By Amelia Saw
Performances by female comedians make up just 14 per cent of the acts in this year’s Sydney Comedy Festival which is expected to attract over 85,000 people from April 22 to May 11. The program has 150 local and international acts of which only 21 feature women.
However, creative director Jorge Menidis says the Festival does not intend to present a men-only program. “We curate a program and we invite people to apply to be part of it,” he says, adding that the percentage of female acts is indicative of the application ratio.
Mr Menidis says that in the nine years he has run the Festival, the unequal gender split of applications has remained constant. “I think it’s an art form that definitely has a sense of alpha male spilled all over it,” he says.
While comedy may be a male dominated arena, female comic Greta Lee Jackson, who will perform her solo act ‘Killing It’ this year, says there’s equal opportunity at the outset. “I don’t think anyone’s going to knock you out or keep you out because you’re a girl. I think we’ve gone past that.”
Although there are no overt boundaries preventing women from entering the Festival or performing comedy, Greta Lee says she has encountered negative attitudes. “It always comes out like ‘I think you’re good but in general, I think female comedians are bad’,” she says.
However, Paul Ayre, a writer for comedy touring company A-List Entertainment, says women comedians are given preferential treatment over male comedians in terms of, for example, “extra publicity”.
He says such extra favours damage the way women are perceived in the comedy world. He recalls his participation in the 2006 Raw Comedy Festival, a nationwide competition for emerging stand-up comics, when there was a lot of “bitter talk” about the Festival’s big push for women.
“I picked Hannah Gadsby as the winner and it wasn’t because she was a woman, it was because she was the funniest person,” Paul says. “And I find it annoying that her win was tarnished by this idea of forced equality. She didn’t need that.”
While there may not be an equal number of women participating in this year’s Festival, Jorge Menidis says that in terms of payment, women are equal to the men.
“Sarah Silverman’s ticket price is as expensive as any other comedian,” he says. “It’s not as if a male comedian can earn more than a female comedian.”
Male dominance in comedy is so pervasive that numerous theories have been put forward to explain it. A study by Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller, released by the University of New Mexico in 2011, used a caption writing experiment to deduct that men were, on average, funnier than women.
In ‘Beaten to the punchline’, a controversial article for The Guardian, feminist Germaine Greer theorised that men were more likely to develop a superior sense of humour because of a “dense masculine culture of joke-making” from a young age.
Greta Lee Jackson agrees. “I can’t speak for other girls but I think in general women are happier to leave it up to the boys to make them laugh. The boys generally hone that skill as they grow up.”
Tami Sussman, who is performing her one-woman show, ‘When I peaked at 17’, at the Festival, believes that overall women on the comedy circuit “get a good response”. However, she has experienced negative attitudes based on gender.
“Once, before a show, a guy came up to me and we were having a good chat and then he said ‘don’t you think women comedians are kind of limited? You know, female comedians generally talk about relationships and sex and family’.”
According to comedian Zoe Pelbart, who will be performing her one-woman show ‘Contained’ at the Festival, women have restrictions on things they are allowed to talk about. “Guys can talk about poo, guys can talk about periods, guys can talk about sex and their ex’s in a derogatory level but if a girl does it, it’s like ‘oh she’s talking about her period…gross…or she’s talking about her ex… she’s bitter’. There’s still a very fine line for women to be able to talk about those things in a manner that men will accept.”