In March of this year I put in a request to interview comedian Bridget Christie for this paper, and when we subsequently met her Radio 4 series Bridget Christie Minds the Gap was about to start and she was busy preparing her Edinburgh Fringe show: A Bic For Her.
For any comedian in March, the month of August seems maddeningly both a long way off and terrifyingly close, but Edinburgh will go ahead with or without you, so you need to just hunker down and get on with it – which is exactly what Christie was doing.
Now, as the Festival is at a close, she can reap the rewards – Christie walked off with the top prize, the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award and £10,000, which is a lot of money for any gigging comic not playing sold out stadium tours, and especially perhaps for Bridget, as it was only a short while ago that she lamented to me that when she went out to perform of an evening “my babysitter was making more money than I was”.
So, she decided to make it count. She realised that if she was going to leave her children, she wanted her comedy to really mean something. This coincided with a newfound interest in ‘feminism’ and when combined with a decade of live comedy experience and the confidence to try something new, a show is born that both wins awards and far, far exceeds their significance. For if the coverage of her show and her win in the media is anything to go by, feminism is now extremely funny.
John Kearns won the Newcomer Award, and good for him – by all accounts he is very funny too – but Adrienne Truscott won the Panel Prize for her show ‘Asking For It’ in which she took on the trend for lazy rape jokes that seem so popular with some comedians these days, and dismantled it whilst not wearing any pants. It’s a great idea – I’d like to see any male comic who gets a cheap laugh with a nasty little rape joke try the same act without his boxers on – if nothing else, it may make him work a little harder on his material…
Christopher Hitchens should be turning in his grave – the massive and deeply embarrassing lapse in judgement that led him to write one of the worst articles of his career: ‘Why women aren’t funny’ for Vanity Fair in 2007. It was a low moment for everyone, but it also showed that even the greatest and most progressive thinkers of our time seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the issue of women and humour.
And this is the problem – most female comedians will give you an eye-roll so far back that they can see the reverse side of their own brains when they are asked “what’s it like to be a woman in comedy, then?” – I did it myself in an interview with comedy critic extraordinaire Bruce Dessau in the Evening Standard some years back – but unfortunately we still live in a world where it’s a valid question because the prejudice persists. The real question is: do we make the situation better or worse by talking about it all the time?
The reviewers, columnists and bloggers were quick to place Christie in a timeline that seemed to suddenly do away with all the previous male winners of the award. One well known comedy website ended its award coverage by saying that she was “following in the footsteps of other solo performers Jenny Éclair and Laura Solon” – by “solo” I can only assume they actually meant “chick”, for why else would Al Murray, Steve Coogan, Tommy Tiernan, Frank Skinner, Lee Evans and Dylan Moran have been excised from the record quite so neatly? Can female winners not follow in their footsteps too? Or, as one friend of mine amusingly asked, are ‘Ladycomics’ footsteps too small and dainty to follow those of the ‘Mancomics’?
But I have some sympathy with the journalists trying to find the story – for in truth, what else am I doing here and now? We have the rather ironic situation where the top award winning show in Edinburgh is by a woman talking about feminism, and yet it feels somehow reductive to talk about it only in terms of ‘Ladycomics’.
It’s a bigger topic than that – in fact, as Christie said herself, it’s ‘in the air’, with coverage of feminist movements, books and even public spats in the press every day. But for those of us with cat whisker sensitivities heightened over years and years working in a notoriously misogynist business (I was once dropped from a panel show because the producers decided they wanted more men – at that stage, I was the only woman…), the radar for detecting when coverage goes from curious and representative to patronising and lazy is set at a higher frequency.
So how do we talk about it without simultaneously reducing it to the gender divisions of old? It’s certainly an awkward transitional phase, but perhaps it’s inevitable until women winning comedy awards is the norm – it is still an exceptional event. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Maybe next year a male comedian will write a show about his feminist beliefs, win the award and no-one will bat an eyelid – now that really will be progress.