The Melbourne International Comedy Festival has just screamed to a close, complete with controversy over whether women are, or are not, funny (which, personally, I welcomed, as I am a fiend for controversy) and Tina Fey’s book Bossypants has just arrived on our shores. Coincidence? Yes, of course it is but that doesn’t mean my mind hasn’t been boiling away like a cauldron. I realise that if I say now that this is a piece about women being funny, or not, certain people will stop reading immediately, the way I do when I read the back of a novel and see something like ‘He was born in a thirteenth-century fishing village but had the feet of a bear’; therefore, I won’t say now that this is a piece about women being funny.
Regarding Bossypants, this is a book that I read with unusual celerity. This was partly because it made for engrossing reading but also because it really is on the short side. This makes me ponder if Tina Fey is burning through material that she should have saved for when she’s old and infirm, and therefore will have the time to write several volumes of memoir. On the other hand, she’s also been sensible to get in now, so that her thoughts are collected on paper, and encased in a glossy cover, before the day comes that everyone’s just reading things on electronic tablets. Fey covers, in graceful prose, a lot of ground, such as her honeymoon on a vile cruise ship, not to mention giving an enthralling account of how confronting it is in reality to be styled for a glamorous-magazine photo shoot, something that would be my dearest dream. Never fear, however, there’s also a lot of material about Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Fey, furthermore, wittily addresses the troubling belief that women aren’t funny and gives the straightforward advice ‘Do your thing and don’t care if they like it’.
At this year’s MICF, the question of women not being funny did of course arise, yet again, thanks to the Herald Sun’s Tianna Nadalin having reviewed Jen Brister. Before I read it, I assumed, given all the brouhaha, that this critique would be a weighty piece that, over many paragraphs, eloquently damned Jen Brister and really took women to town for their lack of funniness. In fact, the review itself is brief (and even briefer since they excised various offending passages from the version on the Internet) and favourable, and much of the hullabaloo has arisen from the words ‘very few female comedians can pull off funny funny’. Personally, my biggest problem with this line is that it seems to signify the approaching death of the English language, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also share others’ concern about its content.
Whenever I read that someone or other thinks that women aren’t funny, it totally brings down my mood, and I’ll never forget how devastated I was when I first found out that women are the unfunny sex. I went to an all-girls school and, while there were manifold disadvantages in this, such as being afraid to speak to a man until I was twenty, I never noticed any shortage of funniness. My friends and I would have each other in fits with our cracking wise, especially when we saw a photograph of anyone wearing flared trousers. But then the day came that another girl informed me that women aren’t funny. And one of the most bizarre things about this statement was that the female in question was funny herself.
Discovering that this is the way women are perceived is one of life’s more depressing milestones because even if you don’t believe it, you do believe it to be the accepted wisdom. Therefore, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying that I’m not in the fun group, like when you’re stuck at the sedate end of the table at someone’s otherwise rollicking farewell lunch. Still, I’ve never really grasped why it is the conventional wisdom that women aren’t funny, although I’ve noticed that it can come down to the fact that men are more inclined to want to re-enact Monty Python sketches in social situations. But, despite it being the conventional wisdom, there’s still a good old furore whenever someone like Christopher Hitchens decides to hold forth on the subject, as he famously did in Vanity Fair in 2007, when women were, clearly, having a particular spell of unfunniness. I get as worked up as anyone when I read such comments, but then am forced to wish I could be transformed into a man when expressing my views, because I’m aware that few things render me more boring than being a woman insisting how side-splitting women are.
I have also fretted that I might somehow come to believe myself that women aren’t funny, while I’m sure that men never have any such worries about their people. Hitchens is one thing, given his easily mocked fruity tones and devotion to the consistently annoying Martin Amis. But what if a man I truly admired declared that women aren’t funny? Would I start to see things from his point of view? Would Kathy Lette’s body of work, for instance, give me a creeping feeling of dread that I had been deluded all along, as with the process of discovering that you’re actually married to Bluebeard?
One of my male friends maintains that there are more male than female comedians simply because men are more prepared than women to look stupid. I think it’s really the case, though, that men are more confident that whatever they do will work out just fine. Why this is, I don’t know, as it’s far from the truth that every man has had a devoted Dolly Sinatra-style mother. For example, while I’ve known men who couldn’t be bothered learning to drive, I have never known one who was afraid to learn to drive. I, on the other hand, have been unable to commit to getting a driver’s licence because of a firm conviction that the second I get behind the wheel, I’ll kill someone. Therefore, I would hazard that men are generally more likely than women to embark on a stand-up comedy career simply because they are either more inclined to think they will meet with success or less inclined to think they will meet with failure. I’ve heard the argument, too, that, questions of confidence aside, women don’t make an effort to be funny because they think being funny will make them less attractive to men. And, yes, I’ve certainly known men who like to have funny women as friends but wouldn’t actually be romantically involved with one, as if the woman in question had a personality disorder straight from The Three Faces of Eve.
However, I think the bottom line is that people of either sex who are regarded as funny find being, or attempting to be, funny to be a compulsion, in the way that writing is supposed to be a compulsion for writers, even though it usually isn’t, because writing is about delayed, at best, gratification, while there are few things that make a person feel better than saying something and having another person, or persons, laugh at it. And there isn’t actually any sensible reason to believe that fewer women than men have this compulsion to try to make people laugh, or to believe it’s a fact that women exercise this compulsion less successfully than men do, even if, traditionally, they have seemed less inclined than men to attempt the practice of comedy as a career. Just because someone isn’t a professional singer doesn’t mean they don’t have a wonderful singing voice.
However, speaking of those who are funny as a career, and in the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I went to see a lot more male comedians’ MICF shows. Of the ten shows I attended, men gave eight of them, and, incidentally, only one of these shows did I dislike (it was one of the men’s, as it happens, but I don’t ascribe anything to that, given the statistical probability). I went: a) to one of them because a friend wanted to go; b) to five of them because, in part, of a personal connection; c) to two of them because I got free tickets; d) to one of them because, while I hadn’t heard of the comedian in question, I liked the sound of his act from a review that I read; and e) to one due to a crazy impulse of the friend I mentioned in a). There was one other female comedian I wanted to see very much but by the time I had a ‘window’, it was already the Easter long weekend, and on Good Friday, it was chilly and I wanted a night in; on Saturday, I was too weary; and on Sunday, I couldn’t work out when I was going to squeeze in dinner around her performance time.
Yes, I realise how pathetic this is but I do want to make the point that I would have been equally as slothful had the comedian in question happened to be male, and I hope it is clear from the above number crunching regarding what I saw, and why, that it was completely by accident rather than design that I saw many more men perform. And the woman I had wanted, but failed, to see would no doubt have been appalled if the mere fact she is a female was what had tipped me over into attending. She’s an acclaimed comedian, not one of those unsettling old collection boxes in the shape of a small girl wearing callipers.