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Women in comedy are funny, I promise!

Sorry, women are really funny

By Matilda Neill

We are now officially allowed to say that women are funny because Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana are fit, comedian Aparna Nancherla is selling out all over the place, and Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge has become a national hero. We have sex – sometimes we like it, sometimes we don’t – we get drunk, do drugs, and smash things. We can be daft or really nice to each other and quiet or sensible – it’s all really good and it’s all really funny. The disdainful words of Christopher Hitchens – who associated funny women with masculinity and butch-ness – are being disproved all the time and it is becoming increasingly apparent that feminine women not only can be funny but, that femininity itself is actually highly comic.

This perspective is coming from a funny woman who works in comedy. I am a writer and performer for Your Aunt Fanny: an all-female comedy sketch group based in Newcastle upon Tyne. There are seven of us in the group and we repeatedly find that our female experience is responsible for both our ability to laugh at situations and to translate that hilarity on to the stage. Being women, and having endured underestimation and misrepresentation, has trained us well to subtly undermine others and to laugh at ourselves – the perfect comic combination.

Courtesy of Your Aunt Fanny

Our most recent show Minge Unhinged contains a variety of sketches and characters that are all in some way inspired by either real life encounters or exaggerations of them. We critique the simultaneous absurdity and mundanity of the modern world through caricature and sketch. Our writing process is highly conversational and its collaborative nature stops us from being precious about our work, or striving to find individual credit over group success. This strategy not only brings out the best in us as writers and performers but also allows us to be supportive of one another in a personal capacity. Drawing from our own experiences – and at times even directly quoting particularly ridiculous statements – means we create work in a very self-aware manner. Therefore, if questioned about the intent or meaning of even the smallest, most ridiculous jokes we include, every one of us would be able to intelligently articulate how we came up with it and what it is saying to the audience.

Although we never set out to focus the creative process on personal experience, on reflection, as a female company, it is inevitable that our comedy would reflect our opinions in relation to our gender. The female experience is complicated, beautiful, bizarre, and hilarious, therefore making it naturally performative and intriguing. Not to mention its lack of presence in the comedy world, which impulsively fuels our need to tell our stories and permits our smugness in our silly, but no less profound, acts of rebellion by stepping on stage. Of course, as a septet, we are blessed to be surrounded by like-minded women who are all complicated, beautiful, bizarre, hilarious, and constantly encouraging each other. It is easy to feel positive in one another’s defiant arms. However, we have not been met without difficulties and the difficulties we have had as a company are far from unique experiences. Although people should no longer deny the fact that women can be funny, there is definitely still people questioning whether they should be.

“The only thing we are trying to prove is that women shouldn’t need to prove anything” – Matilda Neill from Your Aunt Fanny

We have always stood very strongly by the fact that we shouldn’t need to push a moral message in our work. The formation of our group as all women was not a marketing ploy, but an opportunity created by the youth theatre we all attended, as we wanted a space to provide a platform for the large amount of talented young women they had. It was not a political or social move, if anything it was purely resourceful. Despite this, we are frequently asked what the reason is behind an all-female company. Everyone wants to know what our message is as a group and what our stance on feminism is. We have, on one occasion, even been criticised for the pastiche of women we perform, and it was suggested we lack strong female characters. We were justifiably incensed. We don’t have to create characters to aspire to; our male characters, our female characters, and everything in between – we also play pigeons, small children, and, in a more abstract sketch, our own stage set – they are equally horrible, ridiculous, and clueless. The only thing we are trying to prove is that women shouldn’t need to prove anything. We can be grotesque, beautiful, silly, intelligent, and everything in between without motive, political agenda, or responsibility.

Fleabag has recently been criticised for being just for posh girls. Lena Dunham’s cast of Girls is not diverse enough, while Phoebe Robinson is not vulnerable enough – why is it that when women create anything, it is critiqued in relation to how well it portrays the entirety of the female experience? There is no room for creation for creations sake – this is both a hypocrisy and a damned shame. This imposed responsibility is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, a statement so obvious I can’t believe I am having to repeat it: all female experience is different and to attempt to portray an experience that is not your own would both be inauthentic and tokenistic. Secondly, it contributes to an already toxic culture of comparison in which ‘female’ becomes a genre in itself, rather than recognising that women are creating work that crosses multiple fields. Finally, this does not happen to male artists. If we want to see a greater spread of women’s stories, we don’t need the female writers we already have to tell them, we need more women writers.

Courtesy of Your Aunt Fanny

Of course, I do believe that we have power in expressing commonalities and speaking to one another through our work. Comedy has always been the most transgressive art form; allowing the performer, and audience, to get away with things other formats cannot. Comedy allows us to push boundaries and explore concepts that would otherwise be controversial or difficult. It is understandably a fine line to tread between affectionately poking fun – laughing at the character instead of the subject matter – and being out rightly offensive. Again, there is this greater emphasis on responsibility that goes hand in hand with being a female comedian, which means we have not gone without being criticised for being too ‘on the nose’. Jokes that have been called out are ones that mention bulimia, autism, and consent. I want to look at the consent joke in particular because I think it illustrates something very useful about the power and perils of being a woman in this industry.

The joke in question was performed as part of a sketch about ‘nice guys’. You know, the guys who cannot get girlfriends because they just respect women so much and girls, of course, only want bad boys. These are the guys who know how to be polite to mothers and who appreciate natural beauty because they aren’t superficial, but who would be first to judge you for eating carbohydrate-based foods and only vote for Jeremy Corbyn because they think it will help them get girls.

In a meeting, our ‘nice guys’ hold to discuss their upcoming ski trip – seven weeks in the Dolomites – they present each other with t-shirts with nicknames on. The t-shirts read things like ‘just a nice guy John’, ‘will reciprocate oral Ollie’, and ‘not scared of your period Peter’. One reads ‘Consent. Is. Key. Callum’ and the dialogue is as follows:

Callum: “Consent is key Callum, that’s beaut bro”

John: “Credit where credit’s due my friend” 

In our first scratch performance for this sketch, one or two audience members mentioned in our feedback session that they were upset by the inclusion of this joke. Wanting to take our responses seriously, we engaged in a lengthy conversation about the joke itself and how best to respond to these kinds of comments. We were somewhat perplexed, because we thought the joke was clear. The type of guys we were laughing at are congratulating themselves for doing the bare minimum, patting themselves on the back for being so educated in women’s issues, and that not only do they understand consent, they think it is important. Big fucking whoop. 

Despite this, we also respected that the mere inclusion of the word ‘consent’ can be instantly difficult for some, and there is a belief held that some topics should be categorically not joked about. Consent and rape are often labelled as taboo subjects, a reflection of the fact that in very real and legitimate circumstances they are not taken seriously. The conclusion of our discussion, however, was that we should keep the joke in – and in our recent shows we felt we made the right decision. Obviously, I am by no means suggesting that consent is not important, far from it, and I think it is incredibly important that it is discussed in an appropriate and considerate manner, however, I think it is equally important that men should not be congratulated for understanding something that is the norm.

I am a firm believer in the healing power of laughter and the discursive openness it can create. More to the point, we felt that, as a group of women, all of whom have been victims of sexual harassment in some capacity (one thing many women do seem to have in common), and surely if anyone is allowed to joke about these things it is us. In fact, if we have a responsibility about anything, it is to reclaim our voices on these issues; laugh at them if we want, certainly poke fun at those people who think they understand them better than we do, and turn our more traumatic experiences into an opportunity to make those around us feel more comfortable to talk about these issues. We need to keep the conversation open, refuse to bow to expectations, or settle for second best (a process we refer to as harnessing your inner entitled male). It is important to constantly remind yourself why you do what you do, who is on your side, and finally, how to use comedy as a super power to transform your negative experiences into an outlet for you and your audiences.

Follow Your Aunt Fanny on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

Upcoming tour dates are Assembly Rooms, Durham (18 June), Arts Centre Washington, Sunderland (28 June), Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle (6 July), and The Stand, Newcastle (12 August)

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