How many of you have ever heard people say that women aren’t funny? We heard from four incredible women, who showed us exactly why that idea is laughable.
At Feminist Book Society’s last event, Funny Women, four brilliant panelists (and, incidentally, hilarious women) shared their experiences as authors, actors, and more importantly, comedians.
We heard from comedian, writer and actress Helen Lederer; debut YA-author Alexandra Sheppard; blogger, actress and comedian Gabrielle Fernie; and last but not least, the comedian, author and cultural icon Shappi Khorsandi.
While many of you may recognize their names, it is perhaps their experiences as women in comedy that will prove achingly familiar.
But don’t take our word for it.
“women can do this?”
“I remember reading The Famous Five by Enid Blyton, and being absolutely enraged at the boys going off and having adventures, whilst Anne and Pam stayed home,” says Gabrielle Fernie, “I fully believe it shaped me into the feminist I am today.”
Gabi is not one to be left out of the fun. Her blog, loveisa4letterturd.com, catalogued her life as a struggling actress with a taste for gin. In her laugh-out-loud debut, Lush: A True Story, Soaked In Gin, she shares her most raucous stories with eye-watering honesty.
“It really started when I read Annika Young’s Fear of Flying,” says the legendary Helen Lederer. “She had that quote: ‘zipless fuck’... it was witty narrative, sex without love, fantasy! And I just thought: women can do this?”
Although you may know her from her roles in shows like Naked Video and Absolutely Fabulous, Helen, apart from being an all-round legend, is also the author of the comedy novel Losing It, which was nominated for the P. G. Wodehouse Comedy Literary Award. It’s absolutely clear that if any woman can do this, she can.
how to be a funny woman
“I never set out to write a funny book,” says Alexandra Sheppard, the debut author of the brilliant YA-novel Oh My Gods, which came out last week. “But the subject matter was just completely ridiculous. It had to be funny.” (SPOILER ALERT: Her book is about a young girl living with the Greek gods…)
“Seeing the funny in something just comes naturally to some people,” adds Gabi. “I’m just a person to whom weird shit keeps happening.” This is completely true, by the way, as witnessed by the adventures catalogued in her blog, described by Caitlin Moran as “filthy, immoral and incredibly funny”.
Helen, too, believes there is something about this business of being innately funny:
“I’ve always been funny – and that’s a fact. Not a happy one – it’s just like being wheezy, fat, and asthmatic – but it’s fact.”
Said with such candor and hilarity, you can almost will yourself to believe it’s true – that these four women are just put together in a funny way, that it’s something in the composition of their DNA that has made them funny.
“it’s a death wish”
However, it is absolutely clear that what they have in common is an absolute dedication to their craft. And that’s what it is, really: a craft.
“It takes skill to make something seem flippant,” says Shappi Khorsandi. “It’s emotional – it’s about truth. Luring people in to see the world the way you see it – that’s the craft. It’s a way of bonding, laughing.”
Helen has a slightly different take: “It’s a death wish. Einstein’s definition of madness is doing the same thing again and again and expecting the same result.”
And it’s true – all four of our panelists have been victims of horrendous abuse for their writing. As a funny female writer, the feedback can be less-than-generous.
“At first, the reactions made me sick,” says Alex, who only published her debut a few weeks ago. “People can be so flippant and subjective.” Gabi comfortingly dismisses the naysayers: “I’ve learnt that Goodreads is just a pit of snakes…”
“Honestly, the thought of doing stand-up makes me want to vomit,” Alex laughs. “You guys are braver than the troops!”
It’s true, both Helen Lederer and Shappi Khorsandi have been fighting the not-so-great fight for a while now – in Helen’s case, since the early 80s. “I remember Helen being at the frontline, taking all the flack for political correctness,” says Shappi.
joke like a bloke
Shappi, of course, is a comedian, author, cultural icon and – most recently – self-proclaimed idiot who agreed to be tortured on “I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!”. She is, however, also the debut author of the wonderful book, Nina is Not Okay.
After describing one particularly “ghastly” sex scene in her book, allegedly fabricated out of sheer boredom from the writing process, Shappi breaks into laughter: “I probably shouldn’t have said all that!” Helen dryly adds: “There’s lots of masturbation involved, as a writer.”
It’s in moments like these that’s it’s crystal clear that women can absolutely be funny. And irreverent. And push boundaries.
But, as Shappi relates, when this is the case, women often get told “you tell jokes like a bloke”, like it’s a compliment. “You just have to bite your tongue,” says Shappi. “Or at least, that’s what we did in my day.”
Of course, this begs the question:
Are women funny?
“It’s a stupid question,” says Gabi breezily. “And for the record, I know some dull-as-shit men.”
To Helen and Shappi, this question carries a sinister undertone: “It’s about control,” says Helen. “Being funny as a female in a group is threatening. They need to label you to control you.”
Shappi adds: “It’s the same as asking whether black people can be funny. There’s no difference.”
Of course, this hits at the nerve of why it’s so frustrating to be a woman in comedy: the disproportionality negative feedback they get from men. Gabi shares several anecdotes with the crowd from when her book was first published, and people (read: men) would ask her questions such as “Is it self-published?” and say stuff like “Oh, if only I had the time to write a book!”
However, Alex finds hope in the young people she writes for: “Teenagers are incredible; they read, they’re interested in Brexit… they’re nerds! And that’s hopeful to me.”
Helen, too, is hopeful – and she finds strength in something as simple as being on this panel: “I find hope in sharing, in knowing not to compete. We don’t have to compete anymore.”
What a great note to end on: there’s plenty of jokes to go around. And you don’t have to be a bloke to say them out loud.
Written by: Caroline Roseberry Koktvedgaard
Caroline is a London-based writer, marketer, and staunch feminist, currently interning at the literary scouting agency Maria B. Campbell Associates. Having previously worked as a content and copywriter for a large tech start-up, she is relieved to write (and read) about anything but data science – including feminism, books, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.