Oops, we did it again. Someone in my not-so-esteemed profession rolled out the old “women can't be funny” line and folks got riled up (myself included). In this case it was a review on the Herald-Sun's website which seems to have since been removed. The offending line began “very few female comedians can pull off funny funny...” and while I don't know where the sentence was headed, there's enough right there to give you that face you pull when you uncover what's been giving off that persistent aroma at the back of the pantry.
But it's a whiffy attitude that no amount of scrubbing can seem to remove. Every year during the comedy festival it makes itself known in one way or another – check the comments on any review site and you find throwbacks asserting the genetic inability of women to be funny; in a subtler, but perhaps more insidious form, there are the regular articles showcasing “funny women” which only work to reassure us that such a thing as an oddity.
I'm not going to argue that women can be funny because it should be a goddamn given by now. And clearly, compiling lists of women who prove the point hasn't worked to change much opinion. There's something more endemic to the culture of comedy – or the culture that watches comedy – that needs some investigation. Let's check out the back of the cupboard.
When someone states that women can't be funny, they're usually talking about a specific kind of funny. I don't think I've ever come across anyone claiming that women can't be funny in theatrical comedy – in comic plays, for instance. And it's pretty much a given that TV comedy features countless brilliant female talents: the anti-XX brigade can probably still find the genius in Kath & Kim or Ab Fab or 30 Rock or Roseanne. Same deal with film. The only kind of 'funny' women apparently can't do, it seems, is stand-up.
So let's amend the statement “women can't pull off funny funny” to “women can't pull off stand-up”, which seems to be the real argument here. And to clear up another point, it's not the sight of femininity in stand-up causing all the moaning: plenty of male comics imitate some kind of 'femininity,' from the ain't-no-thang cross-dressing of Eddie Izzard to Sam Newman-style misogynistic parody. People can laugh at a man playing a woman (and, historically, there's been a rich tradition of women playing men, from the breeches roles of Restoration comedy to the 'mashers' of the Victorian stage). So, again, let's edit the problem a bit: not “women can't pull off stand-up,” but “for some reason, today, I can't laugh at an actual woman performing stand-up.”
Well, obviously some of us can laugh at an actual woman performing stand-up. Just as obviously, some of us can't. Why not?
To even begin to answer that, we have to look away from individual comics and turn our attention instead to an archetype of the comedian – one function that stand-up plays in contemporary culture. The solitary man with the mic addressing what's wrong with the world, pointing out our own foibles, and giving us a way to laugh at life's absurdity is a long way from the comic of film or TV or theatre. He's not part of an ensemble. He's not part of a story. He's self-made, and we pay for his wisdom. We relinquish our own authority for an hour – or a tight five – in order to allow him the authority to explain something of our lot to us.
The real model of the stand-up comic isn't the clown or the storyteller. It's closer to the dad giving a speech at a wedding. Historically, he grew out of the master of ceremonies who controlled the unruly crowd of the music hall or vaudeville show; later, he was the entertainer who provided relief for the troops during wartime. In each of these situations, the laughter he sought was balanced by the authority he exerted – he gave us reason for high spirits, but reminded us of our place at the same time. The stand-up comic is no different. We laugh at his jibes, while waiting, terrified, for the moment when his attention will settle on us.
The good stand-up, in Western culture, is the good father.
He makes us feel safe while keeping us reminded of his power to cut us down with a word. He commands his crowd. If he falters, he dies. If he dies, it unsettles us. The entire performer-audience dynamic of stand-up is geared towards this relationship (and I won't write an essay on the Oedipal dynamic of hecklers, but I could).
This paternalism plays out across the spectrum of popular culture – anxieties about appropriate and preferable father figures can be read into everything from Shakespeare to Star Wars. Whole books have been written about 70s and 80s cinema's crisis of paternity, citing absent dads from ET to The Exorcist as proof of an ongoing search for a new model of masculinity authority. And this seems to me one of the suppressed drives of stand-up: do you prefer your Jason Byrne, dragging his punters around on stage in a cardboard box while yelling till he's tomato-faced? Or your David O'Doherty, gently serenading you with quirky ditties that maintain a space for innocence? Or do you like to see men failing to command respect, their shows deliberately falling apart or dissecting their inner workings and demystifying our own desires towards comedy? Who's your daddy?
Obviously it doesn't have to be this way. And just as obviously there are plenty of folks who don't need stand-up to play out some personal-cultural male authority crisis in order to find the funnies. The whole relationship between performer and audience can hinge on completely different processes; at the same time, I don't think the culture's going to change in a hurry, just as I don't think people who only want theatre to be light escapism or film to be action-packed spectacle or dinner to include at least one portion of meat will be going away any time soon. There's way more going on in here than whether something's 'good' or not.
But it's not all subjective, either. "Funny" is a relationship between performer and audience, and this is made even more complex by the social nature of stand-up. Anyone who's been to a couple of shows will know that the “funny” in a room empty but for a handful of people is different to the “funny” of a hall packed with cacklers. It might be precisely the same show on offer, but our laughter is inflected by the crowd in which we find ourselves.
So if you're watching a stand-up – of whatever sort – and wondering why everyone's losing their shit while you can't find a thing to smile at, check what's really going in your head. Do you need a man in front of you to reassure you it's ok to laugh? Do you need the crowd around you to let you know the same thing? Do we laugh because we're honestly confronted by something new, or unexpected, or does laughter come from somewhere much more conservative, more reactionary? Do we ever laugh at something with which we fundamentally disagree? Do we ever laugh at a person whose very identity, in some way, doesn't signify something much more than the words coming out of their mouth? Fact is, nobody is “funny funny” on their own. Look away from the stage, and start asking some different questions entirely.