Newstead Ha Ha

I’ve been thinking about sexism in comedy this week after following the latest Twitter outrage involving Lawrence Mooney and reading a thoughtful piece on the scandal by Lefa Norton.

When I was at uni I did a lot of stand-up comedy. Now I don’t. I worry that if I talk about my experiences of sexism in comedy it will seem I’m blaming sexism for why I wasn’t more successful. I’m not. As Julia Gillard said in her farewell speech, gender doesn’t explain everything in relation to her prime-ministership, but it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things. She then asked the nation to ‘think in a sophisticated way about the shades of grey’. I’m not expecting the nation to reflect on the demise of my limited comedy career but I am prepared to have a crack at it myself.

Before I started doing comedy I was talking to a friend about who we would see in the Melbourne Comedy Festival. She told me that she didn’t like female comedians. I was shocked. This girl was one of the funniest people I knew but she believed women belonged in the audience, not on the stage. How was it so?

I went to school with a lot of funny girls. I can remember about seven or eight girls who could make me laugh so hard that I couldn’t go on with the netball game. The idea that women might not be as funny as men had never occurred to me because it so demonstrably wasn’t the case in real life. Of course, the boys at school may have been funny too, to be honest, I hardly spoke to them so I’m a poor judge.

I knew women were funny but I deeply doubted that I could be funny. Performing comedy was a dream of mine that was so secret it was almost shameful. I would never  have tried it if my sister hadn’t suggested I enter Triple J’s Raw Comedy competition and then made me fill in the form. I was so fearful on the night that I could barely speak. When the audience laughed at my first joke I had a feeling of relief and wonder almost as intense as falling in love. It felt like the best thing that had ever happened to me.

Over the next few years I did more comedy and I did okay and received a lot of support and encouragement. I got to the National Final for Raw Comedy, I was selected for the Melbourne Comedy Festival’s show Comedy Zone, I was an awarded a Moosehead for my show Kathy Smith Goes to Maths Camp, I appeared on the short-lived ABC show Stand-Up! I did a gig on average once a week and occasionally got paid for it.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that my first comedy performance at Raw Comedy changed my life. I suddenly had a mega-fun dream-come-true hobby as well as an instant group of friends. I’d struggled to make friends in my first year in Melbourne. Suddenly, I had heaps! I could go to comedy rooms and people knew who I was, would talk to me and give me compliments about how funny I was. For the first time since primary school I believed I was going to have an exciting life.

When I started doing stand-up comedy I quickly realised that I would often be the only woman back-stage. I always notice when I’m the only woman in a room. I always feel uncomfortable to some extent. Doing comedy I coped with the awkwardness by focusing on what I was there to do. If I went well on stage, then no-one could deny my right to be there, including me.

Of course, there were other female comedians and I tended to gravitate towards them as well as other women involved in the scene. There were also quite a few men who I had a lot in common with – lefty, university educated, middle class. In many ways, it was easy to fit in.

But there were some things. In my first year of performing a friend of mine wanted to run an all-women comedy night and asked me to help her. I was very enthusiastic. Until I spoke to another comedian about it. He was older (24!) and more experienced (by six months!) so was definitely in a good position to offer career advice. He told me that an event like that could tarnish my reputation. There was no need to bring gender into it when I was doing so well. So I pulled out of organising. Meanwhile I continued to go to comedy nights week after week where I was the only, or perhaps one of two women performing. Not that I should have been counting, as gender wasn’t an issue apparently.

For a few years I ran a comedy night in my home town called Newstead Ha Ha. I booked comedians who I knew, and paid them shamefully badly, but we were all used to that. The third Newstead Ha Ha was by far the funniest. As it happened, and entirely without trying, I only included one man in the line-up. Afterwards the town put on an amazing spread and the locals and comedians chatted. The comedians were amazed that not a single person commented on it being ‘an all women night’, or about them being women at all. People in Newstead weren’t used to having all-male comedy nights so they didn’t notice a nearly all-female one.

Another time I did a spot in a new room that was in a slightly rougher than usual pub. The guy who was running and hosting the night insisted on making a big fuss in his introduction about the fact that I was female and implied the audience needed to be gentle with me. Later, I told him that I didn’t find that helpful and it actually made it harder for me. He explained to me why I was wrong, and how it was all part of a larger strategy to foster diversity in comedy. He had good intentions but he wasn’t listening.

There are formal efforts to support the participation of women in comedy like Jeez Louise, which has morphed in form over the years but is a workshop or forum on women in comedy and is produced by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I absolutely loved my first Jeez Louise where I got to know a lot of female comedians better, learnt some things, and argued in a debate ‘That Women are Fucked’ in the affirmative. The next year at Jeez Louise there was a panel giving advice on how to get ahead in comedy. One male panelist suggested asking a more established comedian for mentoring. A female participant questioned whether this would be interpreted as a sexual advance if a woman did this. He became very angry at the insinuation and the entire forum devolved into apoplexy with deep concern and attention given to the man’s hurt feelings after he had nobly tried to help. Later that night another male comedian, who wasn’t involved in the incident, got on stage and supported his friend by saying that he’d spent all day at Jeez Louise ‘being told I’m a cunt because I have a dick’. It got a big laugh. (Note: The line might have been ‘being told I’m a dick because I don’t have a cunt’. I can’t remember which way around, both work! It’s certainly not like one of those crappy poems where you change one word and the whole thing falls apart.)

I was once very excited to get a five minute try-out spot at a comedy room that was notoriously difficult to get booked for. I’d been told it was very hard to do well in this room because the audience had come to see the head-line acts and were hostile towards the try-outs. So I had suitably low expectations but I did very well. One of the other comedians said I had a ‘very tight five’. High praise indeed. I expected to be asked back, but I wasn’t. Later, I was told that if I wanted to get booked again I should keep coming to the night and hang around at the bar. Although I certainly had spent a lot of time hanging around comedy rooms ‘networking’, I didn’t think I could at that venue. I would have felt weird, and actually unsafe. It was the most discouraging thing that ever happened to me in comedy. I realised it wasn’t always enough to do well on stage.

Lots of people who I used to do comedy with have stopped performing for a variety of reasons. After I finished uni I was sick of hanging around in pubs three nights a week. It was too much work and there had been too little reward. I wasn’t as excited by the art form, either. I did the occasional gig but it wasn’t as much fun because I was less practised and therefore less funny.  I started writing books and that’s what I focus on now. I don’t like to mention my comedy past as it creates too much expectation that I’ll be funny, which I can’t always live up to.

There are female comedians in Australia having great careers and doubtless other women in comedy will have different views to mine. Possibly, people interpreted, or remember events very differently to how I do. Writing them down, these experiences all seem very subtle and even unimportant, and perhaps they were. Except that women are still under-represented in comedy and they shouldn’t be. Doing comedy can be very, very fun and women are funny.

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