Funny Women or Funny Business?

Stand up comedian Sian Bevan explores the dark side of funny in female branded competitions.

Feature by Sian Bevan | 07 Jul 2008
  • Paul Ryding

Women-only nights are now a familiar feature within comedy clubs, they offer a chance to display the talents of a minority group; like Def-Jam Comedy for ovaries. Although the idea provokes some disdain, perhaps the most compelling positive is that these events lure in an audience who have been put-off in the past by bawdy, blokey comedy.

Funny Women was established in 2002 by Lynne Parker, ostensibly to support sisters who are bullied by burly comedians shouting about wanking. There is, of course, the argument that if you cannot stand the heat, dear girl, then get on with cleaning the kitchen. However, its pink lipstick logo has shone over some impressive Funny Women finals, bringing our attention to the delights of acts such Zoe Lyons and Jade the Folk Singer.

Last year, bad press was created by the debacle of The Guid Sisters - a planned Fringe run of Michel Tremblay’s play performed entirely by female stand-ups under the Funny Women umbrella. As a cast member that had loudly heralded the joy of performing in an all-women play, I realised with horror that we had fulfilled every expectation of the pessimists by falling to pieces amid disagreements and bitching. We cancelled after two performances and were replaced by a melange of female stand-ups.

Then more of the weaknesses of the brand were revealed. Performers were warned not use the c-word because, explained the crew, it was not suitable for the audience. Hackles were raised about the idea of censorship along with banning a word that women, of all people, have the right to proclaim as their own.

Producer Lynne Parker explained her official line: "As producers working a lot of the time with very new and inexperienced acts during the NIVEA Funny Women Awards, we will advise them about what sort of material is appropriate based on the venue and the audience profile."

Note the prominent display of the sponsor name: Funny Women is a corporate dream. With regular fundraisers for charity, it's hard to fault a service that showcases shining examples of modern womanhood - especially with competition winners who look fabulous with a cheeky dot of moisturiser smudged on their nose. As such, it receives often unquestioned media support despite internal worries about the legitimacy of some of its aims and methods.

Concerns have also been raised by acts receiving unsolicited feedback. Although acts generally welcome feedback, tips appeared to be female-specific and often ill-informed - with advice which appeared wary of edgier material and potentially better suited to lucrative television presenting rather than stand-up. Perhaps more than any other comedy brand, FW provokes strong reactions on the circuit: from complete dismissal to support via a large dose of irritation.

It’s a tricky line to walk for performers; supporting female comedy and grabbing much-needed gigs while wincing at some decisions made by the famous brand. Audiences, however, should relax and support all live comedy. Don’t make judgements about gender, sexuality, race or haircut and just sit back and let the funnies wash over you. That is, after all, what comedy’s really about.