Peter Stringfellow, who knows literally nothing about being funny or sexy, told poor old Kirsten O’Brien that “Funny girls aren’t sexy” when she went to him for advice about whether she should, um, be funny or sexy. Now, normally (and unlike Kirsten) I don’t include Stringfellow on my list of people to query when looking for insights into the male psyche, but in this case he’s probably speaking for more idiots than just himself: when Esquire decided to run a “Women of Flight Of The Conchords” piece they brilliantly invited some cameo-girlfriends, but not Kristen Schaal, the “only pair of recurring tits” on the show. She’s the funny one, which gets her struck off the men’s mag beauty-shoot roster.

Kristen Schaal (photo by Murdo Macleod)

Even if I’m generous to Esquire and say that lovely Schaal just didn’t have the look they wanted, they still excluded her from being a woman of the show in which she’s a lead actor for being either the wrong sort of pretty, or the wrong sort of funny. Ouch. And – if you’ll follow me into my darkened den of close reading – even the way we talk about humour is gendered. If something makes you laugh hard, you’re hysterical, figuratively be-wombed and penetrated by the wit that’s working on you.

Given that sort of bullshit, it doesn’t seem especially controversial to say – as Jo Brand did – that women don’t get a fair crack at TV comedy. They don’t. The common guiding principle that funny and pretty are mutually exclusive, while TV exposure is dependent on pretty, puts a fairly substantial bar on funny women making it through. So it’s not necessary to go in for some weak-brained evolutionary psychology about how women are ‘differently funny’ because men are like aggressive hunters and shit while women are all nice and collaborative and conversational (taken down here). That goes for Kathy Lette on the Media Show as much as it does for contrarian little TV-reviewing pricks.


I think secretly men think women aren’t funny, and I presume it’s because they’re frightened of what it is we’re being funny about. I think they think we spend the entire time talking about the length of their member, which is not true – because we also talk about the width which after childbirth is much, much more important. But we women are starting to be annoyed by the fact that we aren’t ever invited onto these panel shows, and if we are, we’re over-run by the men in this testosterone fueled environment. We need our own quiz show. […] I do think there’s a difference between male and female humour. I think men tend to have black belts in kung-fu and they can fire off one-liners and gags. Women’s humour is much more confessional.

Lette’s brave new world of gender equality is women cracking gags about the laxness of their pelvic floor. You know, if Lette really wanted to speak up for witty ladies, she could stop pulling her idea of funny out of her vagina.

17 thoughts on “Hysteric

  1. Had a discussion about this very topic the other day. About the inherent aggression in comedy and about how groups of men compete to make each other laugh in a really aggressive fashion. I wondered if it was replicated with groups of women. I don’t know if it is or isn’t but I suspected the aggression and competitiveness among groups of men was a partial reason for the big glass humour ceiling. It’s difficult to comment though because rarely am I a silent unknown observer of groups of women, at least not since the court order.

    As an aside, I caught an episode of Sarah Silverman’s TV show the other day. Jane asked if it was a new kind of humour, one that isn’t funny.

  2. I spent ages trying to rack my brains to think about female comedians I like and was surprised to realise I could think of virtually none.

    Then I thought about those stand-up shows where everyone gets 5-10 minutes or so and the many woman stand up comedians I saw in those, and why I didn’t find them funny. I think it is because, out of the stand ups I’ve seen at least, the humour is almost entirely reliant on two twists, either “I’m powerful and men are dumb, deal with it”, or “Women are a bit crap but loveable”. I can’t think of any set which DIDN’T consist of gender humour. “Any female Eddie Izzards out there? Talk about something else!” I thought. Of course that is simply my knee jerk reaction to 10 minutes stand up sets, without any consideration for the foundations for why this appears to be.

    It appears to be a comparable sceanrio to, say, the Apprentice, where some woman feel they need to be as bold, brash and aggressive as the men in order to compete on an equal footing, especially where they are pretty. Most female stand-up comics seem obsessed with this to the point where the set is little more than mildly amusing abuse. You may argue that this is what most male sets are like too, and I’d agree. They also aren’t funny. Mock the Week is an example of sheer loud brashness overpowering everything else, often to the detriment of any real wit.

    However there are two exceptions. Woman in good sitcoms do very well. Jessica Hyne (nee Stevenson) in Spaced was a brilliant performance from start to finish. Kristen Schaal is amusingly nuts in Flight of the Conchords. When a female characted is more than simple a vehicle to get tits on the show, the actress / comediane normally manages to get her teeth into the performance pretty well.

    As for stand up comics, I have managed to think of two I like. Well, slight lie, I thought of one immediately and was saving her to last. Before I mention her, I quite like Jo Brand. I know I know I know, this goes against what I said earlier as she is ENTIRELY gender humour, but as I say, I only quite like her. She has enough gags for some to land. However, I LOVE Josie Long. Saw her a couple of years ago at the Leicester Phoenix and she was really really funny. And do you know? I don’t recall her even mentioning ‘men’ once? Apart from laughing about when she saw a goth in a suit. It was just a really funny set about every day things and her take on them with no point to prove about genders, no axe to grind about it being a tough female life, and no need to try and match the supposed male bravado. All that was ignored and she got on with just simply being really funny. And she’s quite pretty too.

    The name of her show was Kindness and Exuberance and it was a justly apt name. You can argue left right and centre about how much discrimination, be it perceived or present, shapes how an up and coming comediene tailors her act, and how much if you are pretty then the ‘general male populace’ will apparently ignore your comedy, but part of me thinks that the best thing to do is simply work on being damn damn funny, as this appears to generally be the lacking factor.

    Kindness and Exuberance. More Josie Longs please.

  3. I was reading a Guardian thing the other day about this (that I now can’t find) that cited Jenny Eclair and Sandy Toksvig as good examples of women in comedy and I was snorting derisively and thinking that maybe I’m a misogynist…

    …and then I remembered that I barely find anyone funny. Not Toksvig, Eclair or Silverman, but not Kaye or Brand (in standup) or…shit, I’m out of touch with standup.

    People I find funny:
    David Mitchell (when he’s in Peep Show)
    Tina Fey (OMFG)
    Doug Stanhope

    I hate everyone else. Does that make me a misogynist? Probably. In conclusion: it’s too early for this.

  4. It is remarkably early for this but I went to Jongleurs in Nottingham on a stag night and the middle act of the three was a hilarious female comedian. Whose name I forgot almost immediately because I was laughing too hard.

    Yeah, that’s right. ‘Hard’. By a woman.

    I thought Lucille Ball was very funny. Y’know, for the time.

    Funny and sexy are so subjective though. Sooner or later someone will tick both boxes for you. I guess media perception is that you’ve gotta tick one and tick it pretty hard (HARD) at the expense of the other.

  5. I think there is a problem for female comics, but I don’t think the answer to the problem is to point it up and say to producers, “You solve it” – which is the tone of Lette’s interview. There is probably some truth in women being less aggressively funny, but if the choice is between 1. women performers being more aggressive and 2. someone putting Loose Women in the HIGNFY slot then you’d have to be a witless moron to think the second option is any sort of win.

    I like some of Silverman’s stand up, when she’s being super nasty – but I agree with Joel, that almost no one is funny. I really like Kristen Schaal’s stuff, and obviously Tina Fey is the Funniest Person Now Living. Also, I am pretty hilarious. But according to the comments, I’m mostly read by boys so maybe I’m not qualified to speak about what women want anyway.

  6. Your second option scares me.

    I saw Loose Women once. I didn’t like it. It made me scared. Not only were they not funny, they seemed pretty ill-informed too.

    Smack the Pony was pretty funny, in parts and I’ve laughed heartily at bits of Gavin and Stacey which is written by a male/female team.

  7. To do a Joel from above here are the few people I do enjoy, just so you can get a grasp of my sense of humour in order to put my opinion into persepctive I guess:-

    David Mitchell (although i’m not a huge fan of peep show, but I quite like it)
    Eddie Izzard (has gone downhill in recent years but still a very funny man)
    Josie Long (whoop!)
    Michael McIntyre (watched his dvd the other day, hilarious)
    Russ Noble (mad)
    Dylan Moran
    Bill Bailey

    That’s about it.

    Men who say that women can’t be pretty AND funny can just take a long walk of a short pier i think. It’s an idiotic thing to say.

  8. I’m not a boy reader and this is one of my pet subjects, so I’ll try not to go on a 3 hour rant, but YES and a thousand times YES.

    Women are still novelty performers in comedy, whatever anyone says. It’s a weird retro throwback of a medium where we’re still either Olive in On The Buses or Babs Windsor giggling as her bra flies off. The female stand-up comic has a tough crowd most nights.

    Peter Stringfellow is an immensely hilarious character, but in the ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ sense. Kathy Lette’s eyewateringly unfunny on all fronts, so any advice she offers on comedy is a bit like asking Alistair Darling to double check the sums on your tax return. (And I’m sure the Daily Mail could whip this into a “Always disagreeing with each other? You ladies are your own worst enemies” piece, if they put their tiny minds to it.)

    As for overlooking Kristen Schaal… words would fail me, except that it’s all depressingly predictable.

    I don’t appear to have made any actual points here, being on a hair trigger of enragement over this issue, so I’ll just nod furiously and say “Yes, Sarah. You are spot on.” once more. For you are.

  9. I think Sharon Horgan is a great comic actress. She co-wrote Pulling too. There was something else she was in but I forget the name of it – it was on channel 4 and starred Anthony Head…

    But yeah, women do get a bit of a rough deal when it comes to comedy. Although, Gina Yashere doesn’t do women any favours. She’s shit.

  10. “I spent ages trying to rack my brains to think about female comedians I like and was surprised to realise I could think of virtually none.”
    I always have trouble thinking of comedians I like, male or female. Any list I produce is likely to be a fairly short one. I’ll give it a go though…

    The News Quiz usually makes me laugh so I shall propose Sandi Toksvig as a funny female comic for her contributions to that show – she makes me laugh as often as any of the men on the show. One of my all-time favourite female comedians was Linda Smith, once voted the Wittiest Person Alive by Radio Four listeners (am a little surprised no-one has mentioned her yet). Victoria Wood has had rather a good career and I’ve always found her amusing.

    Of comedians others have mentioned, I too like Kristen Schaal and Josie Long and I agree with Solid Chris on Sarah Silverman – I have a copy of highlights from a show she performed at on CD and I don’t think I laughed at her act once. While I’m listing newer comedians I may as well bring up Shappi Khorsandi, who I like.

    There are more male comedians that I like than there are female comedians that I like – but surely that is just because there are more famous male comics than female? Wikipedia has a (huge) list of stand-up comics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stand-up_comedians and most on the list are male. There’s not that many listed of either sex that I find funny.

  11. I have since been reminded of Victoria Wood and although i’ve only seen ‘An Audience With…” for her, it was hilarious!

    Have ya seen ma friend Kimbeeerleh?

    I love dinner ladies too, so yeah, add Victoria Wood to my list.

    I wonder if, I at least, have wandered off the point. Sexy AND funny? Saying they are mutually exclusive is stupid.

    Buuuut…..most comedians are, to put a finger on it….’unattractive’, both male and female. How does one get to be funny? Often through a social alienation background whereby humour was the one way in which acceptance could be achieved. I know, i’ve been there (not saying i’m amazingly funny – but that I understand it as a defence mechanism). So yeah, of course someone can be sexy AND funny, but stand up comedy, by it’s very nature, is the habitat of the not necessarily attractive i think.

    It’s like rock musicians. I distrust attractive rock musicians. The people who spent their adolescence sitting in their bedrooms getting amazing at their instrument were usually the ‘unattractive’. Partly through social alienation, partly because if you end up becoming a rock god you become much more attractive to the opposite sex! Ugly people rock harder.

    I wandered off the point again there.

  12. I’m not sure I’d go for your thesis: it’s just the pretty/funny dichotomy turned into explanatory narrative. Tina Fey is gorgeous but half her character’s jokes on 30 Rock are about being unattractive, because she’s a witty character. Jane Krakowski, who plays the ditzy star of the fictional show that Fey’s character writes, is a very funny character but it’s not deliberate on the character’s part, maybe because she’s the sexy one. Man, 30 Rock is funny. I wish I was watching it right now.

  13. I am afraid I have not seen 30 Rock, so I couldn’t comment!

    However, my comments are more directed at stand up comedy as opposed to acting in sit-coms. Obviously there are a large amount of gorgeous woman playing funny characters in sit-coms, but that’s a whole different world of comedy to writing and performning your own stand up, where the ‘not conventionally attractice’ definately rule the roost!

  14. Well im not so sure that us men are intimidated by womens so called humor! Its just that most men dont really want to hear about that week of how ur period just exploded like mount rushmore! Or how ur afterbirth resembles something from a pod in an alien film! Im sorry but Most people go to comedy clubs to hear the pitch , joke, but with women all they do is talk so then it just turns into pitch pitch pitch Where is the funny part? Thats all im sayin ya know. Also if you were on one the panels all of a sudden the panel would be turned into another boring panel known as the view! I mean cmon so keep ur vagina monologues, keep ur birth canal, and keep ur period stories and leave the jokes to us!

  15. Dear Micheal, I have a horrible feeling that every time a woman speaks, you’re just watching her mouth without hearing, and thinking “vagvagvagvagvag” in your empty little head.

    What I’m saying is: you’re an idiot.

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