Funny Girls: How an All-Women Comedy Festival is Changing the Game for Female Comedians

Amy Schumer. Mindy Kaling. Ellen. The ladies of SNL. Even Chelsea Peretti, whose character Gina Linetti is the best thing about Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine—it seems that everywhere you look, funny women are winning us over on the screen and the stage. But despite a seemingly more inclusive environment for women, the comedy scene is still largely dominated by men—and a stigma still very much exists that female comedians are either not as funny or should only make jokes about certain topics (that’s why Schumer’s crude humor is a welcome refreshment and why she is getting so much attention). Even the late night talk shows desperately need a female voice (fortunately, two new shows are being created from scratch just for this reason: Samantha Bee’s for TBS and Chelsea Handler’s for Netflix, both due in 2016).

But a rising all-female comedy festival in the UK is challenging male supremacy in comedy. The first-ever Women in Comedy Festival took place across Greater Manchester in 2013, producing a staggering 180 shows in its inaugural year. The second edition took place last year, again in Manchester, with ticket sales tripling and The Guardian hailing is as “affirming the rise and rise of feminist humour.” This year, the festival promises to be bigger and better than ever, with 150 comedians performing over 10 nights in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. In the lead-up to Europe’s only festival of this kind, I spoke to festival organizer Hazel O’Keefe about what to expect.

Why did you start this festival?

I founded the Laughing Cows Comedy comedy night, which bills an all-female line up of comedy, in 1998 after a London promoter inadvertently threw down this proverbial gauntlet. We were discussing female comics and I asked why there’s never more than one female comedian on the bill and he said, “oh, we wouldn’t take that risk.” Running female-dominated lines-up was my natural feminist response, proving the point that a comedy night with more than one female could be successful. Laughing Cows Comedy shows now run all over the UK and are always well attended.

My passion for the Women in Comedy Festival arose from the need to evidence the vast number of women involved in the comedy scene, and to encourage promoters and agents to attend the festival and scout for talent. It’s been something I have wanted to do for several years, so it was just a matter of timing. Over the past couple of years, I feel that the comedy scene has changed for the better. I used to be able to confidently name most of the female acts in the UK, but that’s not the case anymore—there are so many females involved in comedy that I probable only know 20% of the artists, so on a personal level I wanted to create something which encourages development and networking. Ultimately, a festival that showcases and celebrates female comedy talent in the UK was inevitable.

What’s the main thing you hope to achieve?

With a strong statement and a mixture of promotional, developmental, and showcasing events, the Women in Comedy Festival is an opportunity for female comics to meet, perform, debate, discuss, and get feedback from industry and peer reviewers. It aims to put an end to circular conversations and blow certain myths out of the water whilst showcasing, promoting, and nurturing female comedy across a variety of platforms.

Do you have a background in comedy?

Not performing on stage; I avoid the limelight as much as possible. To gain a better understanding of how new acts feel, I did perform five minutes of stand-up at last year’s festival. It went ok but I don’t intend to repeat it. I much prefer being backstage!

This year’s program looks really diverse. Is there anyone who you are particularly excited to see?

I really enjoy the open mic showcases. It’s a great way for me to see fresh new talent and we have several shows from acts travelling across Europe this year too, so I will be watching all those for sure. The launch and wrap shows are always really high-caliber comedy and I can never get enough of The Birthday Girls, I love their sketch comedy. Susan Calman’s show will obviously be a highlight. As far as local acts go, there is so much talent I’m looking forward to, but in particular I’m excited to see “Noblash” on Sunday 18th, Ellen Tomlinson on Wednesday 21st, “Comedy Cocktail” on Thursday 22nd, and Kiri Pritchard-Mclean on Friday 23rd.

What do you think is special about the comedy scene in the UK and in Manchester in particular?

I think that’s there is a bubbling undercurrent of new talent who have lots of opportunities to try out new material in Manchester before they spread their wings. Sophie Willan is a great example of this and a brand-new up-and-coming act to look out for is Denee Cassidy. She joined last year’s comedy course and has ripped it every time I have seen her on stage this year.

How do you think this fares with the rest of the world?

I’m a proud Mancunian—like Anthony Wilson said, “we do things differently here”—and I’d like to think that there is some groundbreaking work happening in my hometown.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about female comedians?

Our patron Susan Calman is supporting the Women in Comedy Festival as a performer because:

“there are few better places to perform than in Manchester, as part of such a             supportive and celebratory festival alongside some of the best comics in the country. As a patron I think it’s vital that the festival exists to showcase how diverse female writers and performers are, so that we can finally put to rest the idea that we’re all the same. We’re not. And with such a vast array of comedians showcased in October, it’s a privilege to be part of it and to support it.”

The circular conversations and myths still exist. The stereotype “women aren’t funny” is a general sweeping statement which is sexist, unfounded, and unfair. Some women are funny, some are not—just the same as our male counterparts. For me, its about equality of opportunity and that’s why I have dedicated several years of my life to providing opportunities to females in the industry, performing, sound engineering, DJing, promoting, etc.

Do you think big-name American comedians like Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman are paving the way for more female comedians and bringing it into the mainstream?

Yes, I think they are having a great impact the same way Sarah Millican is in the UK. It’s not a new concept to have big-name female comedians though. Jo Caulfield, another festival patron, made a relevant comment:

“From Marie Lloyd to Sarah Millican, women have been making audiences laugh for centuries. Legends like Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Ellen DeGeneres, Jo Brand, French and Saunders, and Miranda Hart paved the way for numerous female performers, many of whom are now carving out careers on the comedy circuit and beyond. Women in Comedy celebrates just that, women in comedy—the stand-ups, the singers, the sketch actors, the filmmakers, the writers and other funny women who are currently making their mark in the world of comedy. It gives women a place to perform, network and exchange ideas, and it’s something I’m incredibly pleased and proud to support and be a patron of. Here’s to a great festival—and many more to come. And here’s to more women finding a way into comedy as writers, performers, directors and some like me, comedy gossips.”

When Janey Godley, Annette Fagon, Shazia Mirza, Tanyalee Davis, and Zoe Lyons have their own TV shows, then I will know that things are really changing for the better!

I read somewhere that five to six years ago, female comedians made up only 2% of all comedy events sold in the UK; last year that figure rose to 14%. Why do you think female comedians are just now becoming more popular?

It’s highly likely that that figure rose due to how hard Sarah Millican works on her live tours! That woman has some focus, it’s inspirational. It’s about equality of opportunity though—its not been there and still isn’t where is needs to be in relation to women in comedy.

A lot of women cite humor as their top/one of the top qualities they like in a man. In fact, a recent University of Kansas study found that men who are able to make women laugh are more likely to win their affection, however, funny women were not found to be any more attractive to prospective male partners. Why do you think there is such a concentration of men being funny/male comedians in our society? Is it all a load of bullocks?

Yes.

Who are some of your favorite female comedians?

Kerry Leigh, not only because she is my wife and makes me laugh most of my personal life, but because she is an outstanding comic and resident host at Laughing Cows Comedy.

I’ve named a few acts I love in this interview but I’ve not mentioned Jo Enright or Mrs Barbara Nice. I particularity love their shows as they are so inclusive and are suitable to anyone regardless of age, sexuality, gender, or race.

The festival runs from October 15 to 25, 2015. Full schedule and ticket information can be found here.

Main image courtesy of Craig Blankenhorn/HBO.

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