Is Being A ‘Woman In Comedy’ Getting Any Easier? 3 Irish Comedians Weigh In
Plus, some tips if you want to try standup yourself.
Irish women are hilarious, if we do say so ourselves. From Derry Girls on the telly, to Aisling Bea, Maeve Higgins and Sharon Horgan casually taking over the comedy world, to the quips we’re trading back and forth every day in our WhatsApp groups or on Twitter. We’re gas, but we didn’t always realise it ourselves. And even if we did, what could we do about it?
It seemed like there was only ever ‘room’ for one funny woman on a comedy lineup or on a panel show, if there were any at all. We have our own jokes explained to us, as if we don’t understand exactly what we’re saying, or repeated louder by someone else who then reaps all the credit. For a long time, women have been asking the comedy scene to make room for them. Now they’re storming in and claiming their own space.
“When I first started I was never on with a woman because there were only about six of us,” says Alison Spittle, now eight years into her career and one of the leading names in Irish comedy. She’s got an RTE sitcom (the excellent Nowhere Fast) and headlining shows at Vicar Street under her belt, and has seen an explosion in the number of women biting the bullet and trying standup – thanks in no small part to her own efforts.
“When other women did well I used to feel slightly jealous of them, like there’s only one place for a woman on that panel, there’s only one place at that gig,” she admits. “I felt slightly poisoned by sexism, and I wanted to suck out that poison.” In 2016, she started a Facebook group for women who wanted to do comedy (simply titled ‘Women Who Want To Do Comedy’), hosting workshops to give other women the encouragement she was given as a young comedian.
I wanted to see women not as rivals, but as part of a group. Sometimes in comedy, some environments aren’t safe for women, so it’s nice to acknowledge that and be supportive to each other.
This has never been more startlingly clear than when 22-year-old Australian comedian Eurydice Dixon was murdered on her way home from a gig earlier this year. The news was met with a massive outpouring of grief and anger, as well as the usual questions about whether women should be out alone late at night. In response, female comedians going to Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year made a fund available for women and vulnerable people to get taxis home.
“I don’t want to lie to people and say ‘everything’s perfect in comedy, please join’ – things aren’t perfect, but it’s getting so much better because more women are doing it,” says Alison. “We’re trying to band together and create something positive.”
It’s no surprise that after years of feeling shut out or intimidated by the traditional comedy scene, women are carving out more inclusive and welcoming performance nights for themselves. Artist Sarah Devereux is the co-founder of Spicebag, a ‘queer variety show’ that features a mix of anything and everything, from burlesque to drag to music and comedy. She wanted to create a night where diverse performers will be celebrated, instead of there to “fill a quota so the organisers won’t get shat on by ‘feminazis’ like us”.
“I like to play a sort of comedy bingo in my head with how many female or LGBTQ+ people are on event lineups. It’s often less than 30 per cent, so I never win, but I guess who does when it’s a game in your head?” she tells STELLAR.
I knew I wanted to perform, but not in that sort of world. So far at Spicebag all of our comedians have been female, and our lineup in general is predominantly somewhere within the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This is something we actively, but also very naturally, make happen. People are welcome to perform whatever material they like but we let them know if they wanna go weirder, filthier, or more political, Spicebag is a good ol’ place to do that.
Emily O’Callaghan has dipped in and out of standup, but found that her real love was creating opportunities for other women to perform. She hand-picks the acts for her night Comedy Gold (formerly Meltdown Comedy) based on the quality of their work, rather than gender, and finds that more often than not it’s very well balanced between men and women.
“It takes a lot for women to want to get up on stage, so when they do, you can be sure that they have prepared properly and thoroughly and that they truly know themselves to be funny,” she says. “For decades you could only expect the same type of lineup at a comedy club, now there is choice.”
After a chance meeting with Electric Picnic director Melvin Benn, Emily was tasked with organising an all-female comedy stage, which opened the festival for early campers arriving on the Thursday night. “I mentioned that there were not many female acts on stage at last year’s Picnic, and the organisers agreed with me. Seeing that I had the experience and contacts, they asked me to put forward female acts who I thought were good,” she says. Hosted by Joanne McNally, the lineup featured a mix of upcoming and established female comics, including Aoife Dooley, Ruth Hunter, and Sahar Ali.
As Alison says, one of the main barriers to women doing comedy was a lack of visibility. How could you be what you couldn’t see? Right now, with so many women out there making people laugh, there’s no better time for a would-be comedian to pick up the mic and get involved. All you have to do is to write seven minutes of material, contact a comedy night, and get yourself a gig.
“Put your second-best joke first and your best joke last, do whatever you want to do in the middle. Keep a nice short joke at the start, just to prove that you’re funny to people,” advises Alison.
Don’t invite your friends to your first gig. You’ve no pressure then and you’ll get honest feedback off the audience. Record yourself and listen back to your gig without adrenaline. If you find out stand-up isn’t for you, you haven’t failed, you’re funny in a different way. Keep going. I find that women are just looking for permission to do comedy. And if you’re reading this now, I give you permission to do comedy.