A friend recently asked me if I found any of the increasing number of women comedians on the TV funny; she apparently did not, and does not believe herself to be alone in that. Another friend asked me if it is even possible for women to be good comedians. I didn’t really have an answer to hand for that question, but I have been thinking about it a lot lately and I think that the question was inherently biased in favour of a negative answer. I don’t honestly have anything to say about women comedians because I don’t believe they exist. A comedian is masculine, and always has been. Even when women stand up on a stage to tell jokes, they are not comedians because they are always and inevitably female, which is to say that they are not male, and therefore not comedians. The problem here is that the concept of a feminine comedian can never escape the concept of what it is not – a masculine comedian. So even in comedy written and performed, and even witnessed exclusively by women, the ghost of man is always there haunting the stage and stealing the limelight with his absence.
What then is a comedian? Perhaps a joker who leads a hearer of the joke down one path only to jerk them unexpectedly in the other direction to great hillarity. Here we have fallen prey to the leader and follower of the interaction and the chauvinist bias becomes obvious. Maybe an observer who acknowledges and mocks the normal functioning of everyday life, making the sublime ridiculous, and the ridiculous sublime. Here again we have gender prejudice in the adoption of the comedian teaching and the hearer learning, the man knows best so we should listen to him. The hapless fool or the clown is yet another illustration of the gender dichotomization of society. By his inability to do even the simplest of actions normally, he shows the observer how things should be done and thus creates and perpetuates the norms on which society is built.
In all manifstations of what is called comedy, the man is always there; he is there to lead, to teach and to demonstrate. We the audience are asked – nay told – to enjoy the same chauvinistic rules that the comedian has absorbed. We are washing ourselves in a pool of sexist mud and simultaneously surprised at not finding female comedians funny. What is a comedian? A comedian is society itself, reproducing its own values on a stage, on the TV, in the newspaper, in church, at the pub. We laugh to escape our own existence by retreating into the crowd. Studies have shown that laughter is a community activity and that we find things funny when together that we do not when alone. When a fool is hurt in front of us we hide from our empathy in laughter; when we are made aware of our own absurdities we hide from despair in laughter; when we are shocked by a sick joke we hide from our guilt in laughter.
Do I find female comedians funny? It’s more than a little bit ironic that we even entertain the idea that comedy is gender objective and then judge women and men according to its rules. The whole concept of a female comedian is funny, but only because it doesn’t really exist. But then I would think that, I’m a man. It might be possible that this is the joke, and that it’s on us men for a change. There’s definitely something amusing about the institution of comedy itself becoming its own subject. I guess that the real question is whether we can learn to laugh at ourselves and see that comedy is just a front for bad faith. Maybe then we can start to have a sensible conversation about female comedians.