Just for Laughs

Facts and figures on Britain's rich and varied live comedy scene are hard to come by, but a trawl through the thick pages of the programme to this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, regarded as a leading showcase for comic talent, suggests women star in roughly 10 per cent of stand-up.

Some of those who have experienced life on the male-dominated comedy circuit are not surprised that they have made only a little headway. One lapsed stand- up star is Julie McNamara. She still writes and performs in, for instance, a London performance of Eve Ensler's cult show, 'The Vagina Monologues', and tours her own shows, but said she has become very selective. For her, the problem with stand-up was the male hecklers. "I got fed up to the back teeth of being abused on stage," she said.

The moment of clarity came not after a bad show, but a good one. She had worked the audience well and decided to have a celebratory drink when she got back to her hotel room. She remembers thinking: "This is just too lonesome... I thought 'what are you doing sitting in a shabby hotel, celebrating with a glass of brandy?' "

A comedian still toughing it out on the circuit is Janey Godley, regarded as one of Scotland's funniest women. Her performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe won her rave reviews. One critic observed she had "a lack of self doubt rare in a female comedian". That she was born in one of the roughest parts of Glasgow and spent around 15 years running a pub with her husband in "an extraordinarily violent and drug-ravaged red-light district", to quote her website, could be the secret of her comic success.

But she does not underestimate the difficulty of her career choice. "Comedy is a job that requires working late nights and long hours away from home," said Godley. "This is usually a male role in the workplace... A woman leaving her kids to go stay in a hotel and go talk in bars... well, suddenly it seems a stupid choice... Stand-up comics are basically traveling, wandering troubadours, who wander the world telling funny stories. It takes a lot of guts to take a chance on that as a career. Many women have better thought-out plans than that."

There are rewards, however. Audience approval can be all the more satisfying for being hard-won. In addition, there is the USP (unique selling point) factor. Even rarer than a female comedian per se, Nina Conti is a female ventriloquist, whose stage sidekick is a monkey named Monk. "I have found it very rewarding pursuing a career as a ventriloquist although I cannot deny that there is a stigma attached to it in comedy circles today," she said. "However, I think being a woman helped if anything - I was quite an oddity with a clear USP."

She began as an actress. "The world didn't much need another actress, but lo and behold, there was a gap in the market for a female vent act." She and other women entertainers might still be very much in the minority, but there are many more of them than in the past and the media have made much of their rise.

For some, however, the state of female comedy is not as healthy as it was. Writing in March last year in the left-leaning 'Observer' newspaper, Alex Renton argued that women comics did best in politically-charged times and that "a golden age of the female stand-up" coincided with the latter years of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's only woman prime minister who was in office from 1979 to 1990.

"There was a tiny crack and the doors opened," he quoted comedian Jenny Eclair as saying. Eclair is one of two women winners of the Perrier Comedy Award - now renamed the if.comedy awards after the new sponsor Intelligent Finance - designed to acknowledge the best of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe comic talent. She coincided with a wave of comics, including Jo Brand and Hattie Heyridge who, along with Eclair, spent a large amount of time working for BBC radio and television, sheltered from the hecklers. McNamara said she thinks there is some truth in the argument the best of women stand-up talent gets sucked into the mainstream of television and radio, although she added, "There are some really good comedians out there."

Steve Bennett of Chortle, a guide to all aspects of British comedy that was set up eight years ago, disagreed heartily and considered male and female stand-up comedy to be in rude good health. "The number of stand-ups is increasing - in fact to an unsustainable degree - so, too, is the number of female stand-ups. As a proportion it feels like there are slightly more women doing it, though who can tell? It's not like you have to register as a stand-up," he said.

Even if the United States can boast some of the best stand-ups ever, he said, Britain's stand-up scene overall was "the best in the world", in part because of the number of clubs that pay reasonable wages. Another major reason is the Edinburgh Fringe. That, he said, was "a huge creative driver" where men and women alike can work on their art.


More by :  Barbara Lewis

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