Speak Up

Have you heard the one about sexism in comedy?

Posted by
Gina Lyons
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Unsurprisingly, sexism is rife in this male-dominated industry based on egos and night shifts.     

I had a debate with a mate the other night - a debate I thought myself and every woman in my industry had squashed in 2011. It went something along the lines of: “are female comedians funny?”

Yawning ‘ell.

Of course, I was annoyed at myself for even entertaining such a misogynistic question. But, when it’s from a friend who a) isn’t in the industry and b) is what we call ‘a punter’, I care too much to not try and change their mindset. After all, it’s not their fault they ask this question: we still have a very, very long way to go.

I am a producer in comedy, and faced with sexism weekly. (Hey, I’m grateful, it used to be daily. I once found out that my male colleague who did exactly the same job as me was paid £300 a month more. I questioned it, and conveniently didn’t get my contract extended. It’s fun like that!). So, when Laura Whitmore asked me to write a piece on sexism in comedy, my first thought was ‘yikes’. This was quickly followed by a quick Google search on the matter, followed by me screeching the words “OF COURSE SEXISM IN COMEDY STILL P**SING EXISTS - SEXISM IS RIFE IN REAL LIFE, LET ALONE A MALE DOMINATED INDUSTRY BASED ON EGOS AND NIGHT SHIFTS.”


Yes, the industry has changed a little, and for the better, but it’s really only changed on the surface, just as it did for racism and homophobia. Underneath this faux sense of equality, the sexism is still there, seeped in the majority. It’s in the casual remarks, the bookings, the on-stage introductions. It’s in the opinions of our audiences. Who can forget the moment that Bridget Christie went on Have I Got News For You and was introduced “as a woman who collected her Foster’s comedy award wearing a ‘No More Page 3’ T-shirt, but got a bigger round of applause when she took it off”?

Yeah, that really happened. But what do you expect from a show where only 13.7% of its guests are women? I’ve done the maths: a measly 1488 HIGNFY shows out of 4700 feature a woman. Of the three women who appear most frequently on the show, only one of them is a comedian: Jo Brand. And, when these women do appear, they do it alone: in 2016, only one out of 19 episodes of HIGNFY featured two women; in 2017, it was three out of 19 episodes.

What kind of message does this send the world? Well, not a positive one, let me assure you. But, of course, HIGNFY is not the only show at fault. Indeed, every TV line up which features a token female, every mixed bill that squeezes a woman into the middle of the show so as not to upset the audience, every woman who is heckled on stage without the promoter kicking the bloke out, represents an industry of sexism and a subtext being seeped into our society.

No wonder my mate asked me if women were funny: the poor sod hasn’t seen enough of us to judge.

As a TV producer and director of the odd live comedy show, I always do my very best to have a positive impact on altering the status quo. But, while TV commissioners do now ask for a mixed bill in terms of diversity when booking a TV show, there are always still massive question marks over the women you want to book. And I am questioned over my choices by everyone - the team, other comics and then the Twitter audience at large - once the show is aired.

The most common complaint is: “she’s not funny and it looks bad for female comedians.”

Right. Let’s change that sentence so it describes an unfunny man on Live at the Apollo: does he make “all men look s**t?” Of course not. How about a black man? Has he let down his race because a set died? Don’t be ridiculous. And yet, if Barry from Cardiff doesn’t find a particular female comic funny, you can bet your ass that he now believes all women are bloody terrible.

Women carry the weight of this expectation upon them: they have to hold up an entire gender every time they appear on TV. Try carrying anything on your shoulders while you’re being funny. It’s hard enough walking out on stage to a room of people who are already waiting for you to not be.

Every woman I know in comedy - on stage or behind a camera - feels they have a responsibility to change the scene, whether that be by booking more female writers, by hiring the female director or by the discussions they cover on stage. But it isn’t just up to us: as a reader and audience member, you can too. So, head out and support your local comedy nights, and if visiting Edinburgh, make a point of seeing some of the fantastically funny females on right now. I recommend Lou Sanders, Anna Morris, Lazy Susan, Zoe Lyons, Sarah Callaghan, Lauren Pattison, Jayde Adams, Angela Barnes, Samantha Baines, Rosie Jones, Suzi Ruffell, Kiri Pritchard-Mclean, Evelyn Mok, Harriet Kemsley, Beth Vyse, Eleanor Conway or Tania Edwards. Or, y’know, all of them. 

By supporting our fellow women, we can - slowly - change sexism at large. I’m building my own little girl at the moment (I’m currently 22 weeks pregnant), and I want her to have the option of being a comedian or writer when she is older. I want her to know that we all made life a little easier for her. I want her to know that it’s an industry she can be accepted into, and thrive in. I want her to have weightless shoulders when delivering her dick jokes on stage, to be introduced on to a TV show by her merits, not her tits.

I guess I want what we all want: equality, in comedy and all of life. What’s so funny about that?

Gina Lyons is a comedy producer in TV and Live Comedy. She is currently directing two shows in Edinburgh, STEPHEN BAILEY’S OUR KID and ADAM ROWE’S UNDENIABLE.

For one day only on Monday 13 August, Laura Whitmore has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Speak Up platform – a digital initiative which aims to shine a light on the day’s most important headlines, challenge the status quo, spark debate, encourage conversation and, above all else, champion women’s voices..

For similarly inspiring content, check out Laura Whitmore’s show on BBC Radio 5 Live, which airs on Sundays at 11am.

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