There’s never been a better time to go into comedy, especially if you’re a woman. When I started doing open spots, in the mid-nineties, there were hardly any women on the circuit at all. Not only that, but we were regarded (and sometimes openly described) as ‘speciality acts’, on a par with ventriloquists, musical acts, and people modelling balloons. Promoters would openly tell you that a woman couldn’t headline their club, and few bookers would consider having more than one woman on a bill at a time. We all knew of each other’s existence, but never saw each other professionally except once a year, on International Women’s Day, for a benefit gig.
But things are improving fast. Female comics now account for 14% of all comedy ticket sales. In 2009, it was just 2%. In other words, the number of people buying tickets to see Sarah Millican or Miranda Hart, Jo Caulfield or Josie Long has increased by 700% in five years. And the critical acclaim has been building too: Sara Pascoe was a huge hit in Edinburgh this year, as was Bridget Christie’s follow-up to her award-winning 2013 show.
And if you want to a career in television – as many people do – stand-up is one of the few egalitarian routes into it. Yes, you have to work for nothing for a while, but in the evenings, after your paying job has finished for the day. Gigs fit around shift work or office jobs equally well: there are gigs you need to book months ahead, and ones where you can just turn up on the night to try out some new stuff. Crucially, you don’t need to be based in London, with all the expense that entails, because there are brilliant comedy clubs all over the country. And no audience in the world is impressed by where you went to school or who your friends are. In other words, stand-up may be the last media job where having rich, well-connected parents can’t help you.
It is, of course, still a sexist business. Women are a minority of comedians, and hecklers can be differently threatening towards female acts: they might threaten to punch a male comic, but (as Sarah Kendall brilliantly relates) they save the threats of rape for the female acts. And it’s a tough job: comedians often feel like gladiators, taking on a roomful of opponents at once. But it is a wonderful one too. Once you’ve survived a few years on the circuit, you feel all-powerful. No audience will ever faze you again.
The one real problem remaining for female comics is that TV execs are lagging behind everyone else (not for the first time). Audiences are flocking to see female comedians, but they would still struggle to find many different women to watch on the box. Although that is also true of male comics (admittedly in larger numbers): someone flicking between British TV channels for the first time would be forgiven for thinking that we have only ten comedians, and that all of them are contractually obliged to produce 14 hours of topical jokes per week while sitting behind an over-sized desk.
The BBC has introduced a quota system to try and raise the number of women appearing on these shows, but that does little to address the essential laziness of the programme-makers, who shouldn’t need to be told that their guest roster should reflect their audience (ie not just white men in the their twenties with artfully-tousled hair). It might be more sensible for the TV execs to speak to radio comedy producers, who have no problem booking women as either guests or hosts of panel shows. In the current series of Wordaholics, on Radio 4, we have a pretty much even split of male and female comedians. No-one walked out of the recordings when they realised there were three women on one show. And no quotas were required.