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Sunday, February 09, 2014

It's funny. Period.

When I was doing stand-up comedy, I was always keen to get advice from others on the circuit - particularly those whose brand of humour I admired. I was about 23 when I first started out in stand-up. I was fairly new to London and whilst I had a grown-up job, rented my own flat and paid the bills, in many ways I was still quite naive. I imagine when I'm 50, I'll look back on myself right now, early (OK, mid) 30s and laugh about how immature I used to be.

I was 19 the first time I ever saw stand-up comedy, during Freshers' Week at university. I am embarrassed to admit that for the next couple of years, I genuinely believed that stand-ups were improvising their entire set. It was only when I saw an act for a second time, I thought, "Hmm, that sounds familiar." And over time I realised that actually, there's a lot of technical effort that goes into a perfect joke - from the strange linguistic truth that a list of three things are funnier than two, that the names Barry and Nigel are funnier than John or David, that - unlike with writing comedy to be read (rather than performed) it's important to have your punchline at the very end of the sentence, so that anticipatory laughter doesn't drown out the rest of your joke.

Some of these things I worked out by myself, others were pointed out to me by mentors. I was always grateful for advice.

When you start doing stand-up, you will generally get a 5-minute spot. Once you are a bit more established, you will be offered a 10-minute set, and as you progress to paid gigs, the hallowed 15 and 20 minute spots will open up to you. Let me tell you now, starting from the very beginning, even 5 minutes is a lot of time to fill.

Here is a truth - think of your favourite stand up. Go on. Think of them. If you just thought of Peter Kay, please go away now. You are henceforth banned from the Plog. Got your favourite non-Peter Kay stand-up in mind? OK. They were once shit. They wrote and performed shit material. They died on their arse. Repeatedly. That's how you learn. That's how you hone.

For me, my set evolved gradually. I would probably try out two new jokes each gig, usually sandwiched between my A-list material. If they worked, they'd be a keeper and remain in my set permanently (taking the place of more hit-and-miss material). If they didn't work, they'd be tried out a couple more times - in case it was the delivery or the audience, or perhaps the joke just needed rewording. If I still couldn't get the new jokes to work, they'd be dropped.

One of my very first sets had the following joke in it. Now, I'm not claiming it's comedy gold. It isn't - but for a brand-new stand-up, it's OK.

"So yes, the condom split, then my period was late, and I was genuinely very worried. I didn’t know whether to get a home pregnancy kit, or go to the doctor… But then I remembered. Girls – you’ll back me up on this. The one thing absolutely guaranteed to make your period start? Wear a white skirt. God loves nothing more than to see you mess up your new Karen Millen. So I tried it, wore my white skirt, and it worked.  I shat myself."

Like I said - hardly comedic genius. And looking back now, it's even worse than I remember it, with a non-sequitur as the punchline. But one well-intentioned comic took me aside and suggested that I shouldn't do period jokes. Full stop. (Or should I say, "period"?) His logic was that one of the reasons women don't progress in comedy is they write about being "different" instead of male comedians, who just write about life. By talking about periods, I was making at least 50% of the audience feel uncomfortable, as it was a subject they couldn't relate to. For some reason it didn't occur to me that I was perfectly able to find jokes about "the male experience" funny - be that penises, weeing standing up or wanking to Countdown, I was always able to relate and - if it was a good joke - laugh along. I certainly didn't think, "I can't find that funny because I don't have a cock. What a shame. I'll just think about kittens instead."

At the time I listened to his advice, and dropped the joke.

Now I feel retrospectively pissed off. The joke wasn't great. If it had been suggested to me to drop it for the reason it wasn't that funny, well, fair enough. But live stand-up comedy is one of the very, very few arenas where literally nothing is off the table. I have seen skilled comics joke successfully about rape, incest, domestic violence, racism, murder. The key to doing this without seeming horrifically insensitive is to ensure the butt of the joke is the right person - to ensure the joke sides with the victim. It's an incredibly difficult thing to get right, and some punters will still never accept it, stating that you "just shouldn't joke" about certain situations. A good example of this was the furore Jimmy Carr caused a few years ago with this joke:

"Say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012."

For the hard of thinking, the butt of the joke here is not the servicemen, but the war itself, and the horrible things it does to people. The humour comes - for me at least - from contrast between the pathetic compensation (a good Paralympic team) to the lives ruined. It is irony.

I digress.

The reason I'm pissed off about the period joke issue is that the reason I was encouraged not to talk about that was that it marked me out as "female", as "other". That the female experience wasn't one that was valid, relatable and certainly couldn't be joked about. Even many other female comedians will argue that writing jokes about menstruation is lazy, is "hack", regardless of the quality of the joke itself.

In a world where being a white male is the default setting, merely obeying the laws of female biology - along with 50% of the human population is seen as "other". Most companies' diversity policies take account of disabled employees, employees from minority ethnicities, employees who are gay, transsexual, transgender, bissexual... and women. Merely by having a pair of tits - something which I've never thought particularly remarkable (well, not quite true, I do have a cracking pair of norks) means I am considered "diverse".

I maintain that female comics have a harder time than men - though perhaps this is changing with more women comics reportedly taking up the craft. From my personal experience, I met promoters who wouldn't book me for a certain night as "we already have a woman that night", promoters who would ask me out on a date - and if I refused - wouldn't book me again, one promoter who introduced me to stage with the line, "We've got a girl up next, so maybe time to go and grab yourself a drink". I also heard of a punter who tried to negotiate a discount on their entrance fee because there was a woman on the bill that night.

I just deleted a paragraph I wrote about the "are women funny?" debate. I deleted it because firstly, it's a separate issue. And secondly, it doesn't even deserve to be a debate. Women are funny. And if you don't think they are, you need to have a think about why. Do you genuinely believe that women are biologically unable to create jokes as skilfully as men? Or maybe, just maybe, it's your own attitude towards women that needs examining?

As I write more and more about feminism, I do find my writings more and more earnest, and less and less funny. This is really irritating as it's completely undermining the point I'm trying to make.

So anyway, I was having this wank to Countdown...

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