It is 14 years since I asked the comedy promoter I was working for why he never booked any women. His reply? Quite simply, ‘there aren’t any funny women’ – but that was just as untrue then as it is now! The good news is that this incident kick-started the creation of Funny Women, which has become the UK’s leading comedy community, helping women to write, perform and do business with humour. However, there is still far too much questioning of women’s ability to be funny. I am sick of being asked ‘are women funny?’ or ‘are women as funny as men?’ Just take a look…
Some of my favourite female comedy greats from across the pond have had a major influence on us over here in Blighty. The arrival of television provided a great forum for female comedy moguls and showcased both the performance and entrepreneurial talents of Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore. Both produced and starred in their own shows, leaving a rich legacy later exploited by the likes of Roseanne Barr and Tina Fey.
Away from the glitz and gloss of the Hollywood Hills the Brits were also hard at work at the coal face of popular entertainment. It was a grittier, more working class affair which grew out of being on the frontline of two world wars. On one side of the tracks, Gracie Fields took the working class route of music hall tradition, more akin to today’s stand up circuit, and later became the darling of British films. And then there was the cut glass British-ness of Joyce Grenfell. She started out on the radio, and later made a successful transition to television. It’s a tradition that hasn’t changed much; today’s female comedy stars Miranda Hart and Sarah Millican were both first commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and ended up with their own television programmes.
The 1950s saw the start of the St Trinian’s cycle, and although this put young women centre stage as naughty schoolgirls it wasn’t reflective of the empowered vision of womanhood going on the other side of the Atlantic! The gymslips and straw boaters were in stark contrast to the emergence of female stand-up comics in the US like Phyllis Diller, who first appeared on stage at The Purple Onion in San Francisco on March 7, 1955, and remained there for 87 straight weeks!
British comedy on film and TV in the 1950s relied on schoolboy prank-dom and slapstick with either women providing titillation or portrayed as humorous harridans. Yet successful comedy franchises like the Carry On series – featured brilliant female comedy talents Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims, and Barbara Windsor. The context and humour based around innuendo-laden jokes owed much to music-hall tradition set in stone by the likes of Gracie Fields. And TV was largely a boys cub too; from the Goon Show in the 1950s, to a whole range of spin offs from the staged review show, Beyond the Fringe. It was the men that mainly wrote and performed on radio and television.Although all of these programmes were funny and a reflection of society at that time – women were often portrayed in the home making dinner and babies in a post war culture that put us back in our box and not on the box.
By contrast our American contemporaries were escaping the kitchen sink with the aid of domestic appliances and invading the small screen. Lucille and Mary starred in and produced their own TV shows, Phyllis and Joan cut a dash on the stand up circuit. So it is all hail to my personal patron saint of female comedy, Joyce Grenfell! With cameo roles in St Trinians and the success of her television shows in the 1960s and 70s, her fame reached as far as the US and she memorably appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show alongside Elvis Presley – today’s equivalent of Miranda Hart on Graham Norton with Will I Am. Grenfell is the mother of today’s sketch and character comedy, now so familiar to us due to television’s success with French & Saunders and Catherine Tate. Her one-woman shows and monologues have influenced so many of today’s female comedy performers.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s women were plotting their own very special comedy reincarnation. Then by the 1980s along came French & Saunders, Wood and Walters who like their US forerunners, were writing as well as performing. The stage was firmly set for more Great British female comedy shows like Acorn Antiques, Dinner Ladies, Ab Fab and the Vicar of Dibley.
Girls on Top, broadcast in 1985 and 1986, starred Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman, and was written by French, Saunders and Wax with additional material from Ullman. In 1987, French and Saunders went on to create their eponymous sketch show, which ran for six glorious seasons until 2007.
Smack the Pony – a personal favourite of mine – ran from 1999 until 2003 featuring Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan, Sally Phillips and Sarah Alexander. It put down another marker in the history of female comedy and is frequently cited by the young female acts that I see as a major influence on their work.
If anything women are comedically more successful on television than men. Aside from panel shows there have been some great breakthrough acts such as Catherine Tate and Katy Brand. The test bed for this has always been the live circuit and even Miranda Hart performed some of her now famous show ‘Miranda’ as live ‘work in progress’ on the Funny Women stage at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.
So why is the British stand-up scene still so hard for women to break? This is the nursery slopes for new comedy talent and it may not have escaped your notice that rather too many young, bestubbled, check-shirted mediocre male comedians get onto panel shows, while talented, hardworking and very funny women don’t. Culture should always be a reflection of society and we need women to be equally represented on our small and large screens.
A version of this text was presented at the UEA’s ‘Doing Women in Film and Television History‘ conference.