This article was originally published on the Spectator Arts Blog on September 10th.
I am rubbish at interviews.
During an interview with BBC Kent last week, I was in the middle of telling a joke for which the punchline was “A penchant for ethnic cleansing, incest, and the films of Matthew McConaughey” when I realised that most of those things were inappropriate for an early afternoon on the nation’s broadcaster of record. Especially Matthew McConaughey.
Did I calmly think of a new punchline? Did I deftly redirect the questioning to a happier place? Did I turn it into a musical number?
No. I stopped half-way through the punchline (just after “ethnic”) and then just listed random nouns for a few seconds, while my brain pedalled thin air like Wile E. Coyote. Needless to say I plummeted into a stony chasm of radio silence while the presenter gamely tried to work out if what I had said was even in English.
I am rubbish at interviews.
One staple question of the interview with comedians is: “Are men funnier than women?” Or, worse: “Why are men funnier than women?” Or, in the passive-aggressive formulation I was asked last week: “I don’t find women comedians as funny as men. Why do you think that is?”
The answer, of course, is: Because you’re a horrible sexist.
It’s really that simple. Obviously, it wasn’t the answer I gave. The answer I gave was nuanced, talked about implicit power relationships with people who are on stage, and a hyper-aggressive culture in some aspects of the comedy world. It was also not the whole truth. The whole truth is that telling journalists that they are horrible sexists doesn’t win you any favours. I am not a horrible sexist. I am a horrible coward.
This is a subject that pops its outdated head above the parapet with dreary regularity. Even Christopher Hitchens has stooped to write about how much funnier men are than women, littering the article with sodden, sub-Richard Curtis analogies in what we can only assume is an exercise in disproving the argument of a piece of prose using the evidence of the prose itself. Give him a participle long enough and Hitch will hang himself…
On its return from Edinburgh, Chortle, the comedy website, did a breakdown of its reviews over the course of the Festival. This analysed the star ratings given by Chortle reviewers, and led to the startling finding that, on average, the reviews of men’s solo shows garnered 0.23 more stars than the solo shows of women. They also broke down the number of stars by venue and reviewer, and published these moderately interesting figures under the headline “Men ‘are funnier than women’”
In 2010, the difference was 0.23 stars. Yes, ‘stars’ is a scientifically valid term. Each star is composed of 64% applause duration, 12% applause volume, 8% performer sexiness & 16% booze with a +/- 5% guffaw modifier. That’s 0.23 stars out of a possible 5. So men are about 4.5% funnier than women.
Some women – flighty, overwrought balls of screeching hormones that they are – and some men – probably the sort with overbearing mothers – objected to the headline and the fact that the article purported to represent, you know, actual research. Katy Brand wrote a particularly good dissection of it. There have been other insightful responses from Liam Mullone, Will Andrews, and Charlotte Browne.
The most depressing thing is that despite all evidence to the contrary, this is a meme that – like Rasputin – just will not die. Joan Rivers fed it cyanide-laced rice cakes: it popped back up rubbing its filthy stomach and asking for more. Victoria Wood shot it through the heart, but it leaped up behind her to whisper in her ear: “You bad girl.” French and Saunders shot it again. Roseanne Barr clubbed it around the head, Lily Tomlin kicked its face off and threw it into the Neva river. Again and again it gets up.
The ‘argument’ is often clothed in evolutionary psychological terms (Hitchens’ article is particularly dire on this count). Cavemen had to be funny to attract a mate. Women’s concerns (being domestic, don’t you know?) are less impressive to men than men’s are to women because they are not meat-providers. The function of humour is to make mammoths fall over and literally split their sides, neatly arranging their tasty innards as they do.
This, of course, is all arrant horse manure dressed in papier-mache bollocks. As a joke, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran wrote a paper called “Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?” in 1997 to show how you could use the vague, unprovable nonsense that makes up a lot of evolutionary psychology to justify any prejudice you want. To his horror it was accepted for publication in reputable journals, and some people, to this day, refuse to believe that the paper is anything but the truth.
But why do some people prefer male comics? Apart from its having been made acceptable by constantly being recycled in the media, why do people not feel more ashamed about saying that they don’t find half of the population of the world funny? Why would they cut themselves off from a whole swathe of great comedy?
My suspicion is that there is a power relationship at play when you are on stage. It is palpable. If a performer is not in control of the stage then it makes the whole audience uncomfortable. When I’m telling jokes, I’m deciding what your response will be. You are laughing when I prompt you to. You are ceding a certain amount of control over the situation to me because I’m on the stage, and I have the microphone. And if you have a problem with the idea that someone like me should, even briefly, be in control over you, then you won’t laugh on princple, whether you’re a sexist, a racist, or just someone who hates me. (There are apparently loads of you)
Dress it up how you want: if you think that women are not as funny as men, and you nod to yourself sagely whenever any ‘research’ appears to confirm your prejudices, you are a sexist. By definition. You’re making value judgments about someone’s abilities based on their sex. You’re a sexist. Suck it up. Own it. You horrible sexist.
And couching it in your experience isn’t good enough. Just because you can more easily think of male comedians you like, does not make it reasonable to assume that men are funnier than women. If you like Harry Hill, Dara O’Briain and Al Murray, would you really opine loudly that bald people are funnier than the hairy? Middle-aged people more hilarious than the old or young? White people just more laughtastic than all the other races?
My daughter is funnier than my son. This may be because he is only yet capable of sitting in his own faeces and falling over backwards*, but, on the empirical evidence offered by my children, women are much funnier than men.
There are women doing incredible comedy, excellent comedy, comedy you should drop everything and go to see now. Without thinking very hard, there’s Susan Calman, Sara Pascoe, Grainne Maguire, Holly Burn, Rachel Stubbings, Ruth Bratt, Josie Long, Nat Luurtsema, Sarah Hendrickx, Sarah Campbell, Pippa Evans, Alice Lowe, Lizzie Roper, Helen Keen. And loads more. You owe it to yourself to go and track down some really exciting comedy.
Could I have given an equally long list of excellent male comedians? Yes. Am I going to? No. Why not? Because I’m a horrible, horrible sexist…
(*Actually, that’s an exaggeration for effect. He can actually toddle around in his own faeces and fall over in any cardinal direction, when oriented along a North-South axis.)