Nov. 13th, 2011

helenic: (aubergine penguins)
Zoe Margolis has just posted a crowd-sourced list of female UK comedians, by way of highlighting the gender imbalance within comedy, especially on panel chatshows. I've heard of nine of the women on the list. I don't do to the Edinburgh fringe and I'm not a comedy buff, so unless I've seen them on TV or YouTube, I'm missing out.

I'm drawn to openly feminist comedians like Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell - but honestly, it'd be nice if actual women weren't just an occasional treat. If there was a campaign demanding that comedy shows gender-balance their guests, I would support it. I don't find many of the male comedians particularly funny, so even if the new guests turn out to be a bit pants I don't think it'd be a great loss overall - and at least if I didn't find something funny it'd be more likely to be because it was rubbish, rather than because the joke was sexist.

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue is guaranteed to make me giggle - always has been - and is usually fairly genteel and "safe" compared to, say, Mock the Week. For a while I was catching up on back episodes on BBC iPlayer while doing my physiotherapy exercises of an evening. Which was fine (although the whole Samantha thing made me grit my teeth a bit) until the "finish the line from a 1920s marriage etiquette book" game. I hoped that the players, decent chaps all, would take the opportunity to play with listeners' expectations and provide some interestingly gender-bending humour. Maybe even some good old fashioned surrealism? But no. Suddenly it was old white men making jokes at the expense of women, and I had to turn it off.

Miranda Hart's Joke Shop

A few weeks ago I sprained my ankle going down some stairs on the tube. By the time I'd limped home I was pretty much completely immobile. Denny was out for the evening so I installed myself on the sofa with my netbook to wait for a few hours, and to distract myself I looked on iPlayer for something to watch. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, so comedy seemed like a good idea - but I was so not in the mood to have to breezily ignore any jokes made at my own expense. I scoured the BBC website for a show in the Comedy section which included women. Any women would do. Just one would be fine; I mean I find that a bit obnoxious, the token One Woman in a comedy team, but that'd do me for now. I couldn't find anything. Nada.

I ended up on the BBC Radio 4 website, listening to the first episode of Miranda Hart's Joke Shop. I hadn't heard of Miranda Hart before, but she's a big, tall, jolly, posh woman who has a brash, self-deprecating humour - she styles herself as a kind of failed- or anti-Bridget Jones - and the joke shop is sort of a framework for a sketch show, and sort of a bit like Black Books, only with more chocolate willies.

Reactions:

- I liked her; she made me laugh (especially once I warmed up to her style) and her manner is charming and memorable. It was great to have a sketch show about a woman who isn't conventionally pretty, is socially awkward, and owns her own business. All the humour was at her own expense, which was much nicer than listening to a man making jokes at the expense of women like her.

- The primary theme is how bad Miranda is at being a Girl. Her awful overbearing mother continually tells her to pretty up and get married. Her girly public school friends are all getting engaged and having big meringue weddings. So, clumsily and awkwardly, Miranda finds herself whisked along in their schemes, but hilariously and completely failing to fit in and eventually giving up. It's interesting. On the one hand, it gleefully pokes fun at the Cosmo readers of this world who think that makeup and men are the most important things in a woman's life. It's nice to have a protagonist who is a bit oblivious to all of that, and an overall message that people obsessed with those things are more laughable than people who suck at them. But OMG, could we have comedy by a woman that isn't about weddings and boys and dresses? Even if they're about how stupid all that is? Could we have comedy by a woman that's about, I dunno, science or the internet or politics or books? If only Kate Beaton did standup.

- Another running joke is Miranda getting mistaken for a man, resulting in her desperately trying to femme up so she can 'pass'. Again, some bits of this were pleasingly counter-cultural, but I found other aspects of it outright transphobic. I honestly didn't know what to make of the scene where she ends up in a shop aimed at trans people. On the one hand there's the "OMG Miranda you look like a transvestite! I didn't realise it was fancy dress!" punchline which, just, ugh. But on the other hand the whole conversation between her and the shop owner (who believes that she is trans) has a weird sort of sensivity to it. There was a bit that went:

Miranda: And my mum goes on about it all the time, she says, "Miranda you're a woman, you should dress like one!"
Shop owner: Oh, lucky - not many people have parents who that supportive.
Miranda: Um, I guess...

It was really odd. I mean the whole "Miranda looks like a man! She must be trans!" aspect of it is obviously horrendous and transphobic. But there was also clearly an awareness of her cis privilege. Odd.

Vous Les Femmes

This evening [personal profile] denny and I were looking for something to watch on iPlayer while we ate our tea, having monstered our way through the three Frozen Planet episodes already published in about as many days (neither women nor comedy, but OMG, so highly recommended). Anyway, he suggested comedy and by unspoken mutual agreement we flicked past all the stuff solely featuring blokes, and ended up with 'WOMEN!' (Vous Les Femmes). It's a French language micro-sketch show in which each sketch is only 1-2 minutes long, with an entirely female cast.

Reactions!

- This is baffling, surreal, hit and miss, with so strong a miss at first that we nearly turned it off, but definitely worth persisting with.

- It has a LOT of physical humour, and on average I enjoyed the sketches which involved over the top, slapstick physical fooling much more than the wordier ones - although perhaps that's because some of the humour is lost in the tones of voice if you're following the subtitles more than the French. I seem to remember reading something a while ago about the way physical comedy in particular is male-dominated, in which case this makes a refreshing change.

- The jokes are a mixture of social and situational comedy with low-brow toilet humour, absurdism and slapstick. A lot of it is gendered - like the "sex bomb" showing off her figure at the beach and the way other women react to her; ranting about queues for the ladies; the absurdity of a woman trying to modestly get changed in public - but none of it is sexist. Some of it is 'girly' (cocktail nights, dating, relationships, parenting) but some of it is just gloriously silly - and sometimes both at once. The 'dogwalkers' sketch starts out with a dodgy girlfriends=dogs reference and ended up making me laugh more than any other moment in the entire show, as the two women hare around in the woods like mad things, looking persistently stupid and having a lovely time.

- So the silliness/absurd physical comedy sort of forgives the genderedness, and while there's some poking fun at gender stereotypes it does mostly seem to be good-humoured, hitting sideways rather than hitting down. And there's some lovely fucking with gender expectations, too - as with the repeated lowbrow toilet jokes, and the 'bad parenting' sketches with their deadpan delivery.

I've also recently discovered Helen Arney, also via @denny, who took me to my first Festival of the Spoken Nerd show the other week. She seems awesome, and yay, female musician geek! ... But somehow I don't find her quite as funny as I'd like to; her songs all seem to be morbid romances, and they aren't quite morbid enough. It's also musical comedy where neither the music nor the comedy stands out - if her musicianship was really outstanding, it would make up for the bits that are only averagely funny. But she's young, and certainly doing better than I would, and I'm sure she'll get better. And I did enjoy her improv and banter on stage when she wasn't singing. But I think I'd like it if fewer of her songs were about failed love affairs and more of them were about science. Since she's part of a science troupe and all.

Oh! I almost forgot: the other female comedian I've encountered recently is performance poet Alison Brumfitt. She's wonderfully, challengingly, outrageously queer and a lot of her poems are about rejecting received cultural expectations and gender stereotypes. Listen to When I am old, her take on Jenny Joseph's famous poem. She's a feminist sex positive dyke and she doesn't give a fuck.

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