28 Apr Q&A for Viva
1 The blurb for your Comedy Festival show, in some way, mentions being a woman/the feminist perspective/gender identity/a celebration of being female or working with other females… And yet, in the past, female comedians have suggested it’s not helpful to differentiate the sexes in comedy. So, what’s your take on that conundrum: in 2021, why should we be talking about these differences? And what is it about the female sense of humour that is unique?
It’s not really much of a conundrum. Women have been (and regularly still are) underrepresented in comedy. Even in 2021 you would be hard-pressed to find any line-up show or TV comedy show that isn’t heavy on the blokes. Historically, the attitude has been that there are “comedians” (assumed to be men) and then there are “female comedians” (assumed to be a special variety, along with jugglers and magicians). So we resist being separated as “comediennes” or “female comedians” and also work hard to close that gap by taking up equal space. Often, that means creating our own spaces. I adore producing shows that give all the space to women and non-binary performers – it is one of the few times we get to work with each other, hang out in the greenroom, see each other’s work. I will stop doing that when other producers consistently book a line-up show that has five women and two men (rather than the other way round) without it needing to be a special ladies’ day.
I’m not sure there is anything unique about the female sense of humour in the same way I don’t think there is a uniquely “Kiwi” humour. You can see this clearly when there are a lot of women in one show – a huge variety of voices, experiences, styles, attitudes. But there is a good chance that, from moment to moment, the way a woman experiences the world will particularly resonate with the women who make up at least half of the average comedy audience.
2 Tell us what we can expect from your Comedy Festival show this year.
Rage. I am inviting women and non-binary people to come share their anger. “Feminist Rage Night” was born a couple of years ago at the Verb Festival in Wellington and it has been a glorious celebration, so now I’m bringing it to Auckland. In the same way women were told we weren’t supposed to be funny, women are often told we are not supposed to be angry. “Pissed off with the patriarchy? Have a massage! Buy a lipstick!” Yeah, nah. Here’s a space to take your rage for a romp as a communal experience. Expect poems, rants and songs from furious feminists.
3 The comedy world has always seemed like a bit of a boys’ club. How true has that been in your experience – in the past, and now? What’s behind the changes you’ve seen? What still needs to change?
I was lucky that I started doing stand-up around the same time (early 1990s) that the genre first arrived in New Zealand, so I didn’t need to ask permission from anyone to join in. I was also lucky that, by and large, those first comedians were terrifically good sorts, so the greenroom was largely supportive and safe. It is also true that, as the industry grew, some boys have liked to think of it as a boys’ club, and we work hard to disabuse them of this ridiculous idea.
There are particular challenges women deal with – we don’t live in a world where it is safe for a woman to move around at night, we might have issues with child care, there are fewer slots available to women, we work in environments like bars where predators can feel emboldened, and there are still too many men who confuse a workplace with a real world Tinder app. It is not a standard workplace with an HR representative or a Health & Safety policy (though the industry has one of those now).
I have arrived to work and been a) barred from the greenroom by a bouncer because a woman couldn’t be a comedian, b) once I’ve talked my way into the greenroom been asked, “Whose girlfriend are you?” and c) asked if I was the stripper. (Not recently, I have to say – most strippers have retired by this age.) There are places I haven’t been, jobs I haven’t done, there’s work I haven’t been offered, and dangerous situations I’ve had to escape. Most women in any industry will say the same thing.
I am heartened that women, who have always arrived in the comedy industry in equal numbers to men but often left quickly, now stay. We support each other, create work for each other, and we have reached some kind of critical mass. God bless Millennials and their self-belief – we’ve raised our daughters well. These young women brook no shit. I am glad I stuck around to see it. I love performing now even more than I did and that has a lot to do with seeing people who look like me on stage and in the audience.
4 What are your thoughts on mining ‘women’s issues’ (periods, hormones, etc) for laughs?
Wonderful! All comedians talk about their lives, right? I am having a fine old time talking about menopause now that it is part of my life. Show me a man who could bleed out of his penis for five days a month and not mention it on stage. (Hat tip to Margaret Cho for that observation.) Comedy has always done a fine job of demystifying, of normalising the things we don’t talk about enough. ‘Women’s issues’ are issues. Let’s have a chat.
5 Does a ‘woke’ audience help or hinder the laughs? ie is there more or less freedom to make jokes (without worrying you’re going to offend someone)?
My favourite audiences are the ones who won’t put up with racist, homophobic or sexist nonsense, or cheap gags at the expensive of the least powerful. Good comedy has always (since the time of the royal court jester, if not before) punched up to the king, not down. I never set out to offend (because, yawn) and take great care not to when I am invited into someone else’s space like a corporate event. But part of any creative person’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, so…
6 What is the role of comedy in 2021 – is it more important, less important than before? Does it have a job to do that isn’t just making people laugh, and if so, what is it?
Comedy certainly matters more to me now than ever. When we went into Level 4 Lockdown last March, I didn’t know if we would ever be able to perform live again, or if people would ever feel comfortable about gathering in large groups. That sounds dramatic now, but it was a genuine fear then, and our overseas friends in the industry are still living with this. And then I didn’t know who I would be if I didn’t get to do this, so there was oodles of existential angst. I still feel enormous gratitude every time I walk on stage that this thing is possible again. We are all slightly different from our pre-Covid selves, and it is glorious to be together and talk about it, and feel it. Comedy has always been about creating moments of shared consciousness and, after being locked away from each other, we need this even more. We are one of the only countries in the world that gets to have a comedy festival this year. How lucky are we?! It would be rude not to take advantage of this.
7 What made you laugh today?
Walking into the kitchen and seeing my grandson’s handprints all over the door of the dishwasher after a visit from both my mokopuna at the weekend. I thought about wiping them off but, nah. Crazy old nana.