"The next comic is a woman. But don't leave yet - we've still got a raffle"
British comedian Gina Yashere is used to working in male-dominated spheres, and she's seen her fair share of sexism. Before her live show at the Udderbelly on the South Bank in London this week, she talks about what it's like being the only woman in the room and fights back at anti-female sentiment in the comedy circuit.
People often ask me if I find it difficult working as a comedian in such a male-dominated industry. I am precisely the wrong woman to ask. Before comedy, I worked as an engineer, building and repairing lifts. I did my apprenticeship on the huge mud patch that went on to become Canary Wharf, where I was the only female engineer on a building site of approximately 5000 men, and where there was only one female toilet on the entire site. So when I was caught short, I’d often wander into the nearest men’s loo, with my hard hat pulled down over my face. I still often use that method in night clubs.
I was subjected to graphic sex talk over bacon sarnies, page three girls stuck on every wall surface I could see, and many of my coworkers felt compelled over the years to flash their genitalia at me, to "see if I was a lesbian".
My point is...compared to what I endured as my company’s first female engineer in their 100 year history, comedy is a walk in the park!
I started doing stand up comedy in the mid 90’s and there were quite a few women comics at the amateur or open mic level.
As I rose up the ranks and became professional, the number of women I encountered dropped off. Not because there were none, but because comedy clubs tended to book women like we were novelty acts. One juggler, one magician, one black comic, one female… and ten bland mediocre males. I was invariably the only woman on the bill, and rarely got to see my female counterparts unless I was on a benefit show for a female charity, or a gig for International Women’s Day.
There has been a lot of discussion lately on the dearth of funny women on TV. In fact, if I hear the phone ringing with one more interview request on the subject of "Are women funny?" I swear, I will gouge my own eardrums out with a spoon. I don’t know if you can, but I’d be tempted to try it.
Here’s my take on the whole boring discussion: There are a lot of male comedians. A lot more than women. The vast majority of them are mediocre. Some of them are bad. When you see one bad male comic, you don’t say: "He was bad, and therefore all male comics are not funny". And yet, when I’ve hit the stage in the past as a female comic, I have felt the crushing weight of low expectations, from both the audience who mentally fold their arms, and from a vast array of male MC’s who’ve brought me on stage with such classic lines as:
"OK, we’ve got a woman coming on next..She might be good, she might be shit."
Or, "We have a woman coming on, who SAYS she’s a comedian."
Or, my personal favourite: "This next comic is a woman...Don’t leave yet, we’ve still got a raffle!"
I’m not complaining though. I love nothing better than to take a sceptical crowd, and turn their preconceived notions inside out. As a female stand up comic, if you are consistently good, you will stand out, and you will work A LOT. Comedy clubs want to book us! Well, at least one at a time... I’ve had no shortage of live comedy work over the years, and I’ve headlined at every major club in this country and around the world. I’d like to think I’m helping in some way to dispel the ‘women ain’t funny’ notion.
If you don’t believe me… come to my show in London this week!
If you’re a man, please do not come up to me after my show, and say "I really don’t like female comics, but you’re great.’" That is NOT a compliment. And I can’t guarantee you won’t get punched. By me.
Switch the words 'female comics' with 'black people' in the above sentence, and you’ll see how that sounds. You’d probably want to punch yourself.
So in true school essay style ending – in conclusion: I am not a funny black comic. Or a funny female comic.
I am a funny comic.