American Comedian Eve Ellenbogun is on a first date with a guy. It’s going well, until she tells him what she does for a living. ‘Oh that’s too bad’ he says. ‘I don’t find women funny.’
Luckily, that douche-canoe is laughing on the other side of his face by the time Eve has finished with him. But sadly, he’s not the only one still labouring the bogun opinion that women aren’t as funny as men. Ask anyone working in comedy today – they’ll tell you it’s this misconception that prevents women being better represented in the comedy industry. In the UK’s TV scene, script-editor Andrew Ellard puts it down to a complex and ‘inherent sexism in commissioning.’ UK Script writer and comedian Ariane Sherine says ‘it is something we are all socially conditioned to think from childhood’ – while Indian comedian Neeti Palta still has to put up with bookers back home saying things like ‘you charge how much? I thought female comedians were cheaper’. Like it or not, this ludicrous belief has long been the glue that holds the comedy glass ceiling in place.
And yet, of course, it’s complete tosh. But as with most deep-rooted stains on the cultural carpet of humanity, these things take a little while to come out in the wash. You can either spray it with industrial grade Cillit Bang, or douse it in a bit of our old chum – positive discrimination. With that in mind, as I’ve been lucky enough to be out here in Melbourne reviewing some of the best up-and-coming talent (and the already up-and-comed), I thought I’d compile a handy list of some of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. Sure, there’s something a bit patronizing about only focusing on female comedians – though not as patronizing as introducing them to the stage as a ‘female comedienne’, as was Sara Pascoe’s lot at Latitude festival 2015, much to her fury.
Some might say that lumping women together does more harm than good as it segregates them further. However, it’s also true that confidence is one of the things that holds some female comics back from getting involved. At this year’s Jeez Louise address at Melbourne Town Hall, hosts Cal Wilson and Nelly Thomas discussed why this belief has been allowed to proliferate for so long. And so much of it comes down to being ballsy (pun not-intended). A survey commissioned by the festival found that men are more pushy at asking for gigs, while women are socially conditioned to be less forth-coming. Around the local club circuit, things can be ‘pretty bro-y’ as Sam Taunton puts it. When you’re gigging every night in small testosterone laden green rooms, it can be a little intimidating – so much so that Canadian comic Ievy Stamatov calls Melbourne ‘a Boys Club with A Capital B’. That’s partly why initiatives like Gaggle, a comedy school for women in Melbourne, have been set up, both to give women training in comedy, and help bolster confidence, too. Currently, the MICF programme comprises 25% women performers, but as Nelly Thomas puts it ‘I do think the festival want it to change. They are doing their best.’
Ariane Sherine argues that we need to do all we can to encourage more women to get into comedy. It really does start at the ground level – even if it’s just shouting about the best comics we’ve seen – who just happen to also happen to be women. Because unfortunately the world is still rife with people spreading the women-aren’t-funny-myth. Just last week at town hall, the hub of the comedy festival, I met flyer-er Tess Nossal who was reeling after she tried to hand a man some flyers and he refused to take them, saying ‘No, I don’t want those ones. Women aren’t funny.’
Clearly, it’s time we threw some rotten tomatoes at this bogus belief… or at least gave it a jolly good heckle. So, permission-to-positively-discriminate-tenuously-established, here’s a list of my favourite shows I’ve seen so far at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. If you like them too, please share this/spread the word so they can sell out on the final weekend. Some of them you’ll have to wait ’til their Edinburgh shows for, others you can still catch if you’re quick…
Dope, Mae Martin – A brilliant and thought-provoking hour, brimming with hilarious observations about dopamine rushes, addiction, and the fine line between passion and obsession. Mae uses exaggeration with aplomb to make her points, and throws out some jaw-droopingly funny imagery – from the vision as a worm at the window who is always late, to her ’not being properly cooked’ and waiting for the right moment to ask her mum if she can ‘get back in for a bit’. I was laughing and crying in recognition at least twice, which is my favourite thing to do at a comedy gig. ‘It’s nice not to be alone for once,’ Mae quipped early on, referring to the sign language interpreter she was sharing the stage with. ‘Plus he looks like he’s in the Kings of Leon’. Actually, this was one of the only shows I saw that had an interpreter on stage and it really added to the experience of the comedy. Especially the moment where she was describing a fantasy scene with Bette Midler um, going down on her. Seeing the Kings of Leon guy trying to act this out was truly hilarious.
Do you accept this Rose? Rose Callaghan. You’d be crazy not to accept the bawdy, hilarious and witty Rose Callaghan. Her set is all about reality show The Bachelor but my favourite things about it were her candid tales of sex, dating, and the case of the mistaken snapped banjo string, which comes with one of the best punchlines of the festival. Go see! A rose by any other name would just not be as funny. Rose has killed it this year, so much so they added another date for this Saturday.
Nannette, Hannah Gadsby – in what is possibly her swan-song to stand-up, Gadsby explores mental illness and gender oppression with a brutal honesty, and finds comedy in pain like no-one else. Everyone I know that has seen this has needed to take a moment afterwards – me, I cried for 90% of it, such was its powerfully confronting polemic. There is no one quite like her and the standing ovation was a given.
Mucho Relaxo, Cait Johnson – New to the scene and sharing the stage with Gearard McGeown, Johnson is wonderfully deadpan, dry, and just adorably nerdy. Brilliant observations about taking a Myki to the Moon, and looking like she cares about your rental agreement. Love her, one to watch.
Post-Joke Era, DeAnne Smith. Smith was the stand-out of stand-out at the Oxfam Gala for me (see my Chortle review, here if you wish) – but I happened to catch her again at the Comedy Up Late at the Festival Club, and she blew us all away with even more ridiculously funny material. This time about how she identifies not as a man or woman but as Gentleman Elf/Hot Harry Potter/TransMasculine House Mouse. She also killed it in The Great Debate at the Town Hall. At this point I can’t not briefly don my Comedy Promoter hat and mention that DeAnne is headlining at our LEMON comedy night on 9 May. So if you don’t catch her festival show, fear not! You can see her in Fitzroy’s Hares & Hyenas for just 15 bucks before she leaves on a jet plane back to Canada the next morn. Bargain!
Don’t Get Mad at Me, Eve Ellenbogen – Brilliant material about dating, women’s issues, and waxing – ‘I don’t take it all off – I’m a feminist – they check’. Her set is full of killer lines. One of which – about the survival of the human race – is so unexpected, and so witty, it knocks you for six. Her joke about her reproductive area being a walking museum from the pre-trump era – is nothing short of inspired. Her run has finished but she’s also appearing at the inaugural Lemon.
Lisa Treyger was my favourite out of all the USA Headliners panels. She had a great bit about what guys say after they’ve had sex. I can’t possibly try and describe it here, but basically she did an incredible diatribe about how men have been coming so much over the years that they have to find new places to put the stuff. Women, not so much. Brilliantly biting stuff, loved it.
Twins, Naomi Higgins – One of the youngest performers in the festival, but no less accomplished, I caught a bit of her set at the Festival Club, enough to make me want to see her two-hander with fellow RAW Comedy finalist Jess Perkins. She has excellent material about the over-proliferation of the term ‘I’m so OCD’, with excellent come-backs. Also, a brilliant bit about curing her mum’s alcoholism through the medium of a drinking game according to how many black people there are on Channel 7.
#BLISS! by Isabel Angus – a ‘razor-sharp’ satire of the fitness industry. This excellent character comedian ‘Perfect Penny’s Body Bliss’ is a taut and toned piss-take of the Instagram Fitspo selfie obsessed culture. She has her own lexicon of wanky terms and sarky aphorisms – from ‘coregasm’, ’Summer bodies are made in Winter’ and ’Tandasanasanasanasnasasana’. She brings boundless energy, excellent sound design and brilliantly low-fi visual aids to the mix. From the buckets full of crisps (sorry, chips), to the printed screenshots of her instagram feed, blown up to A3 and spiral bound, which all adds to the madness. Mad it certainly is, especially when we begin to hear Penny’s own dark inner monologue of self-loathing, which is what makes it such a powerful show. Despite the dark, serious take-out, by the end of the hour, my cheeks had quite a punishing work-out from laughing so hard. Angus also has one of the best viral campaigns in the festival, with her satirical Insta-Feed, and some great online videos which remind me a little of Ben’s Health from UK comedy channel Mr Box. I’d love to see them do a double act. Together they’d be the absolute dream team of Sporty Fitspo wanker parodies. If you can’t catch her in the next three days, Penny is also coming to do a work-out at LEMON.
Double Denim, Michelle Brasier & Laura Frew – I caught a glimpse of this kooky kickass vocal duo at the Tuxedo Cat’s Midnight Madness showcase. It was certainly that – an irreverent and bonkers display of musical comedy and dancing. The highlight of their set being the bit about being able to literally orgasm in the style of ‘Castles in the Cloud’ – um, you had to be there.
Burn the Witch – In her many different characters and voices, Bec Petraitis owned the stage at the Butterfly Club, along with Martin Dunlop, in this kooky play about witchcraft, set in ‘1650ish’, in the small village of Kankle Green. I really enjoyed this as a dramatic interlude to all the stand-up I’d been bingeing on… My favourite parts were the recurring funny meandering pieces of scrolling text; the post modern commentary on their costumes, and the funny cameo each night of different comedians as plants in the audience, answering a question about the Bechdel test before walking out. The court scene at the end was one of the strongest – especially the ‘meta’ part where the true polemic of the play is revealed – that this is all a metaphor about the pressure man puts on ‘people who are different’.
Shaken, Sarah Kendall. Oh Em Gee Sarah Kendall. The master and inventor of the ‘quadruple take,’ one hour with Kendall is like watching a one woman mini-play, told in a plethora of different voices, interlaced with brilliantly observed real-life observations. I was in stitches before she even started when she told the room they needed to strip off if they wanted to stay alive. ‘seriously, its so hot in here’ – ‘this is the world’s worst strip show’. Once we were all suitably less clad, Kendall then presented us with a perfectly formed 60 minute confessional. Less about jokes and anecdotes, more an extended story time, the highlight being the conception of the ‘octuple take’ – which you have to see to fully understand. This show has lines that stay with you long after the lights have come back on – from the memoir of her growing up as an overweight redhead in a small town, pressed up against the window pane of her youth, ‘Mother, why can’t I play under the fiery orb’, to the description of the policeman ‘typing sarcastically’ as he took down her ludicrous crime statement. On a personal note, I am so glad Kendall has moved on from flogging potatoes and found her true calling in life. I once cast her in a set of TV commercials for McCain/Film 4 in which she stole the show… but I’m thrilled to see she’s doing what she was really put on this Earth to do: leave a room full of strangers wide-eyed and gasping, having told them a hilarious story about growing up as a compulsive liar in small-town Australia, before flooring them with a shockingly stirring ending. Her perfectly paced dismount was both an homage to Ferris Bueller, and a testament to the milkshake of human kindness.
Cake in the Rain, Laura Davis – Describes herself as a bisexual, ‘or maybe just a lesbian with a strong stomach’. She is plain hilarious, an incandescent, witty joy to be around. I literally kept looking at my watch to see how much time we had left. 50 minutes of mad-arsed jokes on the ‘little glitches’ and ironies of the world – the way you need scissors to unwrap a new pack of scissors; the tins of spam in her corner shop, the little green men/women, and oh, the apocalypse. She also apologises for doing her first period joke – ‘that’s my first offence in ten years of comedy!” (that’s right boys – girls don’t just do period jokes!) then the last five minutes she suddenly hits you by opening the door ajar on her long-running mental illness, and you feel the room take a breath as she tackles compulsive suicide ideation from an offbeat angle and somehow manages to make us all feel uplifted and moved at the same time. Not surprisingly nominated for a Golden Gibbo, this was one of my favourite shows at the whole festival.
Sinkful of Forks, Jaqueline Mifsud – a regular on the Melbourne open mic circuit and star of The Loop sketch show, Mifsud has been diligently polishing her craft for the last year – at least more than her cutlery. Here’s one I wrote earlier for Chortle.
Upfront – This week was the 30th annual UpFront gala – an exuberant, sparkly celebration of the best comedians at the festival who just happen to be women. Showcasing a wide range of incredible comedians, from Penny Greenhalgh’s character comedy – starring an awkward, mal-co-ordinated ice-skater, which has the room in bits. I’ve also seen her do a mad French chef character, concocting an ice cream cone out of staples, foam, fairy liquid and a tiny piece of mattress which reminded me of Amy Schumer’s Sauced in all the good ways. My other favourites of the night were Nikki Britton’s brilliant bittersweet observations about life in your 30s, and shoulder-dancing in your 50’s. She also dropped the best last line in the show about how even cancer can’t find ‘it’. I also loved the candid and witty Cal Wilson who had some great, confronting material on having an only child – or ‘limited edition’ as she called it. The night was bookended by musical performances shocking and hilarious in equal measure – from Glittery Clittery to Shirley Gnome. The former opened the night with a sparkly, ludicrous number ‘Change it Up’ that had you laughing your head off then grabbed you by the neck with a harrowing message about domestic abuse. Powerful, sassy and brilliant. The night ended with an upliftingly unhinged rendition of ‘I will always love you’ by Gnome who has the voice of an Angel one minute, and the voice of a devil with acute bronchitis the next. She had the audience howling in laughter and shock as both her sanity and clothing unravelled before our eyes. A perfectly mad ending to a wonderful night.
Forgive me but I’m going go crazy now by mentioning a non-woman. It’s not just that I thought it would be fair to throw a token white male in the mix, in the spirit of political correctness gone mad but, Yianni Agisilaou talks a lot in his show about the problem of women not being considered funny, whilst also tackling the hypocrisies of gender stereotypes in a fresh and funny way. Yes, its contradictory to the cause, but they say comedy is all about reversal so with that I’m recommending Yianni Agisilaou’s The Unpinchable Pink Pen which packs a funny, feminist sixty minute punch. Although if you’re going to catch him at Edinburgh you’ll find it filed under ‘Pockets of Equality’.
I’ll end by mentioning another sassy female comic who I’ve caught a couple of times but am looking forward to her appearance in the Bengalaru showcase tonight – Neeti Palta. She has some sharp, surprising, occasionally crude material about racism, arranged marriages and soap. On the morning of the MICF opening she told me her advice to any female comedians starting out: Women have to ‘get better at faking it’ – faking their confidence, that is, until it’s real. ‘If you’re funny and you have something important to say – work on a sense of humour, and the thickness of your skin. Not the colour of your skin, but the thickness.’
Melbourne International Comedy Festival is on for another three nights, and there are 556 brilliant acts to check out – 103 of them by people who happen to be women. Start here.
Lorelei Mathias is a comedy writer, producer and sometime reviewer for Chortle.co.uk. She is also co-founder of LEMON Comedy: A new stand-up showcase that aims to amplify diverse voices in comedy. Follow @lemoncomedy on Twitter & FB @LemonComedy and see the full line up here.