Funny Women– a comic romp through history by Lynne Parker
Women have always had comic ability as reflected by the antics of Chaucer’s wife of Bath and the fair but resilient maidens of Shakespeare’s comedies. But when did they really start to use humour to increase their status?
Liberation and tipping the velvet
In the second half of the 19th Century, women worked their way, painfully, towards political and sexual liberation and humour began to play an increasingly important role in their lives.
Comedy equalled titillation and women who trod the boards were often considered no better than prostitutes and the sexual frisson created by a saucy stage performance fuelled many a sterile Victorian marriage.
The early ‘concert saloon’ entertainers at the beginning of the 20th century represented women as merely waitresses and in silent comedy they were slapstick sidekicks. There was the onset of vaudeville, where women could sing and dance, but once partnered with male comedians they sadly became just a part of the scenery, handling props or supervising scripts.
Women writers and performers in the 20th century have taken a historical view of this in their art – for example, Sarah Waters novel, Tipping the Velvet is about self discovery and female eroticism evoking a bold, passionate story of a girl enthralled by a music hall male impersonator and begins an affair of love, music and passion of the stage.
Stepping into the 20th century there are many women pioneers where comedy played a role in their performances and careers.
Millicent Martin took part in the early topical review programme along with an all male cast headed by David Frost called ‘That was the week that was,’ a satirical comedy that took major events from the news and publicly scrutinised and made fun of them in a way that had never been done on national TV before.
Prunella Scales, although a serious actor, has worked on many comedies such as the early sitcom ‘marriage lines’ and a number of BBC4 sitcoms such as ‘After Henry’ and ‘Smelling of Roses’. She immortalised the harragon ‘Sybil’ in ‘Faulty Towers’ with her piercing conversational tone and her well known catch phrase ‘Basil’ when calming down the forever bumbling John Cleese.
Barbara Windsor was ubiquitous to the British comedy Carry On film series and, although only starred in 10 out of 28 shows, is recognised as one of the main Carry On cast members.
Dame Maggie Smith, who is one of the most distinguished actresses in Britain and known for her dry, black humour best showcased alongside her co-star Michael Caine in ‘California Suite’ and with Michael Palin in the black comedy ‘A private function.’ More recently she has immortalised the character of Professor Minerva McGonagall in the internationally acclaimed Harry Potter films with comic panache. Dame Maggie’s comic talents are far reaching indeed.
Uncle Sam plays his part
Women no longer wanted to be subservient at the turn of the century and, with the Suffragettes and emerging political power, the opportunity to voice their views became intoxicating. Getting a laugh meant getting a vote.
The second wave of this revolution was post World War 2 with the rise of commercial television in the USA. The birth of the sitcom on US TV saw shows like ‘I Love Lucy’ created and comedians such as Lucille Ball were given a platform. This began reflecting how women’s roles were changing in society and comedy was the vehicle.
Phyllis Diller broke into the predominant male arena of stand up in the 1950s with her eccentrically-dressed housewife trademark wild hair, cigarette in her mouth and constant criticism of her husband. She paved the way for other women who dared to invade on what was considered a man’s world.
Mary Tyler Moore rose to comedy fame by way of television commercials and the Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s and was given her own show in the 1970’s. Comedy ‘it’ girl Goldie Hawn, made her name in the popular comedy series, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, which influenced the format of topical fast paced comedy forever. And let’s not forget the grand dame of comedy herself, Joan Rivers, who revolutionised stand up with her brash, often crude observational humour – setting the benchmark for male and female comics for decades to come.
Funny women and power
Women used their comedic power to take control of the media. Inspired by their predecessors, who created the winning formula of making and producing their own comedy series, both Ellen de Generes and Roseanne Barr successfully became their own ‘brand’ and two of the richest and most famous women on television.
Certain Brits have made it big too like Tracy Ullman, who went to the US to find real fame and fortune with her own show, and the inspired pairings of Wood & Walters, and French & Saunders, who have written and produced their own television and radio programmes, have become part of comedy history.
Culturally there is a big divide on either side of the Atlantic. Examination of today’s big names from both the US and the UK there is a notable contrast between the brash, obvious humour that suits the average American to the more subtle, dark sarcastic undertones of the ‘reserved’ Brit. Where America is afraid of irony, the Brits embrace it.
Ruby Wax is probably the most well-known female comedian in Britain to really embrace this stereotype with her tastelessly dressed loud-mouth brash American character in the 1980s sitcom ‘Girls on Top’. Yet, Ruby has gone on to be a major influence on British comedy with her own shows probing into the lives of celebrities.
The 1980s saw a sudden boom of sketch show popularity. Leading the way was Not the Nine O’Clock news where Pamela Stephenson reigned supreme over male comedians Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones in a show that mocked and parodied celebrities, politicians and news broadcasts.
During the 1990s Smack the Pony pioneered an all-female comedy cast, consisting of Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan, Sally Phillips and Sarah Alexander, a sketch show giving female perspective of everyday situations but driven by feminine hysteria.
Then it was the turn of catchphrase queen, Catherine Tate, who was blasted to fame in the early 2000s after being discovered on the TV show ‘Wild West’. She took her previous stand-up acts and introduced them as memorable characters such as ‘Lauren’ an incompetent, image obsessed teenager forever arguing with her peers with the a repetitive sarcastic ‘Am I bovered.’
Not to put a good formula down, enter wannabee Katherine Tates, Katy Brand and Karen Taylor. Brand takes a cut throat approach to mocking our modern day celeb obsession in ‘Katy Brands Big Ass Show’ while Taylor explores a more daring sexually confrontational style looking at life with the ever saucy ‘Touch Me I’m Karen Taylor’.
Religion and Race
With sexual taboos breaking down and male chauvinism being tackled head on. One of the last bastions that female comedians have to face is that of religion and race.
Black and Asian female performers face challenges with their acts – from Jewish Sarah Silverman in the US to Iranian Shappi Khorsandi in the UK. Shazia Mirza performs live comedy to audience’s worldwide and has enjoyed huge success but this has not stopped her being on the receiving end of death threats for her mockery of Muslim culture. Gina Yashere, another young comedian, has moved to the West Coast of the United States to further her career. One may question whether Gina’s success may have been due to America having a larger and more catered for black community.
New kid on the block, Miss London, aka 21 year old Dionne Hughes who won the prestigious Funny Women Awards in 2009, has been snapped up quickly by the BBC showing women from non Oxbridge backgrounds are breaking into the mainstream of comedy.
By taking this journey through the history and development of female comedy we see how women parody life in their on stage and on screen performances. Humour fuels women’s lives – we have so many stages to deal with. From periods, to childbirth and the menopause, if we didn’t laugh, we d never survive!
A wide array of female comic genius has influenced today’s society and their legacy has set the bar high for future generations of funny women.
Lynne Parker is Executive Producer, Funny Women