Comedian Ben McKenzie writes…

Ah, Comedy Festival rituals: getting rained on while flyering; the emotional rollercoaster of reviews; enduring the annual “are women funny” bullshit peddled by the mainstream news sponsor…

This year it’s not an “article” that perpetuates the “discussion”, but Tianna Nadalin’s recent review of Jen Brister. There are plenty of problems with the piece, not least that it consists mainly of poor retellings of Brister’s jokes rather than any kind of critique of her style or ability, but that can’t hold a candle to the second sentence, which originally began: “Very few female comedians can pull off funny funny”. This phrase has since been edited out, without explanation or even acknowledgement, but the clear implication of it remains: women can’t be “funny funny”, only “woman funny” – some other standard for comedy that only applies to women, as if men have some unfair advantage. And frankly, that makes me angry. Angry angry.

Comedy is a tough gig, and like most industries, dominated by men – but only lazy thinking and ignorance of feminism can take you from “male-dominated” to “women aren’t good at it”. Nevertheless, such thinking is rife, and hardly new: in 2006, punters rejected my flyers for women’s shows because “chicks aren’t funny” – and many who did so were women. My attempts to challenge this thinking were met with stony silence – and no deeper reasoning.

I was going to try and dissect where this attitude comes from, but the simple truth is that our society is still pretty damn sexist. But how to dispel the bullshit? It’s hard to find someone who who will openly discuss their prejudice. But, dear reader, through extensive research (I asked comics, punters and Twitter) I have discovered the main arguments that underlie this “opinion”. Join me now, as I respond to our imaginary, happy-to-be-challenged bigot in a fairly one-sided, vaguely Socratic dialogue.

Funny women only talk about relationships, vaginas, tampons, emotions, family, domesticity, personal problems, [insert 1950s idea of women’s conversational topics here].

Balls. This is the most common argument, but the least convincing. Let’s put aside that male comics also talk about relationships, personal problems, domestic life and vaginas (and indeed balls); this list basically leaves a female comedian with very little to talk about that won’t confirm your bias. Most people complain about the tampons, yet the only reason I’ve seen women doing tampon gags is that they were all offered $50,000 last year by Libra Fleur to make this particular myth a reality. Somewhat unsurprisingly, that ad campaign never materialised – though some of the resulting “you keep your $50k and I’ll keep my dignity” material has been truly inspired, perhaps none better than Bec Hill’s epic, not-what-Libra-Fleur-had-in-mind cardboard cut-out commercial performed to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”


If you believe this, you need to see more female comedians. Actually, get out and see any. Jen Brister talks about being British and the politics of empire. Karin Muiznieks writes songs about flashers and serial killers. Francesca Martinez reveals the idiocy of how “normal” people treat the wobbly among them. Geraldine Quinn (nominated for the Golden Gibbo this year) sings anthems for those ordinary yet extraordinary moments in all of our lives. Jo and Brydie expose the layers of resentment that lie beneath our best friendships. DeAnne Smith (2011 Barry Award nominee) talks about…well, about whatever the next crazy thing is that pops out of her head. And let me tell you, all of that is hilarious, and there are almost no tampons mentioned (though maybe a few cocks and vaginas).

Besides, who says jokes about tampons can’t be funny?

Funny women aren’t attractive.

These two concepts are entirely unrelated, and besides, if you don’t list “funny” high on your list of attractive attributes for any person to have, there’s something wrong with you. Next.
(No, I’m not going to list a bunch of hot lady comics. We all have our comedy crushes. Besides, we funny men are hardly all oil paintings ourselves. Have you seen Greg Fleet?)

Funny women are aggressive.

Don’t confuse assertive with aggressive. A woman who has a strong opinion and tells you about it isn’t necessarily getting in your face. But is aggression a bad thing in comedy? It’s a valid stylistic choice. You might as well say “funny women are laconic”. Some of them are, and you may not like laconic, but style and gender aren’t really linked. Janeane Garofalo might get a bit aggressive, but hey, she’s complaining about American politics; how else can you respond? Hannah Gadsby (another Barry award nominee) and Geraldine Hickey are gentle but no less a powerhouse of mirth.

Funny women are too polite to be funny.

Now this is just taking the piss. A minute ago they were aggressive! You can be polite and funny, anyway. Just ask Courteney Hocking, Laura Davis or Lou Sanz – any one of whom, by the way, can be incredibly dirty and polite at the same time. Sorry, did I just blow your tiny mind?

Funny women lack confidence.

This just doesn’t stack up. Let’s see you enter an industry in which you’re a minority and stand in front of a crowd of judging eyes and ears and make them laugh for a whole hour. If you can’t, maybe it’s you who lacks confidence.

Funny women want to steal my partner.

Have you ever seen the hetero couple in the front row at a comedy gig? You know the one? Who seem fine and relaxed when there’s a guy on stage, but as soon as a woman comes on, the woman looks unimpressed and either crosses her arms or puts them around “her man”? Yeah. That says more about you than the woman on stage, I’m afraid.

Funny women never had to rely on being funny to get a date.

My, you are a mass of contradictions! You don’t like her because she’s being funny to steal your man, but she’s no good because she’s never had to do that? I’m pretty sure women have never had to rely on being able to pay for dinner, speaking French, or buying expensive gifts to get dates either. But that’s okay; we live in the twenty-first century now, where we can move past such outdated notions of requirements for relationships. Come and join us!

Funny women aren’t as famous as funny men.

Okay, you’ve got me here. The leads in sit-coms are nearly always men; the headliners on stand-up shows are nearly always men; the biggest posters and ads during Comedy Festival are always for men. Strange, isn’t it? I mean, what with them being given all the same opportunities as men, and all the same support from the industry, and equal love and support from punters, and… Oh! Wait, I think I see the problem here. It’s you.

Funny women are empowered to voice their opinions in a public forum, which threatens my world view and makes me uncomfortable.

Wow, you’re pretty self-aware for a misogynist.

Ben McKenzie is a veteran of five Comedy Festivals and the brains behind the Melbourne Museum Comedy Tour. Now in its fourth year, the tour has employed many talented funny funny women including Kate McLennan, Stella Young and Amanda Buckley. He is well aware of the potential irony of a middle-class white male comic defending funny women, but feminists come in all shapes and sizes. His favourite dinosaur is Stegosaurus.