Laura Morgan went to Edinburgh and all she got was a load of female comedians.
Just as there’s no point seeing the headline acts at Glastonbury when you could be learning to breathe fire or dancing to The Proclaimers instead, there’s no point going to the Edinburgh Fringe and seeing comics you can watch performing on tour or mugging on TV panel shows all year round. The beauty of a festival is the ability to discover acts performing to crowds of half a dozen and giving it their heartfelt all: a voyage of glorious discovery made better, not worse, by the knowledge that you might end up the only audience member at a terrible show. (This happened to me once, at the Camden Fringe: I hoped for both our sakes that the comic in question would cancel the show, but he nobly went on and shouted the whole thing into my face. These are the sacrifices I make for art.)
There are thousands of performers at the Fringe, and since my time in Edinburgh was limited to three days I decided I needed a focus, so I made it my business to go and see some solo shows by women, partly because women are ace and partly in an attempt to discover why the top ten one-liners of the Fringe are almost always all by men. Are men better at one-liners? Is it that the judges only go to see shows by men? Are there simply fewer women doing stand-up (yes) and is that because Women Aren’t Funny? (no). (It also isn’t, incidentally, down to Women Aren’t Funny’s uglier sibling: Men Don’t Like Funny Women.)
I cast around for recommendations of shows by women and was duly sent to some fantastic ones, which was good news, and also fell into a couple of shows I knew nothing about at all and enjoyed them too, which was even better news. The very best of them all, and the one about which I want to honk evangelically, was Bryony Kimmings‘ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, in which Bryony and her nine-year-old niece Taylor explore the possibility of creating a role model for Tween girls who doesn’t take all her clothes off and sing about sex. It’s by turns funny, sweet, cheeky, shocking, disturbing and always original, and if you ever get the chance to see it, or to see anything else of Bryony’s, you must jump at it, and I’m not just saying that because it turns out my sister performed the title music for it (I only found this out once I was in the Pleasance Dome waiting for it to begin), although while I’m here I’d also very much like you to know that my sister performed the title music for it.
But Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is a show by women and about women, though not necessarily for women. I was also looking for shows which were performed by women without being specifically about women, and those were harder to find. Juliette Burton’s sensitive, startling and very sweet When I Grow Up drew a careful and clever balance between comedy and naked self-confession and was another standout for me, and it made me wonder whether women are drawn more both to telling stories rather than jokes, and to allowing themselves to be utterly vulnerable; to letting the barrier of “character” drop and telling us their deepest secrets. I can think of male comedians who talk in a genuine way about their insecurities in a non-comedy context, but only a couple (Simon Amstell, Rob Delaney) who incorporate them into their stand-up routines. At the end of her show Juliette offered everyone in the audience a hug, which felt entirely fitting and appropriate, because we’d spent sixty minutes getting to know her, rather than a version of her developed for comic effect.
But then, neither Bryony’s nor Juliette’s shows are traditional stand-up. I needed to find women telling jokes, and one of the best tellers of jokes around is Claudia O’Doherty, whose show is both technically adept and raucously funny and doesn’t rely on anything apart from her own skill. Seeing Claudia bring a packed house down reminded me that minority groups, (like, for instance, women in comedy) don’t do themselves any favours by focusing their material exclusively inwards. The funniest jokes work on recognition, so you need to be able to speak to your whole audience, not just a segment of it (which is also why one of the quickest ways of turning me off is to tell lots of jokes about what it’s like being a parent; a thing both male and female comedians seem to sometimes do quite a lot of).
Into the category of “shows I saw by mistake” comes Katie Goodman, a New York comedian whose witty, political I Didn’t Fuck It Up does touch on her domestic life, but draws in a whole lot else besides, and she is so musically talented and comically expressive and, well, hot, that you can’t help but be drawn in and taken along for the ride. I also liked her because, according to her Mid-Life Crisis song, I am not yet approaching Mid-Life Crisis age. Thank you, Katie, you’re my new favourite.
So of course it comes down to what it always comes down to: if it’s funny, it’s good; and it doesn’t in the end matter what you write about as long as you write it well. The reason the nominees for the best one-liner were all men is simply that there are many times more men doing solo shows at the Fringe than there are women and, even more obviously, that the contest is run by the blokiest of all TV channels, Dave. The fault lies not with the judges but with the media covering the award as though it’s the ultimate accolade, whilst ignoring the much more interesting Foster’s comedy awards (if you are of a similar vintage to me, you will recognise them as the Perrier awards, just as you can tell someone’s age by whether they talk about the Milk Cup, the Littlewoods Cup or the Carling Cup – but I digress). There are three Fosters awards and this year two of them went to women.
So the situation isn’t as dire as some commentators have suggested. The number of women doing comedy is growing and increasingly they are writing about politics, life, art and the world – subjects that have nothing to do with whether or not the author has a vagina. Every year, the Edinburgh Fringe gets more inventive and original. There’s no point trying to make any broad statements about what sort of comedy goes on there, because every sort of comedy goes on there.