Are Black women beyond a joke? There. I said it, but before I answer the question, let´s focus on what it looks like on the surface. To be precise I’m curious as to why there seem to be so few Black women Stand-Up Comedians.
During the process of compiling long-lists and then short-lists for the Best Female Newcomer and Best Comedienne – Black Comedy Awards 2012 and 2013 (which Tiemo Entertainments ran), it became particularly evident to Tiemo that there were hardly any women under 30 performing stand-up comedy.
In 2013, to cover the fact there were only two active, young black female Comedienne’s under 30 – Variety D and Miss London, we re-branded the category, ‘Best Female Newcomer’ in recognition of the more mature woman; in her 30’s and 40’s breaking into comedy. Thus in this category we had Linda Hargreaves, Njambi McGrath, Natalie Roberts, Thanyia Moore and Variety D. All have begun stand up comedy since 2008 – the cut of date for this category.
With the ‘Best Comedienne’ category we had a short-list of 8 nominees and there weren’t many others to choose from, which further evidenced the paucity of talent out there. Whereas with the men, we initially had 31 good nominees, which was whittled down to a long-list of 17 and eventually (following public voting), an 8 strong short-list of nominees for ‘Best Male Comedian’ was arrived at.
The split is around 80:20 male:female, not too dissimilar to the mainstream circuit, though the numbers are tiny compared to the mainstream, with around 20 Comediennes on the Black circuit.
I can’t believe that Black women aren’t funny. I mean, I laugh at them all the time! The way they look. Dress. Walk. No. Seriously, where are the breakthrough acts following in the slipstream of the likes of the following Black Comedy Award Winning Comediennes, Angie Le Mar, Gina Yashere and Felicity Ethnic? It’s not as if there aren’t the female role models out there, be they the likes of these African-Caribbean stalwarts, or those other über funny women like Jo Brand, Joan Rivers, Ruby Wax and Shappi Khorsandi etc..
In search of funny women
The reasons for the absence of women on shows may be partly down to low numbers, but also promoters too. If they aren’t booking women then the public won’t see them on stage. They won’t get to practice their craft, improve and get further bookings. So it can be something of a vicious circle.
I interviewed, Queen Aishah, an American Comedienne, who definitely believes there is anti-female discrimination by promoters. She is of the view that as the majority of comedians are men on any show, they may fear being upstaged by a female comedienne. Not only that, but the woman may be funny and pretty to boot! A triple whammy. Wa-hey!!
She re-told a story of performing so much better than a male headliner at a particular gig that she was never again booked to perform at that venue.
Queen Aishah feels, “It’s deemed OK for men to joke about tits and ass, but if a woman try’s to be “down” as well, it is not seen as acceptable.
Gender differences in comedy
I think comedy works on the performer being willing and able to be self-deprecating. To poke fun at themselves, as well as at others, in a vicious maybe, but funny (or sometimes not so) way. I think this comes naturally to men, bully boy antics, so to speak, than it does to women. Women do play pranks and can just be as funny if not worst, but some believe there is a stigma attached to such behaviour and later in life it may ruin their reputation and they are not prepared to take the risk.
In a funny sort of way good looks can also be a deterrent. Judgemental females may say “how dare she be pretty and funny too!” That’s a common opinion I’ve heard from a number of Comediennes. Hmmm. So much for sisterhood!
Award winning Comedian Lee Mack summed this up well in an interview he gave for Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs, broadcast 29th September 2013’: “Women find it more difficult to tell jokes because they do not show off like men.”
Mack, who made his name as a stand-up and has starred in television sitcoms and panel games, told Desert Island Discs that men are “much more competitive than women when together. One will tell an anecdote, then the next person will top that. Women can find it exhausting to hunt for the best jokes when being upstaged, where as men enjoying hunting to win the glory.”
I think he makes a good point. This is a subject that came up again during w/c 10th February 2014 when Danny Cohen, Head of BBC Programming, announced that from 2015 all BBC comedy panel shows should feature at least one woman. Only time will tell if enforcing quota’s for comedy will work.
Lack of breakthrough acts
I do think there are some women out there with the potential, but that has yet to be realised. I think Linda Hargreaves, who specialises in character comedy, could be one to watch. She performed at The Black Comedy Awards 2013. The audience saw for themselves a new star in the making. Natalie Roberts is another one to watch. Both of these acts made it onto Tiemo’s inaugural Top 10 list of Black comedians . This list will be announced annually.
Best Young Female – The Black Comedy Awards 2012, Kayleigh ”Loudmouth” Lewis took a break from comedy following her victory, so hasn’t really done herself justice.
Comedienne, Annette Fagon, stated that she has found support from men lacking; as if frightened of dating a funny woman, a woman funnier than them. She also said you have to be singularly committed to making it as a comedienne. Her advice was to think carefully about whether you really want to succeed in the business. For her, being a family woman and a comedienne are incompatible. “If you want a family, then don’t even bother with comedy as a career. You need to be a free agent. You can’t be tied down with limitations and restrictions. If a family, children and love are what you want, then don’t do this job.”
Newcomer, Judy Thomas, said, “You have to be quite comfortable in who you are to get up on stage.” She wasn’t certain as to why so few Black women are coming through. “Perhaps because there are so many other avenues to allow you to perform such as reality TV like ‘Big Brother’. This can be particularly attractive as there’s no pay to be earned when you’re a newcomer. The industry isn’t seen as being very glamorous, which might be off putting for some women. Plus the fact it’s a predominantly male industry.”
I think women need to step up to the plate and leave their stiletto marks on stages up and down the country. Promoters need to be more open-minded and give women opportunities to perform. There are many open-mic shows.
The Funny Women Awards have done a great job over the last 12 years in helping female comedians develop and showcase their talent.
Queen Aishah’s advice is to “study, prepare, go and watch show, talk to comedians, put together your best 3 minutes and go and deliver it the best way you can. Record your material. Critique yourself. Be honest. Truthful.Creative.Takes classes. Enter competitions such as The Funny Women awards. Or do a Comedy show with all women, lots of muscle men singing and performing for a change.”
So, back to my original question. Are black women beyond a joke? Of course I don’t think they are. I do think that women need to stand up and be counted. To feel the fear and do it anyway, so to speak. If they want to break through onto the stage and TV then they need to be very funny, provocative, interesting and have something to offer audiences. Something audiences want to hear.
I recall an interview Reginald D Hunter gave to The Voice (19.11.2011), in which he quoted what he sees as the first three rules of comedy: “Number one: you are there to be laughed at. Number two: be interesting. And number three: be funny. That’s it! And really, if you’re interesting enough (i.e. engaging) , you can go a long time without being funny.”
“By interesting, I mean, be engaging. Pick a subject matter that will engage people. If you’re doing a 30-minute show and you’re super interesting for 29 minutes and then do one joke in your 30th minute, you’ll be set!”
I don’t think you can go too far wrong with that good advice from a man regularly playing to packed theatres around Britain and internationally.
The Black Comedy Awards addressed the lack of females getting breaks by deliberately booking more women than men to perform at the 2013 10th anniversary showcase.
We´d love to hear your views on this subject. Comments can be posted via the reply link below.
© Tiemo Talk of the Town
Reaction to Lee Mack´s comments on female Comediennes on Desert Island Discs
The Black Comedy Award Winners 2013
Book a comedienne … You what? Are you ‘avin a larf? – 29th March 2014