No laughing matter: Sexism on the comedy circuit

no-girls-allowedWhat do you call a woman at a comedy club? The waitress.

I recently experienced some old school, 50s-style sexism at the hands of an award-winning London comedy club. Don Draper didn’t pinch my bottom. I wasn’t thrown out of the board room. I was kept out of a less glamorous room – the upstairs of a north London pub.

A little bit of background – I’m not a professional comedian. I’m entirely new to the world of comedy, having just done a beginners course, and I’m trying to book a few London gigs and make performing a semi regular hobby. I’d heard that this club (which shall remain nameless) runs a well respected new acts night. When they told me that they were fully-booked for the foreseeable future it wasn’t particularly surprising – clearly lots of people want to get on the bill there. But then the surprising thing happened. Three male friends who had done the comedy course with me were given spots, despite having asked after I was told no.

So what does a girl do in this situation? Well firstly, I obsessed that I had somehow come across as an unfunny idiot in my initial email, and that’s why they’d said no. Then I went into detective mode. I set up a new email account under a male name, emailed the club pretending to be a completely new person, and waited. Lo and behold, my male alter ego was given a spot, no questions asked.

People reading this may well be thinking “What if you’re just not very good?” or “Maybe your material isn’t what they’re looking for.” I’ve got two responses to this. Firstly, it’s very easy to downplay individual instances of women being disadvantaged as about that specific person and not their gender, all the while ignoring all the other reported similar cases that suggest this is a pattern. It’s hardly a secret that women are hugely outnumbered on the comedy scene, at all levels. Maybe this is because women are less interested in performing comedy. Maybe it’s because getting gigs is made harder by sexist booking policies. My money is now firmly on the latter.

Secondly, this was a new acts night – the booker has no way of knowing what any of the acts will be like, because most of them are in the very early stages of trying out comedy and their material isn’t in the public sphere for him to see. Maybe I wouldn’t have been any good. But that’s equally true of my male friends (and my male alter ego).

There are so many different ways to do comedy, and sometimes just for convenience we create categories to fit comedians into. Political comedians, surrealists, musical acts, observational comedians – we use these categories to get a sense of whether we might like an act, and promoters are well within their rights to use these categories when booking performers. It’s good to have a range of different types of acts on the bill. But you know what isn’t a category? Women.

Categorising someone as a “female comedian” gives you no information as to what their act will be like, and the comedy circuit is poorer for this assumption that too many females on the bill will make for a samey show. Sure, women often have some similarities in their life experiences, and talking about life experiences is a common way to write a set. But young white men also probably share life experiences with each other, and you don’t see clubs shying away from having several of them on any given bill. This is a perfect example of the depressing train of thought that considers being male to be the default, and being female to be a niche characteristic.

I’m in a hugely privileged position when it comes to writing about this. Comedy isn’t my career, I’m just trying it out as a potential new hobby, which means that I don’t have to worry about ruffling feathers. But for the people out there who need to keep the bookers happy in order to make a living it’s a very different story. I dread to think how many other women have suspected sexism, but have let it slide and moved on to the next attempt to get a gig.

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Samantha Neville-Jones

Samantha is a twenty-something teacher and aspiring writer. She lives in south London with a boy and two pet gerbils, and loves obscure sitcoms, serious debates on silly topics, and jammy dodgers.

3 Responses to No laughing matter: Sexism on the comedy circuit

  • David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. says:

    “Maybe it’s because getting gigs is made harder by sexist booking policies. My money is now firmly on the latter.”

    So is mine.

  • Paul says:

    Hi – what you’ve described sounds shocking – what did the club say when you found out?

  • janis hetherigton says:

    I think I should do my next Biscuit article about Unity theatre. ..and how the great Lesbian/Bi comedy THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE happened. I am shocked that once again society seems to putting on petticoats. .
    has always needed the female touch..vive the MUSIC HALL

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