?

The main reason, as far as I can tell is simply "because fewer women want to be stand-ups"  but why do fewer women want to be stand-ups?

Well anyone who's spend enough time around stand-up comedians will tell you that it takes a specific personality type to be a stand-up, in that way it's a lot like being an alcoholic.  Or as Sarah Silverman said "being a stand-up is like being gay, you're born like that and there's nothing you can do about it."

If you were to build a character profile of a comedian you'd be looking for someone with:  A big ego coupled with low self esteem, a pathological need to be liked, often not the eldest or only child, but usually from a family with an anxious or depressed mother and a distant father either emotionally or physically, didn't necessarily excel academically even though they had the ability, people pleaser, obsessional and defiant, and mostly grew up with a family or peer group where the ability to be funny quickly, or to be witty had higher than average cachet.

Some may have all those traits, some may have only a few this is by no means a forensic study but it does match a lot of comedians, all of them apply to me.

the personality traits that I've listed above are more often male character traits.  This is one reason that I believe more men go into stand-up than women.

But at the entry level it's not 10% of open spots who are just starting out who are women, it's closer to 30%. 

I was thinking back to when I started out 7 years ago, and I thought at the time that it was fairly equally split between men and women.  That was my assumption.  Then I thought it through and thought of all the people who started out when I did who dropped out and I can remember a lot more women dropping out than men.

But then thinking it through even further I realised that it was more noticeable when the women dropped out, because there were fewer of them in the first place, and I got to know them better as there was a camaraderie that came from being a minority on the circuit.  basically guys at that level are 10 a penny, almost literally. as no one on that circuit's getting paid any money at all.

But more women than men did drop out over all as otherwise the circuit would be more fairly balanced.

So why is that?  Is it because the industry's sexist?  I'd argue that the answer is no.

I'd argue that society's sexist, and that the social pressures on women are different than they are on men. and the myth that women aren't funny keeps getting dragged up time and time again even though it's patently not true.  Whether you like the female comedians you see on TV they do represent a fraction of the female comics out there, and stand-up is best experienced live, and the comedians that you see on television have got there because they can consistently make rooms full of people laugh.  As a professional comic I reckon I perform to over 12,000 people per year, and of those I make about 80% of them laugh in any given audience.  In the last year I had one death on stage, and even there in a room of 300 people I made about 50 people laugh consistently throughout the gig.  Though if I was to be on TV there would be people who'd say "I hate Bethany Black, she's shit, she's just not funny" and subjectively to them that's absolutely true, objectively though the evidence points to me actually being very funny most of the time.

But the myth's prevalent that it's there when I walk on stage.  And as a female comic it's a prejudice that you've got to get over before you can make an audience laugh.

In Stand-up the first 2 minutes are key, because unless they're there specifically to see you the audience doesn't know who you are, they don't know what your name is, they've not seen you on TV so they assume you're not very good ("because look at the shit comics that get on TV!  and this one can't even get on TV.")  If you throw that you're not what they expect a stand-up comic to look like: male, white, straight talking about wanking, drinking and why they're single,  well unless you fit that description you're already at a disadvantage and you've got to address who you are, what you look like and why you're funny.

As a female comic you already approach the stage with an audience thinking that you're not going to be very good.  A number of occasions I've had audience members audibly go "oh shit, a female comic, they're always rubbish."  or get up and go to the bar when I'm coming on stage or any number of things like that.

The industry knows that the myth that women aren't funny is just that, a myth.  And in order for female comics to be able to get to the point where they're professional they have to prove that it's a myth. 

Because there's fewer of us it's a double edged sword.  If you storm it as a female comic you're likely to be remembered more than a guy who storms it.  But the opposite is also true, if you die you're more likely to stick in the mind than a guy who died on the same bill.  So the trick is not to let promoter's see you until you're more likely to storm it than you are to die.

The other thing about audiences is that in spite of the argument around Mock The Week that's gone on this week where lots of people have said that with there being so few women on the show that it's not representing what women want to see, it is in fact bollocks.

Meera Syal once said "the thing in comedy that is the same for men and women is that they both hate women."  and in audience terms that's true.  Women in audiences are less likely to like female comedians.  It's just how it is.

About 4 times per week I'll have an audience member come up to me after a gig and more often than not that audience member is a woman and they will say "I don't normally like women comedians but you were really funny."  I take that in the spirit it's intended, as a compliment, when in actual fact what they've essentially said is:

"When I heard your name I expected you to be rubbish, and then in spite of all my expectations you were perfectly adequate at the job you were being paid to do.  Well done!"

It's on a par with the woman at a gig after I'd mentioned being gay who came up to me and said "Well I think you're great, don't take notice of anyone else! You be proud of who you are!"  Which essentially I read to mean that she'd had a problem with me being gay, but had changed her mind.

I can see it when I'm on stage too.  I mention right off the bat that I'm a lesbian these days, it's such a key part of my experience interacting with the world and I find endlessly funny stuff to say about it and the way that people react to it, and also as I'm totally comfortable with it it's a no brainer for me.  But when I don't mention it until later I get a very different reaction.

See comedy is about status, just by being on the stage you're assuming a high status especially as you have the temerity to think that you can make a room full of strangers laugh.  And this can be threatening to some men (often beta males who are the ones who heckle as they see it as a chance to raise their status in their own group)  and to some of the women in the audience (ones who are their with their partners, or who are looking for partners.) where you become a sexual competitor.  When I say I'm a lesbian right off the top it completely stops this and makes them feel comfortable about laughing at the things I'm going to be talking about.

This simple change in status then allows me to deal with other things.  A lot of comedy on a club circuit is like plate spinning, you have to employ certain tricks to get an audience on side to like you in quite a combative arena so that you can then, when you've earned their trust that you'll be funny, talk to them about the stuff that's important to you.

For example if it's a Saturday night and I've got a rowdy crowd of 350 stags and hens and works dos and birthday parties that I'm performing to and I've mentioned that I'm gay and they're listening and there's still a chance that a stag or hen party might decide that they want to be centre of attention, what I do is find the hen of the nearest hen party to the stage and I flirt with her a bit.

This has an odd effect in that she's flattered, has had attention and is a little bit embarrassed, her friends like that I've made a fuss of her, a big portion of the audience think it's funny, and all the stags like that I've flirted with a woman and feel like it's given them something they can relate to me with.  Other female acts do this in different ways but the reason behind it is the same, it's to lower their status with the audience so that they're not seen as a threat or sexual competitor.

It's all a con trick.

I've been called fat by audiences, I've been called ugly, I've been threatened by audience members, I've had enough threats of rape off men in the audience that I've got a standard put down to deal with it.

If any part of comedy is sexist, it's the audiences.

Don't get me wrong, there are a few promoters out there who I won't name who are massively sexist, but they're very much in the minority and comedy especially professionally is very much a meritocracy. Either you can make the audience laugh or you can't. If you can't you won't get paid work, if you can you will.  Obviously there's more to it than that, if the promoter likes you personally you'll get booked back more than if you're funny and they don't like you personally.

But why do more women drop out of stand-up without making it professional?

I think partly it's down to the amount of time and effort that has to go in to becoming professional at stand-up, if you don't love it, if it's not a burning desire, then you're not going to make it.

I personally don't believe in "natural talent" I believe in hard work and transferable skills.  When I started out 7 years ago I was terrible.  Really bad.  I said offensive things for the sake of being offensive and didn't know the difference between that and funny things.  But I stuck at it and worked very hard and kept learning.

There were about 50 comics in the North who started out at around the same time as me, after a year there were about 25 of us, after 2 years about 10 Now there's about 3 and we're all working professionally as comedians.

It is a tough apprenticeship.  In the first year of doing stand-up I did 200 gigs, all open mic nights above pubs, I travelled 1,000 miles per week on top of trying to hold down a full time job.  Every penny I had was spent on stand-up, I would get an average of 4 hours sleep per night and I had to sever all ties to my previous support networks.  There just wasn't time to keep in touch with them.

The first year it cost me about £7,000 to perform stand-up.  I earned £63.  I had to cut back on buying clothes, something that has continued until very recently.  I couldn't afford to get my hair cut.  I couldn't afford to spend money on looking nice.  But this didn't matter to me as much as performing stand-up.

Most of the industry are men.  A lot of them are reasonably young, and most of them put off having children until much later, when their career has stabilised.  More of the women that I've seen leave stand-up have done so to raise or look after or start a family.

If you're a mum and you're working 9-5 you're less likely to want to be away from your children in the evening too whilst you're learning to be a stand-up comedian, especially as it takes such a long time to learn and there's no guarantee that you'll ever be able to make a career out of it.  Plus if you start doing stand-up in your mid 20s and you see that it'll take up to 10 years to get to a point where you're comfortable in your career enough to start thinking about having children then it's going to be off putting.

These are the things that make it more difficult for women, I know that if I had family commitments, or wanted (if I'd been biologically able to) to have kids, then I'd probably not be doing this.  Or if being able to afford clothes, or socialising or make-up or hair cuts were as important to me as comedy then I'd definitely not be doing this for a living.

There is also the fact that male comics who are terrible will continue to perform and the open mic level longer than women who are terrible.  Women who are terrible recognise this and tend to go into different areas, whether that's writing, moving into radio, music, poetry, burlesque whatever their interest.  Guys who are terrible continue on, not getting any better for years, occasionally getting big enough laughs at some gigs to justify their continued involvement in stand-up, and some of them over time do get better after years of being shit and manage to start getting paid work.

That's the double edged sword of the open mic circuit, it allows people who 15 years ago would have had to give up because they were terrible and wouldn't be able to get booked, the opportunity to get booked indefinitely.

See the thing is it's a pyramid, the ones at the top of the open mic circuit find their way on to the main circuit, and the ones who get tot eh top of that find themselves picked up by TV.

TV reflects the circuit it doesn't shape it. 

This week I've tried to explain this to various different people.  Some of them who were fighting for more women in stand-up found that my story, and my experience of the industry didn't tally with what they thought; that TV generally and Mock The Week specifically being responsible for the small numbers of women taking up stand-up comedy.  When in reality, there are fewer women on Mock the Week because fewer women do stand-up.

Some of the people who thought that decided to block me from twitter, some just unfollowed me  Some people told me I didn't know what I was talking about and some told me my understanding was based on "unquestioned assumption."  I see that as an example of what The Doctor in Genesis of The Daleks says "the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common.  They don't alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views."

I'm not arguing that some of the content of Mock the Week isn't sexist, or that there shouldn't be more women in stand-up, I do think both of these things, I also think that society at large has a big part to play in this, and the way to change it is for more women to get in to stand-up.

I'd personally hate if shows like Mock The Week had to have 50/50 male and female comedians on it, because if I did ever get on any of them I'd never know if I'd got there from my own merit or just to fill out a quota.  I already fill so many equal ops boxes I'd hate for that to be the reason for my success.

I've got to where I am today, which currently is a jobbing comedian on the comedy circuit through 7 years of very hard work to the exclusion of everything else, and I'm good at my job, I'm funny on demand no matter how I feel, whether it's the day I've had a pet die, whether it's the day I've been dumped, I get up on stage and make people laugh.  I overcome prejudice and I hopefully change people's opinions of female comedians one gig at a time.

But this is all I have to say about this, and I'll be avoiding any further discussion on it, as I've managed to get my life back on track and I'm enjoying it, and it takes so much more energy to argue than it does to walk away, and every second spent arguing with people I don't care about is a second I don't get to be happy and spending time with people I do care about.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Intelligent. Reasoned. Brilliantly written. Welcome back Bethany. x

BarnabyEJ said...

What a fantastically brilliant read (and not least because you used a quote from Tom Baker's Doctor!!). I run a monthly comedy improv group which has an equal ratio of male/female performers and, as you say, women AND men feel threatened by a genuinely funny woman; which makes it twice as hard for them to get an audience on side. It's an odd pyschological barrier that is difficult to vault over. But, this is a fantastic read to all aspiring women comics and to everyone who's ever populated the idiotic myth that women are less funny than men.

Unknown said...

Fascinating and rather compelling take on an issue which I've been pondering anew of late. A question though - do you think the difference in content of male and female comics has anything to do with the apparent gender bias? To me, the funniest female comics are always the ones with routines that largely avoid ripping into the opposite sex. Likewise, the male comics that leave me, and in my experience most mixes audiences, thoroughly unmoved are the ones making (woefully unoriginal) jokes abt women based on their gender. Do you think, perhaps for socio-cultural reasons, that women may have a greater tendency to perform routines that riff off their relationships with the opposite sex, and that this in turn may be a contributory/exacerbating factor in relation to the points you highlight in your blog post?

Caroline Gerardo said...

Brilliant intuitive and hammer slamming right. Although we like to believe our world is one of equality we are still backwards.
Your writing is great.

Exercise every day, walk in daylight eat healthy stay strong.

superfurryandy said...

Excellent post and one that has me questioning my take on the argument. One point, though - while I largely agree with your comment that MTW is reflecting society's patriarchy rather than its own, it's clear that there are more than enough talented female comedians to be picked on merit rather than having one 'occasional' guest on the show - if the visibility of circuit comedians was greater, rather than established TV performers such as Jo Brand or Sarah Millican was greater, surely that would help in terms of inspiration? Instead of Ava Vidal or Zoe Lyons appearing every now and then, why not both on the same show? Or you and Josie Long, Bridget Christie and Celia Pacquola etc.? Or even having one of permanent slots? As you say this would probably lead to arguments about quotas and positive discrimination, but the talent involved would (should?) overcome that. Anyhoo, thought provoking as ever, great writing.

Nyder O'Leary said...

Two things:

- Interesting, passionate, fascinating piece of writing.

- The Doctor says that in The Face of Evil. Excuse my pedantry...

Bethany Black said...

Quite right. My apologies, I hope the rest of it stands up though.

twistedlilkitty said...

I enjoyed reading that and will very likely read through it again.
I've only been doing stand up a short period of time but I find that ripping the piss out of myself and coming across as wee bit pathetic works. I don't really swear that much but my material is of a sexual nature so the reaction is interesting.
I had huge distaste in being labelled as a female comedian, though what I write now is about being a woman I didn't really acknowledge that until recently. Most nights I do stand up I'm the only woman or maybe there are one or two more but it's rare. I don't see myself getting very far with it, this worries me. Not in a career way but I actually enjoy doing stand up. It's like the sort of hobby an eccentric person would take on which wasn't hunting street urchins as 'game'.

I agree there's shit loads of work in it but that's for everyone. People are funny, but there is work there. I love your stance on this, as it's pretty much similar to my own. Comedy is work, crazy insane work. Sure there aren't that many women doing it but all comedy should be judged on the individual and not their background, race, sex or religion. Laughter is all that matters, if you get that you're doing something right.

anjakinz said...

Awesome post love this. I dip in and out of comedy but this had totally got my interest. I wonder if men also experience element of brotherhood commeradary that gives them acceptance before disapproval and women the opposite? My tastes are often at odds with others but the last show I went to had a female compare who I'd have preferred to have on all night than any one of the male performers.

Anonymous said...

The receptiveness of audiences to female comics is actually pretty well discussed in Jimmy Carr's The Naked Jape. I know. I wasn't expecting that either.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

The question of audience response to female comics is actually really well thrashed out in 'The Naked Jape', co-authored by Jimmy Carr. I know. I was as surprised as anyone.

Alexa D said...

Fantastic post! I was in the QI green room after a taping one time, and I was chatting with Clive Anderson, and he said that he wished there were more women on QI. And it was such a relief to hear that from him, a) because someone had noticed! and b) it implied that he assumed there HAD to be enough funny women out there to fill the bill.

Now that I'm working for an entertainment lawyer in the States, I constantly toy with the idea of licensing the trademarks and format and so on to do an American version of QI. And one of my goals would be to make sure each episode would have at least one woman (also one person of color). As I list the people I would love to have on, I find that my stand-up list is quite lacking, but my TV writers and actors, my cartoonists and novelists, even my scientists and politicians are fairly evenly balanced in terms of gender.

It's a wicked world we live in. Every step counts, I suppose.