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22 September 2014

Why are people still talking about whether women are funny?

Bonnie McFarlane on why her new film, Women Aren’t Funny, is tackling some very serious subjects.

By Andrew Hankison

A Canadian comedian called Bonnie McFarlane has made a documentary film called Women Aren’t Funny (it’s up on iTunes), so I phoned her at her home in New Jersey.

First of all, the film’s title is ironic: she thinks women are as funny as men. 

“Yes, yes, yes, yes I do, yes I do,” she says.

She made the film to ridicule the circuitous, plodding, dated argument.

“I wanted to do a movie that was really funny,” she explains, “And make fun of the argument, instead of doing a serious documentary.”

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So she phones an unfunny female comedian and tells her to quit (to prevent the collective female reputation from being tarnished), she does a show disguised as a man (and genuinely cries when she bombs), and she lobbies to be added to a list of funny women on another female comedian’s website (she has to lobby twice). 

“The only known archive of funny women,” is how Bonnie describes the list on voiceover, “Which boasts over 78 names.”

She tries to interview Christopher Hitchens (who wrote a piece for Vanity Fair saying women aren’t funny), but he dies. She does interview Joan Rivers (who read and ignored the Hitchens article), Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes and Sarah Silverman (after an interviewee implies women shouldn’t tell dirty jokes, Bonnie shows a clip of Silverman telling this joke: “I was licking jelly off of my boyfriend’s penis and all of a sudden I’m thinking, oh my god, I’m turning into my mother”).

She interviews Chris Rock, who says women are “generally” less funny than men. Doug Stanhope says he doesn’t find women funny. Artie Lange says he knows mechanics who are funnier than female comedians (doubtful, as away from stand-up men are as unfunny as women). Patrice O’Neal says women aren’t funny, but Bonnie says he reeled off a list of funny women. Some of the men are just being provocative, which is what Bonnie thought everyone was doing when they said women aren’t funny, until she made the film.

“I didn’t really believe the argument,” she says. “I thought when guys said women aren’t funny they were ball-busting. It wasn’t until I was deep into making the movie, and really when I was talking to club owners, that I was like, ‘Oh my god, there are people that really don’t think that women are funny’.”

Yes, the people who hire comedians don’t think women are funny. If I click on the line-up at New York’s Comic Strip Live for next Saturday these are the names: Ricky, Gary, Kyle, Kevin and Chuck. At London’s Comedy Store the Saturday line-up is this: Alun, Addy, Christian, JJ and Ricky. They’re all men, in case there’s any doubt. All the big clubs are wall to wall men. 

Chris Mazzilli, owner of New York’s Gotham Comedy Club, explains in the film: “If there were more funny females, you know, out there, we would book them.”

The usual theory provided by club bookers for the alleged deficit of funny female stand-ups is more men start stand-up careers, so more men succeed and get booked for paid gigs. Bonnie says that’s not true.

“There are as many women who start doing stand-up as men actually,” she says, “When you go to the open mics or showcase shows where there are new comics, it’s almost half and half.”

Bonnie says the imbalance begins because novice men progress to being booked for paid shows, but hardly any women do, which she blames on bookers only wanting about one woman for every six men. 

She tells me: “They say, ‘Women won’t make us as much money’, or ‘People won’t come to see women’, or ‘People hang up and don’t come to the club if they find out a woman is there’. Stuff like that.”

Clubs have told her she can’t bring other women to be on shows with her, but they have no problem with men. If she does bring other women, shows are rebranded as ‘all-woman’. It happens in the UK too. Earlier this year British comedian Jenny Collier was hired for a gig, then unhired – “too many women”, the email said.

There are some legitimate reasons for fewer women making it as professional comedians, according to Bonnie. She says it takes about ten years to become good, which is when many women drop out to have babies (part of the reason Bonnie made this film is she’s a mum and didn’t want to go on the road as much). Earning a living on the road puts a lot of women off. Also, novices earn a living and learn their trade by opening for established acts, but established men usually hire men to open for them, often for sensible reasons. 

“If you’re a guy and you’re married, you probably aren’t going to take a woman on the road to open for you,” says Bonnie, “It might cause conflict within your relationship. It’s probably easier to take a guy.”

So there are issues beyond sexism, but sexism exists. Vinne Brand, owner of the Stress Factory in New Jersey, says in the film: “The question is, if your room is 75 per cent full, would it have been 100 per cent full if it was a man?” Club owners think the audience won’t find women funny. That costs women opportunities. It costs them money. It inevitably costs careers. It’s also infuriating for funny women. 

“At some point it gets tiring to be constantly be funny and then still have people say women aren’t funny,” says Bonnie. “It’s like ramming your head against the wall. It’s like, what more can I possibly do?” She’s laughing, but also shouting that last bit.