Hysterical women

Joy Molan compares her experience of performing in a one-off women’s sketch comedy show to other stale, male university productions.

When my Facebook popped up with a message telling me I had been cast in the Bristol Revunions’s annual women’s sketch show, I was delighted. As my friends and family will attest, I rarely miss an opportunity to attention seek (especially if it involves actual applause). I had performed with the Revunions before at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, but had drifted away from their weekly sessions due to a combination of final year stress and increased waitressing shifts.[1]

But if I’m being totally honest, there was one other thing that had kept me away. In previous shows, I had felt alienated by the overwhelmingly male cast of writers and actors. They would banter and scribble away, while I constantly felt on the outside of the joke. The humour was competitive – a contest open only to those who liked their TV shows and got all the insular references.  I found myself filling in for the nurse/waitress/mother/girlfriend/sister in their sketches, while my own writing was relegated to self-performed monologues. This is not just a Bristol problem – the St. Andrews’s 2016 Fringe show included no women, and, while at the Edinburgh Fringe, I watched show after show where women were treated as a niche concern. Sadly, this was largely due to thoughtlessness on the part of otherwise nice, friendly guys.

Since then, the Bristol sketch society has been taken over by the fantastic Flora Donald, who has spent her presidency championing women and other oppressed voices. So now seemed like the perfect time and opportunity to get back into the uni comedy scene.

However, I couldn’t shake some niggling doubts. I wondered if singling women and oppressed genders out for a one-night-only performance was tokenistic. Reflecting on Georgia O’Keefe’s celebrated statement, ‘the men put me down as the best woman painter. I think I am one of the best painters’, I bristled at the prospect of being patronised as funny for a girl. I was also sceptical that the show would evoke any lasting change.  So I went to the first writing session enthusiastic, but with a little trepidation.

I quickly realised that this show was going to be unlike any I’d been in before. The group, comprised of those who had often been forced to grow in the shadow of larger personalities, was refreshingly open and collaborative. There was no clique. Everybody was happy to write together and fine-tune each other’s punchlines, without the big egos of previous productions I’d been in.

It was empowering to finally see more than ONE woman in a sketch at a time: not just playing the set-up for someone else’s joke, but as a funny character in her own right. The sketches we devised ranged from ‘Orange is the New Warmest Colour, Carol’ (a parody of male-written lesbian films) to ‘Smash the Patriarchy for Just £19.99’ (an ironic take on the commodification of feminism).

hysterical women by jess baxter

Despite this creative buzz, I still had my doubts. Had I been side-lined in previous shows because my writing was bad? Was I now unfairly playing “the gender card”? Was I even that funny? Would the show be a HUGE failure? When the night arrived, I realised how silly my fears were. The evening kicked off with three hilarious stand-ups and a fantastic compare, who tackled topics ranging from the Strong Independent Woman™ trope of romcoms, to stress masturbating, and to the perils of inserting a Moon Cup.

After the interval, it was our turn to make ’em laugh.  Thankfully, the show turned out to be a success – receiving a healthy four-star Epigram review and a standing ovation. I was thrilled… yet strangely shocked. Some audience members later confessed to me that they also hadn’t expected much from the show, but were pleasantly surprised by its quality. Where had our scepticism come from? Perhaps it could be explained by Miss Representation’s argument: you can’t be what you can’t see. I am, as they are, used to seeing predominately male comedians, with women usually making up only 1/7 of TV panel shows. Had we all subliminally concluded that women just aren’t that funny?

Despite the four stars, the male-written (surprise, surprise) review began, ‘I can’t think of a single funny woman/gender-oppressed entertainer’. It is with this mind-set that he approached our show, and it is this mind-set that anyone who dares to not fit a pale, stale, male mould must face whenever they crack a joke.

Our show was a small step towards tackling such misconceptions. But obviously, it’s going to take more than one night in Bristol to break down these toxic and often internalised assumptions. So, to prepare myself for this battle, I will momentarily put my feet up, stick on some Ab Fab, and raise a glass to Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Jane Horrocks, Victoria Wood, Kathy Burke, Bridget Christie, Julie Walters, Miranda Hart, Dawn French, Ruth Jones, Ruby Wax, Sally Phillips, Joan Rivers, Shappi Khorsandi, Sarah Millican, Caroline Aherne, Lolly Adefope, Tina Fey, Sandi Toksvig, Susan Calman, Josie Long, Nina Conti, Dorothy Parker, Jane Austen, and other women who have elicited more than just a few giggles.  

[1] Why am I so bad at saving money?

Illustration by Jess Baxter


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