It's Really No Joke

It's Really No Joke

Why you should care

Because who’s delivering the punchline packs more of a punch than you might think.

In an age of austerity, it is perhaps unsurprising that many have embraced the light entertainment of stand-up comedy as a form of escapism. In doing so, a new elite have been crowned not only with fame but also with astronomical wealth. The ten highest paid comedians of 2013 shared between them earnings of $173 million, with Jerry Seinfeld topping the list with $32 million. And though the performers may have their own unique style of comedy, there is one thing that unites them. They are all male.

It is not only the pay-gap between male and female performers that is notable, but the vast disparity in representation on the stage.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler may be preparing again to host this Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, but the kind of success that the two comic actors have managed on television remains a rare feat for women in the world of stand-up. But it is not only the pay-gap between male and female performers that is notable, but the vast disparity in representation on the stage.

It is not easy to quantify precisely the scope of this disparity but the indicators we do have are alarming. For example, a Wikipedia list of stand-up comics in America gives some idea as to the gender disproportion in the industry. Of the 358 names listed, only 53 are female. That works out at just under 15 percent, three points below even the traditionally male-dominated U.S. Congress.

The disparity is evident elsewhere as well. The UK industry website Chortle lists 269 female comics compared with 1,279 male comics. And, in the 33 years that the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Awards have been held, only four female performers have ever been crowned winners.

Female Comedians, By the Numbers

  • The 10 Highest paid comedians, all male, shared $173 million in 2013
  • 20 percent of comics at prestigious New York comedy club Carolines are female
  • UK industry website Chortle lists 269 female comics compared with 1,279 male comics
  • In 33 years, only 4 female performers have been crowned winner at renowned Edinburgh Comedy Awards

In his 2007 article for Vanity FairWhy Women Aren’t Funny,” the late Christopher Hitchens tried to explain, or at least examine, this strange phenomenon. One suggestion posited by the author was the biological imperative felt by men to impress women, with humor being one of the few tools left to the beta-males among us, who must fight with words rather than fists. By contrast, he argues “women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way.” They are, according to Hitchens, the judges of comedy not its providers. A paper by the Stanford University School of Medicine looking into how the two genders respond to humor notes this difference, suggesting that women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny. Women are thus more attune to quality in comedy, perhaps indicating that they are more traditionally on the receiving end.

Still, despite women being more attuned to humor, it is men that make up the bulk of the audience for stand-up comedy, which may be another reason why female comedians are relatively scarce. “Historically, if I’m a straight male, most of the time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the stuff women were talking about was totally boring,” suggests American stand-up comic Lisa Lampanelli. “I don’t think we’ve caught up yet to where straight guys or even gay guys are totally embracing us.” Indeed, female comedians are often treated as a genre of their own, with Lara A King, winner of the UK’s 2011 Funny Women award, telling The Guardian recently that “people who book comedy nights do tend to think that one woman on the bill is really quite enough.”

Whatever is causing fewer women to perform than men, the effect of their scarcity has a wider social significance. If comedy is a vehicle for exploring taboo subjects, normalizing them in a safe and entertaining environment, the lack of a female presence onstage prevents many issues of concern to women from receiving the attention needed to become part of the broader discourse. And so, while the rising popularity of stand-up comedy may have many laughing, the lack of women onstage is really no joke.But it’s not just about the audience. Life as a young comic can be grueling. It is often a solitary existence spent travelling vast distances to perform in small clubs and dingy bars across the country. Perhaps one reason we don’t see many female comedians at the highest level is that they are often put off at the earliest stage. “I’ve spoken to touring comedians who are women who are like, ‘I don’t necessarily feel safe’,” says Maria Ciampa, a co-producer of the Women in Comedy Festival. “Dudes might be okay staying at a place that doesn’t have a toilet seat. It’s a certain lifestyle that doesn’t appeal to me.”

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