Write Place/Write Time

Comedians, Comedy research, Teaching

A few weeks ago I was invited to host a table discussion on stand-up comedy at York Literature Festival. It was at late notice but no-one had dropped out or been injured so I gladly accepted. I also ensured it was crystal clear that I was a comedy researcher, not a comedian, to make sure it didn’t turn into a stress dream I’ve had – where that mistake has been made and I’m instructed to do a ‘tight five’ rather than discuss my research.

One of the major draws was the fact that it was back at York St John University (the artist formerly known as York St John College), which I attended as an undergraduate. The chance to swan about the campus I’d left ten years earlier made it an easy decision. Three comedians (also with YSJ connections) performed their material and then post-interval I chaired the discussion about their work, and due to it being a literature festival, their writing.


On the night it was illuminating to see how different everyone’s writing approach was. A significant part of my research has been interviewing stand-up comics and promoters but most of the conversations have centred on the performative aspects of comedy rather than the writing side of things.  For the Q&A (or “table discussion” which sounds odd as there was clearly no table… see the above table-less image)  I had to make a conscious effort to bring it round to the writing side of things and ask questions that, even though I suspected the answers, might be of interest to the literary audience. In several instances I had to play devil’s advocate (an all round emphatic and predictable group “no” to the question “Can you tell from the page what will work in the performance?” provides an example here).

Overall it was a really enjoyable experience, a chance to see a diverse range of approaches and to discuss the process of page to stage. Talking to the comics Richard Massara, Geneva Rust-Orta and Seb Bloomfield about their work got me thinking about how I would respond if anyone ever asked me how I write (without simply shrugging or making the comment “solely by the grace of spellcheck go I”).

Their ability to talk eloquently about how they do what they do made me think about how I would cope if a poor-man’s Kirsty Walk was asking me the questions, rather than the other way round (not as well as they did I suspect). This event just happened to fall in the week when I was both giving tutorials to a group of students on writing their assignments and also marking the work of 35 other students (a loooong week).

I can pretty much boil my hintz and tipz (the z’s disguise the tedium of the following list) down to the following. These were the best tips people have given me over the years and thank the lord they did because they are gold.


  1. Break it down: Often students flip out over the word count – ‘How will I write 1,000/2,000/4,000 words on X or Y?’. The answer here is really that you need to think about writing a smaller amount of words on sub points or chapters that answer the overall question. A blank piece of paper is terrifying so start with a good old fashioned list of things you’ll cover and go from there. When these smaller points are put together, they build up to the word count. This is the only way I can conceive of writing the 80,000-100,000 word thesis I’ll be cracking out for my Ph.D. When looking at the question think the following; How can I break this down? What are the points I need to cover to answer this question? Then make a list of the points you want to make and allocate a word count to each section – then kill them off one by one like a sniper.
  2. Read it out: I am a product of my time. Without technology and the advent of spellcheck there is just no way I would have any of my current qualifications. However spellcheck is both friend and foe. Autocorrect often swoops on in there to deal with a badly spelt word, replacing it with a completely different word. Not just the their/there/they’re conundrum but a whole host of other words are waiting out there to be messed with by spellcheck’s warped sense of humour  – my greatest ‘frienemy’ (it didn’t like that at all). The only way to catch these ‘wrong words’, to check it flows AND (crucially) that it makes sense is to READ IT OUT LOUD. Yes you will sound cray cray but it is worth it.
  3. Put down the breadcrumbs: One of the things that seems to stump people between A-Level and undergraduate level is referencing. They’ve not done it before and it seems super intimidating. Eventually we all get used to it and reference on autopilot but by far the best approach, even when you have cracked it, is to reference as you go along. Referencing not only ensures you aren’t plagiarising other people’s work, but it also means that your readers (and your marker) can follow the trail of academic breadcrumbs back to where these ideas originate – from the witch’s gingerbread house of your essay, back via the breadcrumbs to the woodcutters cottage where the original ideas live. (In this metaphor there are no birds following behind you eating said breadcrumbs – for the Hansle and Gretle purists out there). If you leave referencing until the end it is a huge pain and much harder to get right than if you do it incrementally whilst you go along.

I am not an expert on writing and I don’t find writing easy AT ALL but these tips are what I swear by and if they also help someone else out then great. Now I just need to follow them and crack on with writing my research up.

Pens down.




A Sorry State of Affairs

Comedy research, Gender, self-deprecation, Teaching


I’ve been so busy but I have finally managed to find some time to draft a response to a comedy conference’s call for papers. I’ve decided that I’ll focus on self-deprecation, a topic I’m exploring as part of my research and something that really winds me up. (fingers crossed it gets accepted)

As a general rule I find it very difficult to listen to people being negative about themselves, not just in terms of comic performance but in my day to day interactions with people too. I think the amazing comedian Kristen Schaal sums this habit up best and funniest….


Hearing people talk negatively about themselves, be it because of their weight, their appearance or some perceived flaw they think they have, makes me feel that I should be apologising for that fault as well, as I too deviate from the current idealised version of a woman. I don’t like being made to feel like I’m being invited to collude in that negative thinking and I certainly don’t want to reinforce how you feel about yourself, firstly because I don’t think it’s a true reflection of your worth as a human being (we are all our own harshest critics), and secondly because I don’t like the way it makes me feel like I should be ashamed of aspects of myself either. I like myself just fine thanks very much.

Unfortunately self-deprecation in day to day life is a slippery thing to pin down. I do my absolute best not to put myself down or engage in negative chat about myself. However, women have historically used self-deprecation to appease those who struggle with the idea of women with power – power over their own bodies, power in the world of work or power over their own opinions. By lowering our own status in this way, we have been acquiescing to the needs of others (and others’ egos) and somehow softening the challenge to another’s sense of self. Why would we ever want to come across as less than our best selves? Unfortunately it’s so ingrained in our culture that we do it without thinking, as just a way we communicate about ourselves to others. This is obviously then reinforced and emphasised by the critique of women in the mainstream media and god-awful women’s magazines.

So having said all this I have noticed that it is a really really hard habit to break and is not at all straightforward. I’ll give an example  – my new year’s resolution this year was to apologise less. Sounds odd right, but my constant need to apologise was getting out of hand. The number of emails I send that start with the sentence ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘I know you must be busy but’ is OFF THE CHART.

I seem to fall into the ‘sorry’ trap in correspondence more so than in person and also when I am really busy and don’t have chance to check myself (I have sent at least 2 emails this week which I wish I could recall and delete the numerous apologies therein). I think in the real world I can hear myself about to say the words and pull myself back from the edge just in time. Plus in-person there’s more room for nuance and context than in stone cold black and white text. By apologising I’m not really self-deprecating in the same way, I’m not saying there is a flaw in me, but I am creating the idea that someone else’s time or feelings about something should take precedent over mine. Somehow I am in the wrong for asking for their help or requiring attention. I draw your attention to the interesting work of comedian, writer and director of the Bath Literature Festival  Viv Groksop in an article she penned for the Guardian last year about women and the word sorry (here).

Last year I wrote the following in an email to my PhD supervisors. I sent them through my RF2 report (a major/ stressful part of the process of submitting my work) to get their feedback in advance of the assessment. When one mentioned she was printing it out, as not to read it from the screen, I responded with a textbook

“Yeah it is a bit of an epic, sorry”

ARRRGGHHHH. This was in regard to a piece of work I had worked my absolute hardest on – seriously why would I do that?

Luckily for me another one of my supervisors immediately shot back with

‘never apologise for hard work’

They called me out on it and rightly so. When I am finished there are going to be plenty of people that’ll want to tear that work down (haters gonna hate) and I should be proud of the good work I do – not apologise to people for having to read it. Be self-critical sure, reflect on what it is you are doing, but self-deprecation is not helpful to anyone. I am going to do my absolute best to not only stop ‘sorry-ing’ all over the shop but also to check others too. I have so far achieved this once this week when one of my students started an email with ‘Sorry it’s probably a dumb question’ to which I responded ‘Don’t apologise and don’t feel bad for asking questions – it’s how we all learn stuff’.

Elton got it wrong – annoyingly sorry seems to be the easiest word.





That’s what I’m talking about! (AKA Aisling Bea Take a Bow)

Comedians, Comedy research, Gender

I spend a lot of time talking about comedy panel shows. I’ll be giving a lecture on them in a few weeks time to my very lucky second year students. Part of my research has been to discuss this very topic (amongst other things) with stand-up comedians and comedy audiences to understand the role these programmes play in the wider U.K comedy industry.

There has been huge amount of media coverage about lack of diversity on panel shows in the wake of the BBC’s announcement in 2014 that it would include more women in its comedy programming (see here). This came about because the BBC Trust identified that the comedy output (especially panel shows) were overwhelmingly male. There are obvious failings on many levels of diversity in lots of aspects of public life, but in this instance the BBC were focused on lack of gender parity, and the (then) Director of Television Danny Cohen pledged publicly to put an end to all-male panel shows (in an interview with The Observer, see here). This announcement garnered a significant level of attention in the media with even Newsnight covering it (with Paxman patronisingly referring to the assembled panel of commentators on the subject as ‘testicle free’).

Often some of the sticking points in my conversations with interviewees is what exactly will be different if we include more women in these formats. Will the comedy change? (the idea that female comedians make jokes solely for women still casts its long shadow over any discussions of this nature) How will these formats accommodate women? Will any woman do, or does the fact they are a comedian make a difference? I feel very strongly about the latter as do many people I speak to – having female comics on the panel shows means that they have the SKILLS to be as funny as the male comedians who are team captains or recurring panellists – add in a female actor, newsreader, journalist etc. and it’s very unlikely they will be hilarious (because their talents are elsewhere), reinforcing the ‘men are funnier than women’ stereotype by default. This is also unnecessary as there are loads of female comics that would be awesome on panel shows (see the megalist of people I’ve seen recently).

But now in 2016 and we might actually be starting to see the outcome of this new policy introduced back in 2014. Insert Name Here, a new BBC2 panel show, has a female host, Sue Perkins (sans Mel) and is clearly making a concerted effort to be more inclusive (although as always these things take time). The show that aired on Monday 25th Jan (at 10pm on BBC2) contained within it something that had me punching the air… Aisling Bea please take a bow!

When marriage was flippantly referred to as the best day of a woman’s life (in this case the life of J.K Rowling) Bea swooped in immediately to call ‘Bullshit!’. (18mins in to the episode which will be found here for a little bit whilst it’s still on iPlayer). Her take down of this was not only funny but made the point that this is exactly the kind of old school patriarchal stuff we don’t even spot any more. Her comment, delivered with an incredulous tone – ‘can I just pick bones with ‘the greatest day for a woman, the day you can legally give yourself over to a man?’ – exposed the way that a lot of comedy plays in to and reinforces traditional norms, especially gendered expectations of people.

She then stuck her tongue out at THE MAN. I actually whooped out loud.

So this is it guys, this is what I mean when I say a diversified outlook on life. No the formats don’t have to change, women are more than capable of being just as aggressive or forthcoming as men on panel shows, and no it doesn’t mean it’ll be less funny – what it means is that alternative viewpoints about life will be considered and broadcast. It will impact positively because the humour will be diversified and more reflective of the diversity of our population (ideally longer term in all aspects of diversity – ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age also). Outdated ideas will be challenged – challenged through comedy, rather than reinforced through comedy – which is so often the default setting for panel shows.

If you ever get chance to see Aisling live, do it.



Take Note(s)

Comedy research, Teaching, Volunteering


In 2009 I managed to successfully apply for a Media Art and Design Scholarship at the University of Westminster to get on the part-time evening-only course for MA Film and TV: Theory, Culture and Industry. Without a scholarship that opportunity to have my horizons expanded and to find what I love would not have been an option for me. I completed a BA by taking out a (now comparatively small) student loan (which, like most of my generation, I am still paying off). I am reminded again of how lucky I was in the week Gideon ‘George’ Osbourne’s autumn statement reasserts the governments relentless attempts to disenfranchise and alienate our young people (see here).

A few weeks ago I participated Arts Emergency (AE) mentor training in the hope that interventions such as theirs can prevent talented young people missing out because of their economic limitations. By partnering young people up with mentors from arts and humanities areas, AE’s amazing initiative The Alternative Old Boys Network tries to redress the balance. The aim is to ensure the creative industries reflect the diversity of our society, and is not only populated by people who can afford to take a gamble on a creative career path.

I’ve been asked a few times since attending this training why, when I am really busy, did I volunteer. The answer is simply because I think its important and if I can use the education that I have been given to help others, then great. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to mentor for AE in future and it was great to meet so many others at training who felt the same. Our government is made up of people who accessed free university education and then used that education to take it away from future generations, it’s an absolute scandal.

I think the legend of Jessica Hynes (who, ever since I first saw Spaced as a teenager I have admired  – even before she proved herself an amazing human being by becoming an Arts Emergency patron and giving the best BAFTA speech I’ve ever heard) sums it up best…

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 20.43.31

Without that scholarship to study a subject I felt passionate about there is no question: I wouldn’t be here now doing what I love and studying for my PhD.

This has been on my mind this week because I have been given the opportunity to teach a second year module in TV Comedy and Drama next year at SHU and I cannot wait. As the module has changed from a solely British focus to an international one, I have been allowed the licence to adapt the module content to include a wider range of examples … and also to give me a chance to apply some of my own research interests (Comedy, Feminism, Identity) to teaching. Excited!!

I’m making my way through the existing handbook, adding in new reading, changing up the lectures and planning what I’m going to screen.


Choices choices

I’ve also gone back through the notes I took when I was doing a TV Comedy module for my MA.

That module was such an eye opener, not just in the way it was taught in such an engaging way (by Ian Green, a person who, in my experience, anyone who has completed the MA Film and TV at Uni of Westminster over the last few decades will happily sing the praises of, myself now included), but also in the way it forced me to question everything I thought I knew about comedy. The three little words, incongruity, superiority and relief were brought to my attention and that as they say, was that. Game over everybody, I’ve found my thing now.

The notes I made during those lectures are absolute gold dust now for planning this module. Including this mega list of words…


I can remember this session really well: I see it written up on the whiteboard (in a room off Regent Street that was actually for people training to be translators and so had weird-looking microphones at every desk).

Like reading a childhood diary I can see in those notes exactly where ideas and concepts that I think about daily and now take for granted were introduced to me. As I watched Ian dash about with a whiteboard marker during that term I never thought I’d ever be up there teaching TV Comedy and Drama. Without that scholarship I wouldn’t be.




So what’s your research area?

Comedy research

On average I get asked this question about once a week and every time I struggle to find the words to briefly outline what it is I am doing. I’m now two years in as part-time student and so now’s the time to really pin this stuff down.

Comedy/Feminism/Post-feminism/Gender/Marginalisation all pop up time and time again and often I can see I’ve lost the enquirer completely or they panic and tell me they ‘really like Sarah Millican’.

I went to an excellent Feminist Research Methodologies conference yesterday at Sheffield Hallam University (my home institution), which talked through some of the challenges facing feminist researchers. I  spent a lot of the day meeting new researchers and discussing the basics of my research area, and Jessica Ringrose’s emoji-embracing keynote inspired me to finally start blogging about my work.

As you have to start somewhere with a blog I thought I’d challenge myself to articulate what I am researching…..

(NOTE: But first what I’m not doing. This is NOT a research project investigating the ‘are women funny’ debate. My research takes this as a given, women are evidently funny.)

  • My research seeks to analyse the current state of the British stand-up comedy industry in relation to the increasing inclusion of female and feminist comedians. My argument is that in all aspects of our current society the voices and experiences of women are marginalised and I am researching how this is reflected within the U.K comedy circuit.
  • I am interviewing female (and those who identify as female) comedians and promoters currently working on the live circuit  to better understand their experiences. Do the individuals I am speaking to have experiences in common and how, when their identity is intertwined with ethnicity, sexuality, age (and other points of difference from the most powerful members of society – white, educated, males), do their experiences differ?
  • I am using a mixed-methods research approach, to gather information about the motivations and attitudes of audiences for women-only comedy nights/ festivals. Why do audiences go to women-only comedy line-ups? Do they think they are getting something there that they wouldn’t get from a mixed-gendered comedy line-up? This is to attempt to understand the impact of women-specific comedy organisations on the circuit.
  • I’ll also be looking at the work of specific female comedians in order to make arguments about the existence of both feminist and post-feminist comedy being evident on the current live circuit. The reason for including this is to look at the content of performances that are situated within the context I am researching (the current U.K live circuit).

Feminist research is inherently political, it seeks to forward the cause of equality. Comedy is an area that has been under-explored in terms of research into female experience and this is something I’d like to address through my work. To sum up then people still regularly say ‘women aren’t funny’ and for me that is only one dangerous step away from more problematic concepts about what women are capable of. We can do and be anything, we are equal.

It may seem crazy to focus on comedy when there are many overwhelming barriers facing the fight for equality in the U.K (appalling rape conviction statistics, lack or equal pay for equal work, the tampon tax). However, as comedy helps to maintain the status quo, by propping up what is considered ‘the norm’ and making other alternative structures or approaches seem laughable, for me its as good a place as any to start.