Comedy Too

Comedy research, diversity, Gender, Reclaiming spaces



So it’s happening. Just as with the wider entertainment industries before them, stand-up comedy is having another moment of reckoning with itself in relation to abuses of power. We can look back to the impact of the Louis CK affair for a template here – CK admitted to masturbating in front of non-consenting women comics. The incident highlighted both how, depressingly, other comics defended his behaviour, and how quickly the US comedy industry welcomed him back to the stage (despite the justified disgust of women in the industry).

This particular moment has been provoked by a combination of things. The reporting of comic and actor Chis D’elia’s behaviour with underaged fans and the resurfacing of footage from The Joe Rogan Experience podcast (from 2011), in which Joey Diaz talks about forcing women comics to give him blow-jobs in exchange for assistance furthering their careers (referring to this practice as ‘the fucking gateway to Hollywood’). The mind-blowing ease with which Diaz wheels out this story and the other male guests (including Rogan, the host) laugh along with each other is genuinely disturbing. As a result of the press attention (and the sharing of this footage via Twitter), the US (where the two examples above originate), UK and Irish comedy scenes are coming under scrutiny. What is of course disconcerting is that so few people (mostly women) working in this industry are surprised…. And those people that are surprised need to really think about why this is.

Women have come forward via social media with tales of abuses of power and the numerous ways in which people have exploited and disadvantaged them and their careers. As someone who isn’t a comic, but has spent the last 7 years researching the UK comedy circuit and its inclusion (and marginalisation) of women, I just thought I’d lay out a few of the key things I observed as part of my study. I believe the points below highlight how the live comedy industry often creates a perfect environment for these abuses to occur.

1) The comic environment and ‘just-joking defence’:

Comedy is a place where taboos can be explored and norms subverted…. But it is also an art form that has a loooong ol’ history with gender/ racial/ homophobic and ableist stereotypes. Your ability as a performer (a freelancer) to make and sustain working relationships is key for being successful in this setting (‘who you know’ etc) – and this has meant that for a number of women trying to make a career in comedy, simply putting up with a lot of bullshit (that’s the academic term) has become the norm. In society more widely, we see in many instances of abuse or sexism (and racism) the classic ‘just joking’ rhetorical defence is provided for inappropriate behaviour or language. So, when someone (say another comic or a promoter) crosses a line it’s easy for the abused party to become the issue (they ‘don’t have a sense of humour’, they are ‘over-reacting’). The joking around in a comedy context means inappropriateness can be snuck in easily and be really hard for someone to pin down as inappropriate. And the issue here is that to have a sense of humour in the comedy industry is LITERALLY a stand-up’s job, so it becomes about their professionalism really quickly. Opportunities for lines to be crossed or professional boundaries breached is, in many ways, baked into the context of live comic performance.


2) Lone working:

Up until relatively recently, women, when they were included in stand-up line-ups, worked alone. When I started my research project back in 2013 this came up all the time and is a key theme of my findings. It was felt that more than one woman was unnecessary as the box had been ticked – the quota of femaleness reached. This lone working for women comics is changing (indeed it has changed since my research began) but the issue with working alone is two-fold here in the way it relates to abuse of power. Firstly, it creates and upholds a power discrepancy – the woman is placed in the position of representing all women and therefore othered (by audiences and other comics on- and off-stage). The need to assimilate into a male dominated workplace is already a challenge, so those working in these environments already have to work harder to fit in / get on. Secondly in terms of maintaining a toxic working environment, divide and conquer is a textbook tactic. How are women supposed to know what is happening if they never get to work along-side each other? It’s the ideal space for gaslighting and making women doubt their experiences and blame themselves when things go wrong. Who do you turn to in moments where abuses of power are occurring? Do you appeal to the other men in the space to step in and acknowledge the inappropriateness of the behaviour – you’ll be waiting a while (watch the clip again – observe the affiliative laughter at the blowjob story). That’s the kicker here – in order for this to change it needs men in positions of power to step the fuck up. It is not up to the oppressed or victimised parties in cases of abuse to make the change, or to put in the additional work to make the things better. This is an argument clearly relevant to the dismanteling of structural racism too, and of course it is important to note that black women and women of colour face additional challenges in these spaces.

There is hope. Women-led organisations and nights are pushing forward in reaction to the points I articulate above (The UK Women in Comedy Festival, Funny Women are providing specific spaces for women comics, and nights such as Kiri Pritchard-McLean’s Suspiciously Cheap Comedy and Sophie Duker’s Wacky Racistsare trying to establish new and more inclusive environments where this shit would not fly). The recent establishment of the Live Comedy Association provides a newly established framework for collective action on matters such as this.

With the current pandemic causing a huge amount of problems for the performance industry (and with specific issues for comedy) an opportunity exists to develop a more inclusive circuit when live performance returns. Perhaps choosing to leave the sexism and abuse behind would be a good idea – the best start to that process would be to listen to what women are saying.

Mixed Bill is GO!

Comedy research, feminisms, MixedBill, Reclaiming spaces, Symposium


twitter logo MB


Earlier this year, around a kitchen table, two other amazing women and myself established Mixed Bill, a comedy and gender research network. Sara Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life (2017) writes evocatively on the significance of tables for feminist work (gaining a place at the table, turning tables, family disagreements at the dinner table) and her work continues to inspire me to create my own opportunities to progress the feminist agenda of my work. In this instance with a (to use Ahmed’s term) ‘fragile’ feminist network external to any one institution.

I had been thinking about producing an engagement event in relation to my research for a while and couldn’t think of two better partners in crime than Lisa Moore of the University of Salford and Kate Fox, stand-up poet and PhD candidate at Leeds University. Together we are a pretty formidable team and our research areas and interests fit very nicely alongside each other.  The event we have been planning is shaping up to be the mother of all symposia. It has been quite tricky to plan due to the quality and range of abstracts we received – we had to make some ruthless decisions as every single abstract outlined a paper that we would have loved to have seen.

Last week we sat down and thrashed it out and have programmed an event that feels in many ways quite revolutionary. We aren’t running concurrent papers so everyone’s voice can be heard by all attendees. There is nothing more frustrating than having to pick between attending one presentation when another, just as relevant, is taking place down the hall – although maybe being the presenter of a paper to a split audience is a contender for the crown? The opportunity for those researching gender and comedy, a growing field, to engage and be challenged by so many different approaches that speak directly to their area is exciting too – as often gender and comedy is ring-fenced in a panel of its own within larger discussions of comedy (those researching gender and comedy often find themselves thrown together irrespective of the way their paper may be a better fit with, say, panels on political satire or musical comedy). As the fundamental premise of our event is women and comedy and the opportunities women have to represent themselves through comedy, the programmed panels give a chance to address this from multiple perspectives, with multiple examples from different countries, eras and approaches.

Our event will also include several non-traditional presentations/ performances and interventions into the area to give attendees the chance to engage with (and learn from) the ideas and opinions of those who work within comedy and performance. We are pushing very hard to ensure our event is inclusive to all and are discussing various approaches we can take to try to impact on the diversity of our field. We all feel strongly that we have to go beyond just saying we want to be diverse in our programming and attendance make-up to find active and practical ways of addressing this.

It is very exciting to be setting off on this new adventure with Mixed Bill, as producing events and inspiring engagement as part of a team is where I think I work best. Between us we have lots of ideas about where to explore next and I also can’t wait to meet all the amazing people who will be joining us at the start of this exciting new phase for gender and comedy research in October.


More on Mixed Bill and our first event here.




Advertising, feminisms, Gender, Reclaiming spaces

I’m not sure where to start with this one. It is something that I have seen a few times and always prickled at but I think I have finally worked out what my issue is and I am going to attempt to articulate it here…it is not really research related and it will 100% come across as a rant so this is your chance to get out now – you’ve been warned.

What the hell is this???!!??

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Statements such as this are prolific Facebook memes and go, in my opinion, far beyond faulty logic and venture into the somewhat offensive woodland beyond. *I am willing to accept that this may be particularly frustrating for me due to the context in which I encounter these messages (mostly amongst Facebook and Google’s ham-fisted brainwashing attempts to get me to get my head down and conform, that involves changing all online adverts to ones for Clear Blue Pregnancy tests – subtle). I see these images as just another extension of cultural reinforcement of outdated notions of women’s roles. It’s a good day to air this frustration thanks to the ongoing issues  the Tory leadership contest has thrown up.

The similarity between this and the ‘Facebook mothership challenge’ nonsense (more here) which has already been covered in detail, cannot be ignored. I’ve worked out my problem with this one specifically….

I take issue with the idea that giving your mother a grandchild is somehow a reflection of how good they are as a parent – err word up guys its not!

I’d counter the claim within the meme, by arguing that the best parents will love their children irrespective of their willingness (or ability) to procreate. Statements like the one contained in the meme not only shackles a woman’s decision to have kids to her own self-worth (which is a long standing issue – for our society to be a woman you simply must want children) but it also implies that it is a reflection on the parenting that a woman experienced herself. Again if we are getting into a debate about quality parenting I’m pretty sure making your daughter aware of her reproductive rights and ensuring she has the ability to make her own choices is pretty high up the list.

This link between an individual woman’s decision in relation to procreation and the idea that they must have had some terrible experience to make that decision is offensive and reinforced everywhere.

I feel like popping on a pair of sunglasses like the ones in John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live and revealing the truth.




It is part of what could be considered the ultimate guilt trip for women. I say women because there is not the same level of pressure placed upon males of a similar age and the male identity, under western capitalism, is not entwined with fatherhood in the same way.  Those deviating from the path of motherhood are often considered by society to be oddballs doomed to be repeatedly told what good mothers they would have been(see Kate Fox’s work on otherhood)

I’ll never forget the look of sheer confusion and bafflement on a male colleague’s face (years ago) when, upon enquiring if I wanted children, I told him I wasn’t going to answer that question because I didn’t think it had any bearing on me as a person. I believe my first response (before having to qualify it due to his inability to understand) was ‘nope don’t answer that, not relevant, next question’. He just couldn’t compute that I might not want to talk about this topic with someone I didn’t know and worked with. Worked with is the key thing here – we know that there continues to be discrimination in the workplace against women of a certain age who may become a liability to a company by going off on mat leave (see this here from The Guardian in 2015). So why, even if I had the sudden urge to discuss my reproductive abilities with a virtual stranger, would I make myself more vulnerable to workplace discrimination?

Yes some women are mothers, some women aren’t can we just get on board with that concept now. And can we stop pitting women with kids against those without them like this awful patronising piece of rubbish (here) from Kate Spicer in 2013 who uses the term ‘motherhood deniers’ and says she thinks that every woman who says she is happy without children must be lying! Wow for a writer she has a very small imagination, I don’t find it hard at all to think that within the 51% of people in the U.K that identify as women that there might be some that are happy without children. Just think if we freed up all the time we spend competing against other women, or beating ourselves up for our perceived failings, what we could achieve in terms of parity with men.

Today’s news only compounds this issue – why in 2016 are we not questioning why it is still ok for journalists to ask women ‘do you feel like a mum in politics?’ – this is just as problematic as Andrea Leadsom’s reply! (Again Kate Fox’s blog today is an excellent read)

I have plenty of friends with kids and I respect their decision to start families and vitally they respect my decisions too. They don’t see my current childlessness as a comment on their life choices and nor should they. So can we all just take a moment to consider what messages things like these memes sends out to women and respect everyone’s decisions – whether they match our own or not.


Space – The Final Frontier

Reclaiming spaces, Suffragettes


This weekend I went along to the launch of the book Suffragette Legacy: How Does the History of Feminism Inspire Current Thinking in Manchester (Mørk-Røstvik and Sutherland 2015) at The People’s History Museum. It was an opportunity to see some of the contributors to this wide ranging consideration of Manchester’s feminist credentials, which included academics, artists and activists, talk about their work.

I was particularly interested to hear about the work of Helen Davies and Jenny White of Warp and Weft who made use of their craft skills to highlight the lack of female statues in Manchester City Centre with their project Stature. These inspiring craftivists crocheted a series of masks of women from Manchester’s history (including the author Elizabeth Gaskell pictured), which they placed over several of the male bronzes and statues in Manchester’s town hall.


Crochet mask of Elizabeth Gaskell from Warp and Weft

The project drew attention to the lack of representation of the achievements of women in the city and has successfully provoked a response (a step in the right direction) from local councillors, who have committed to creating a statue capturing Manchester women’s achievements ready for International Women’s Day 2019.

This approach reminded me of the way on opening night The Women in Comedy Festival team had stuck a variety of images of female comedians to the walls of The Frog and Bucket. The venue was supportive of this move, and the festival in general. However, these walls are usually adorned with portraits of comedians who have earned their stripes on the stage at the venue – not one woman amongst them, even though The Frog and Bucket has been home to regular women-only line-ups, Laughing Cows, for a significant period of time.


The walls of the Frog and Bucket Manchester ready for opening night of Women in Comedy Festival 2015

This is of interest to me as part of my research will touch on the way that the physical performance space for live comedy has shifted from a male specific space (working men’s clubs) to dedicated spaces which are allegedly accessible to all (although are often not accessible in terms of access for disabled performers or audience members as explored in the recent work of Dr Sharon Lockyer). Even though women may now be in the audience and also perform on the stage, the images we see of achievement in comedy remain predominantly male and this normalises the idea of comedy as a male arena.

Additionally this week a public discussion of sexism broke out on an academic mailing list I subscribe to. A female user had put forward the idea that women were being responded to more negatively than their male counterparts when making similar requests (help finding examples, locating references etc.). The word sexism was not used at this initial stage but the argument was made that female users were responded to in a patronising and dismissive tone, whereas males asking almost identical questions would be responded to more considerately. Immediately this suggestion was responded to in a patronising and belittling way (ironically and unwittingly proving the initial point). In and amongst the 50 or so emails that ensued were several comments along the lines of ‘don’t we all have better things to do than argue about this’.

This mailing list is subscribed to by 2,500 people and although the key protagonists were limited to a core group everyone could see their arguments. How many women observing this in their inboxes (as I was) were put off ever posting in this space for fear of similar criticism??

It was incredibly depressing to witness established male academics dismiss this point or fail to take the comment in the way it was meant – as a reminder that we should be cautious when responding by email to anyone and that as women working in a patriarchal environment (which overwhelmingly academia continues to be see here) we are sensitive to this in a way male colleagues may not fully appreciate. In the U.K women are still paid less than men in academia and there are significantly fewer female professors. This virtual space is supposed to be an inclusive one but it does not exist a vacuum we all bring our previous experiences to the way we read and respond to others.

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Tweet from the European Research Council 6/11/15

After a while the argument died down with apologies from those who fell into the trap of responding in the heat of the moment with dismissive or rude statements, and the proposal to get together as a collective and discuss these issues was put forward. So progress possibly??… But I found the comments that fell into the ‘we all have other more important things to do with our time’ particularly infuriating. These issues should be discussed and considered publicly. It is important because it feeds into and feeds off the way women are treated in the real world (see Everyday Sexism for a myriad of examples). The face of success, especially in academia, is still that of the (white) male. If spaces are not inclusive to women or reinforce notions of gender difference then it will take longer to create a more equal image of what it means to be successful.

So overall this week provided an excellent reminder as to what the spaces we inhabit, both physically and virtually, say to us about what we, as women, can achieve.