The new face of funny is women

Sarah Millican has just been selected to perform at the forthcoming Royal Variety Performance, which is much cause for celebration here in the Funny Women office. Sarah was runner up in the 2005 Funny Women Awards and ranks as one of our most successful entrants ever. To give you some idea of scale here, this year’s competition (now in its 8th year) attracted a record breaking 350 plus entries so we are rightly proud of any of the acts who go on to fame and fortune.

The new face of funny is definitely female so we’re also a little bit sad that Sarah is on record as saying that she doesn’t want to be judged as a female comic. Whilst I understand this to a degree, the ratio of women working on the comedy circuit remains woefully low – 1 in 10, maybe 2 in 10 at best, or still none at all if the weekly comedy listings pages of national and regional newspapers are to be believed. We need our champions for female comedy.

Sarah is one of the champions – her name was recently carried across London on sides of buses along with Jack Whitehall, Ben Elton, Johnny Vegas and Russell Kane – she was the only woman featured on this advertising for blokey television channel Dave’s One Night Stand series. This sort of promotion breeds instant recognition so Sarah will inevitably be badged as a ‘female comic’ and should be proud of this.

It’s five years since I first saw Sarah on stage in Manchester during the Funny Women Awards. I often refer to my ‘goose bump’ moment when I see an act that is really special and this was one of them. We couldn’t believe that this nice, ordinary looking, young woman could hold an audience so spellbound with her soft Geordie accent, her tales of female angst about inappropriate underwear choices and life after divorce.

The 2005 title went to Deborah Jane Appelby, who beat Sarah by a nano-point. As with a lot of competitions it is quite often the runner up who does better than the winner and Sarah more than proves this theory.
Plus she has outwitted the sisterhood and gone on to ‘win’ in her own right by being hugely successful – so I don’t understand why she wouldn’t want to celebrate this as a woman in what remains very much a man’s world.

This is such a hard business for women and, whilst I am open to promoting women of all races, sexuality, age and ability through the Awards, sometimes my patience is sorely tried – not just by female acts who want to airbrush out their gender, but also by the insouciance of the women’s media who rarely cover female comedy. Just what is it that the magazines are resistant to? There are articles about comedy featuring male comics in the newspapers and magazines all the time but their female equivalents, get a small fraction of the allocated column inches.

Women are comedy equals in terms of talent, performance, content and skill. A scan through our past winners and finalists reveals a trail of success over the last few years…

Miss London, our 2009 victor, features regularly on CBBC; Canadian Katherine Ryan who won in 2008 is busy with TV projects; Andi Osho who won in 2007 stars in Channel 4’s Friday show Stand Up For The Week, has made a number of well-received appearances on Mock the Week, and recently won Celebrity Mastermind for Children in Need; while winners Suzy Bennett (2006), Debra-Jane Appelby (2005); Zoe Lyons (2004), and Sarah Adams (who triumphed in the very first Awards performing as Jade The Folk Singer in 2003), are all still busy working the circuit, winning other awards and appearing on radio and television.

Other successful Funny Women Awards finalists include Katie Wix, Anna Crilly, Bridget Christie, Susan Calman, Diane Morgan, Emma Fryer, Kerry Godliman, Wendy Wason, Sara Pascoe and Holly Walsh; all of whom have all gone on to have successful comedy careers.

Yet the circuit remains resolutely a ‘boys club’ which is why we still need Funny Women to actively promote new female comedy talent and give those women put off by the whiff of testosterone a platform upon which to perform.
Female comedy has evolved hugely over the last eight years, which is why we introduced our Variety Award this year which was won by an incredibly talented Gemma Whelan, who performs as the spinsterly drug induced ‘Chastity Butterworth’.

Meanwhile, Liz Black and Freya Slipper (who make up the improbably named Thankless Child) reworked the double-act route so brilliantly pioneered by French & Saunders, mixing stand-up banter and sketches to such good effect they walked away with this year’s star prize.
There is a striking diversity in the style that all these women take to the stage, from characters to silly voices. Emptying their hearts and handbags, they are political, crass and darn right hilarious. Sometimes shy, usually insightful and very clever.

So I can predict what will happen next. The limelight will continue to be taken up by those few funny women who have built up their credit with the media and acts like Sarah will take the place they have earned alongside them… possibly without acknowledging their feminine charms.

So what is it that makes Sarah Millican the star over and above all the other new talent we’ve seen over the last eight years? As I travelled back from town on the train the other day, I was amazed at how many women actually look like her – nice face, glasses, mousey hair, not much make up, a little overweight… in fact perfectly normal! Not in a ‘girl next door sort of way’, more of your ‘fun best friend’, the sort you could imagine having a gossip with in the ladies toilets at work! Sarah speaks for those of us who like our big knickers and hate our exes. She makes things funny out of sheer ordinary-ness.

So good on channel Dave for putting her on the buses, but don’t let it end there please. Be brave Dave and try out a few more women. Sarah is a role model, not just as a performer but very much as a woman, and we will continue to celebrate this on her behalf.

The ‘Funny Women Christmas Special’ is on Monday 20th December at The New Players Theatre.

For more on Funny Women see www.funnywomen.com and follow @FunnyWomen on Twitter.

©Lynne Parker, founder and producer, Funny Women Ltd.

Funny Women is at the vanguard of nurturing and promoting female comedy talent – from finding and developing new acts through its annual competition, the Funny Women Awards, to working with established performers.

Founded in 2002 by Lynne Parker, former journalist, broadcaster and marketing consultant, Funny Women has become a leading comedy brand, promoting new female talent through live events, workshops and training programmes.

Funny Women recognises that comedy is all about passion and fun and we take this with us into everything we do. We produce our own shows and tours as well as bespoke events for companies and brands.

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