I'm sick of hearing female comics censoring themselves - jokes are weapons to be used in battle

On how I went to a all-female comedy night raising funds for women's charities - and it was awkward, but needn't have been.

Nothing kills an orgasm as effectively as the obligation to have one. It's the same with laughter. While this problem affects many women, it’s particularly an issue for female comics who perform at women’s-charity fundraisers. Speaking as an audience member, it’s a drag to experience flop sweat on somebody else’s behalf and have to fake the expected response in order to help the project along. The empathy neuroreceptors are too far from the mirth ones, perhaps, and too dependent on an algorithm of surprise and suffering: hence the many YouTube videos of cats falling off things and toddlers inadvertently whacking people in the balls. 

In the past couple of weeks I attended two standup nights benefitting women’s charities. I cringed as comics wandered uncertainly through their sets, combing their material for feminist-charity-appropriateness, unsure how to sell them except by consensus. Worse, to segue from “dating is hard” material into “seriously though, donate at the door because the number of women getting beaten up is terrible” puts the onus on the audience in too direct a way. It’s unfair. We've already spent 20 quid at the door for the cause. We’re here in the seats to laugh, not to watch comedians be virtuous and careful. Let’s start with the assumption that we’re in consensus about domestic violence and genital mutilation and go from there, not cap a bad set with a sobering reminder. Puts a new spin on the term “punchline,” I suppose.

But am I being mean? Why criticise? Why not celebrate all or any women saying anything? It's because comedy has corners, has criteria, is brutal. And because the stakes have escalated for feminist comics since the comedysphere took a turn towards the outright rapey, so we’ve got to be on our game. In the last year or so — let’s pretend for a second that Daniel Tosh’s nightclub gaffe marked the beginning of something — the lowest common denominator peanut gallery schtick sank from “are women funny?” all the way to: 

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Rape joke!

Rape joke wh-

STOP TRYING TO CENSOR ME OR I’LL KILL YOU, YOU FAT BITCH!

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

We (we being feminist comics and writers across the gender spectrum - I'm a failed comic myself, having hacked away at it for eight years in New York) have to do more than disapprove of this state of affairs, and do better than merely to address the outrage. Journalists and thinkers like Lindy West and Anita Sarkeesian have put themselves in harm’s way, and are using the weapons at their disposal to do battle. This is crucial work.

The work of a comic performer, though, is both less constrained by conventions of discourse, and more constrained by desirable outcome. Though they’re both sharp and witty, Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West don’t have to make people laugh. Abi Roberts, Sara Pascoe, and Mary Bourke do. Because it’s their job. It’s their job, though, because they have untoward and bizarre impulses they seem to barely constrain, which makes them dangerous and hilarious and the very opposite of consensus comedy. I don’t actually know whether any of the three “self-identify as feminist”, as the saying goes, but they’re getting the job done.

The most gripping and consequently funniest performers illustrate the disconnect between lame, “I’m ready for my sitcom, Mr Demiille” club comedy antics, and the raw but relatable originality that answers to your own experience. To refine this rawness just enough to let the audience know you can handle it, is the witchcraft. I’m not going to spoil a these comics’ material, which I saw them perform at the aforementioned comedy fundraisers. However:

Take Abi Roberts.

Abi Roberts: A Laugh (photo credit: Abiroberts.com)

Schtick arsenal: Employs classical training in music and theater, a sly and unapologetic knowledge of vaudevillean tricks, and a preternatural comfort with herself onstage.

Attack style: She feels unstoppable, triumphant. She bounds onstage, robust, already laughing, nimbus of blond hair aswirl, genuinely happy to be there – it’s the rest of life that’s almost unbearable - and takes down target after target, rapidfire, infectious. Expectations of the female body, the pornnlike fantasy of the cooking show, the depredations of shapewear. She’s a master of self-deprecation but doesn’t hinge on it; she doesn’t posit herself as an object of desire (which is cute at best, and usually a stupefying bore) but in having for-real, bodily sex. 

Deadly weapon: She has a very graphic bit about her iPod being on shuffle, and she kills with it.

Sara Pascoe.

Sara Pascoe: Fever to tell (image credit Edinburgh Fringe Festival Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: The shocking art of seemingly boundless personal revelation.

Attack style: Where Roberts has unapologetic gusto, Pascoe has a mien of slight ambivalence to her obsessive personal confessions. She’s skinny, wide-eyed, and slightly hesitant. But her physical subtext, all semi-shrugs and minutia, her wide eyes widening, her girlish voice barely above a whisper, heightens our intimacy. Our guard down, she regales us with some of the weirdest preoccupations this side of Maria Bamford, an American comic who likewise flirts with discomfort, making you laugh not just in ticklish discomfort, but at the audacity it takes to make self-consciousness funny.

Deadly weapon: Her scorching rumination on the forbidden desires of the hair salon.

Mary Bourke.

Don't be fooled. (Photo vredit; Edinburgh Fringe Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: Precision and lyricism, which sounds unlikely, but...

Attack style: She is nothing short of terrifying. A slender, smiling lady with eye-grazing blunt bangs, dressed in a floral-print dress and chic but sensible shoes, she looks for all the world like she might teach third grade or run an arts programme in a hospital for the aged. And her voice, a gentle, brogue-burnished alto, signals nothing untoward; she said onstage that her stage presence is “like being menaced by a fine mist.” Yet she slays you; she’s attuned not only to her own rage, but to consonant rhythm, image density and tonal escalation. She’s so absorbed in her own surefootedness that your laughter is both incidental, and effortless. She doesn’t ask you, she makes you.

Deadly weapon: Her attack on mummy blog culture, the refrain of which is “Am I Being Unreasonable?” This, obviously, is no consensus-building gambit; there’s little sisterly comradeship in skewering motherhood. Bourke sets up as backdrop a message board populated at midnight by complaining, privileged mummies. She pushes this caricature to its Swiftian logical conclusion, then soars into a bizarre St. Crispin’s Day battlefield oath of startling hyperviolence, leaving me and the rest of the audience gasping for breath.  

The female comics who most interest me are indecorous, and have a touch of the monstrous about them. And the ones I find hard to maintain attention to are the ones who seem in subliminal, unexamined crisis about whether or not they're good enough, pretty enough, or have the right to be there. If you have that anxiety — we all do — bring it out, mess with it, tread on it. Rape jokes arise and flourish from a desperate, anguished, castration fantasy/terror. They attempt to shift that terror onto women, which is not only loathsome, but boring. 

It’s in going deeper and darker, taking fierce joy in the uncouth, not capitulating to the terror nor to the bona fides of virtuous doctrine, that we have the last laugh.

Sarah Silverman on stage at a fundraised for AmeriCares after Hurricane Katrina - but do comedy and charity mix? Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad