Jane Duffus: "We're brought up to see men being funny and women being homely"

The founder of the What the Frock! comedy night talks to Nicky Clark.


Being “funny for” or “unfunny as” a woman seems to be a mental rut some people can't escape. The debate about gender equality across television, but most particularly comedy, rages on. Yet the numbers of women in stand up comedy and comedy writing is growing and none of them appear in anyway hampered by their "comedy neutralising" gender.
Last year Jane Duffus decided that this gender imbalance was one she was no longer willing to tolerate.
After seeing Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent being very funny about women in media at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2011, Jane knew that she wanted to demonstrate that funny women are the norm, not the exception. She decided to stage an evening of comedy in her home city of Bristol by launching What The Frock women's comedy evening at the Festival of Ideas.
What began as one night quickly led to more, with coverage in local and national press with Woman’s Hour picking up on the event.
The "What The Frock" comedy event is now a popular fixture on the comedy calendar and a fixed monthly venue at the Clifton Club in Bristol. It also fundraises for organisations such as Confronting Women's Poverty

I caught up with Jane to ask her how this year has been. 
Jane, it's the first anniversary of the comedy night. I've watched with awe on Twitter as it’s grown from an idea to a popular comedy event. What was the genesis of What The Frock?
It all started in autumn 2011, after I saw Grace Dent and Caitlin Moran doing an event at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. It was such a simple concept - two very funny, very intelligent, very eloquent women, sitting having a chat for an hour about women in the media (or the lack of)... and being damn funny about it. I went away wondering why this was such a hard thing to see anywhere. It then dawned on me that there were so few women on TV or radio panel shows, and that most comedy clubs don't book women very often. It all spiraled from there, and What The Frock! was launched in early 2012 - with our first show being in Bristol on May 18, 2012. It sold out well in advance and was such a hit, that it all snowballed from there.
"Women not being funny" is a cliché which persists. Why do you feel this is?
It's so hard to say. There are plenty of women who aren't funny, but there are also plenty of men who aren't funny. It's nothing to do with genetic make-up or science, I think it's to do with social conditioning. Just as kids grow up being told by the TV and advertisers that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, we're brought up to see men being funny and women being homely. Subconsciously, these gender roles are driven home to us from day one, and if you want to subvert those roles then you have a big challenge on your hands. 
Entertainment isn't noted for its generosity towards the success of others, yet What The Frock seems to buck that trend in its supportive approach towards performers. How have you achieved this?
Ha ha, thanks! It's basic good manners, I think. It sounds naff, but I try to treat people as I'd want to be treated myself, whether via What The Frock! or anything else. Generally, I find that the women I work with are all really friendly and encouraging, and while I know that part of that is because it obviously makes sense for them to be nice to promoters, it also fosters lots of good will. There's a handful of acts I've had over the past year who haven't been particularly friendly, and they really stick out to me... and also aren't going to get booked again by me any time soon!


Feminist and unfunny seems to a label applied liberally by some. Which women do you feel have been instrumental in turning the tide on this?
Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent... Both are feminist, both are very funny, both are writers whose columns I actively look forward to reading. Comedians like Tiffany Stevenson, Viv Groksop, Bridget Christie, Sandi Toksvig and so many more, they're bringing feminism and feminist issues into their sets and it works so well. Bridget's recent Radio 4 series Mind The Gap was fantastic - strong, witty, intelligent, funny shows ridiculing and highlighting the need for feminism in our contemporary world. Even Ruby Wax's recent solo show, "Losing It", has a strong message within in about the inner strength that drives women during tough times, and she's hilarious while doing it. 
Misogyny and comedy appear to be inextricably linked for some. What fuels this and are events like What The Frock an antidote?
I suppose it's simply that as the bulk of comedians are male, then it stands to reason that some of them - and I stress "some", as there are plenty of male comedians who aren't misogynist - are going to perpetuate misogynistic comedy. Especially when you think that the bulk of their audience are also going to be men, and comedians are obviously going to tell the kind of jokes they think their audiences want to hear.
In a sense, maybe events like What The Frock! are an antidote. They're certainly providing the opposite kind of comedy night out - our acts are women, they don't tell anti-men jokes, or racist jokes etc. But they do deliver outstanding comedy in a friendly space, and I get feedback from my audiences saying they really welcome the fact What The Frock! exists, as otherwise they wouldn't go to comedy locally - because the existing comedy clubs don't provide the kind of night out they want. However, I'm aware that the bulk of my audience (and we get plenty of men in, as well as women) are the kind of people who don't go to many other comedy clubs because they find them so hostile and the jokes so tedious, so in a sense my events are 'preaching to the converted'. But after every single gig we do, I get inundated with really kind and positive messages and tweets from people in the audience saying how amazing the show was and thanking me for putting it on. That means so much to me.
Do you have plans to broaden the scope of What The Frock around the country?
It's tricky, as it's just me working behind the scenes at the moment - there's not a lot of money in comedy promotion at this level, so I can't afford to take anyone else on. You need to be putting on the big shows like Sarah Millican or Michael McIntyre in huge arenas to see a decent income from doing this. So there's only so much I can do myself. We're putting on our first show in Exeter on October 26, and if that goes well, I'm looking at making that a regular event from next year. And I'm looking at other cities around the south west and Wales to expand into for next year. But I'm very aware there are a few other businesses promoting women's comedy shows around London and in the north, and I've got no interest in treading on their toes. But I do have my eyes firmly on the south west!
Reflecting on the first year, what do you feel most proud of?
Being invited to put on a show at the Royal Festival Hall in March, to an audience of about 700 people, was amazing. It was part of the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre, and it was such an honour to be invited to do this. We had Rosie Wilby, Shazia Mirza and Danielle Ward on the bill, and it was a phenomenal event - I enjoyed every second of it. And where else am I going to be sandwiched on a schedule between Sandi Toksvig and Woman's Hour?! It was only our sixth ever show, so it was an enormous privilege to be involved with such a huge and exciting event.
This post originally appeared on Nicky Clark's blog, and is crossposted with her permission


Sandi Toksvig, one of the women Jane considers to have helped make feminism funny.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.