General and Gendered theories of humour
A History of Women in Comedy
Bridget Christie: A Bic for Her
Mocking the Week?
The Ladies at Laughing Labia
This dissertation investigates the perception and representation of female comics on the stand-up circuit and their audiences. It begins with a review of various theories of humour examining three major strands of thought: theories on repression, release and incongruity.
It goes on to give an historical overview of British stand-up comedy, covering the Music Hall/Variety tradition, the Working Men’s Club tradition and the Alternative Comedy tradition examining the cultural attitudes of the time alongside these various stages of British comedy and the place women found within them.
Concluding with a case study on Bridget Christie and her success at navigating the patriarchal world of comedy, an investigation of current panel show figures and their representation of female comics and interview responses from current women stand-ups on the circuit. Illustrating that audiences may no longer perpetuate these long held stereotypes, but instead the industry ‘gatekeepers’, the bookers, promoters and producers within the comedy business are limiting aspiring female comedians from garnering mass exposure.
I would like to thank my dissertation supervisor, Peri Bradley for her invaluable tuition, support and encouragement.
I extend my enormous gratitude to the ladies at the Laughing Labia comedy night for taking time out of their schedules to talk to me. Thank you, Alice Frick, Jenny Beake, Thanyia Moore and Bisha K Ali, for allowing me to gain valuable insights into the industry whilst having a great laugh at the same time.
Finally a huge thank you to my dutiful proof-reader, James Dennison and my dogged editor, Patricia Collingham - the best father and grandmother a stressed university student could ask for.
Women have been prominent in show business long before feminist and gender equality movements. However, in contrast to all other areas of entertainment – women are still very much in the minority within stand-up comedy. Why is this so? Is it to do with the patriarchal nature of the industry? Or is it that women just aren't funny? I aim to argue that it is not by choice or accident that few female comics succeed within the industry but more to do with the hurdles and boundaries they have to cross that their male counterparts do not by overcoming engrained stereotyping. I will give a detailed and yet broad cultural and historical context on the gender roles within stand up comedy. I plan to examine the extent gender-roles define a women's place in stand-up and the effects the feminist movement has had on the stereotypes of comediennes. I will also attempt to illuminate the social, political, and cultural implications of gender and power within popular entertainment, analysing the means by which we construct, contest and negotiate female comics performing their gender on stage. With case studies including Mock The Week (2005), the stand-up comic Bridget Christie and interviews with female stand-ups currently on the open-mic circuit.
The importance of asking this question is highlighted by Barreca (1988) who maintains: ‘Feminist criticism has generally avoided the discussion of comedy, perhaps in order to be accepted by conservative critics who found feminist theory comic in and of itself’. Scholars like Gilbert (1962) have recently begun to point out that ‘female comic performance provides a unique and compelling template upon which to explore the relationship between gender and power in contemporary culture.’ This investigation aims to illuminate some of these issues throughout history and the current perceptions of female comics both on the open-mic circuit and within the professional comedy industries today.
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‘Oestrogen and laughter are apparently not contra-indicated’
Chapter One General and Gendered Theories of Humour
Although there is an increasing body of new literature and research of the analysis and psychological developments of women’s humour, the theorists working within these fields have not yet fully unified their findings into coherent and integrated conclusions. These emerging theories illuminate some of the discrepancies noted by humour theorists between men and women’s use of humour. Naranjo-Huebl contends that through these new models of psychological development, a pattern has emerged revealing that women’s humour ‘follows the same patterns of communication used by women to address conflict, or in terms of humour theory, incongruity, without damaging interpersonal relations’ (1995:1). Due to the fact that earlier models of psychological development have largely overlooked the aspects of women’s experience, it is to be expected that these previous theories of women’s use of humour include some weaknesses and inaccuracies. To gain an understanding of the differing responses men and women have towards their decoding of comic material it is necessary to analyse these predominating theories of humour in a more general context. Although these are basic theories of humour, this understanding can allow one to turn our focus back to the topic of women’s humour in particular. Because most of our meanings are generated by difference, it is perhaps most easily identified when contrasting it to these general theories of men’s humour.
The three primary theories under which most theorists’ views can be categorised are that of: superiority theories, repression and release theories, and incongruity theories. Thomas Hobbes is usually credited with the first articulation of superiority theory – he claimed that laughter was associated with the glorification of the self, usually at the expense of someone else. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes stated that we laugh in the moment of realisation that our own superiority is recognised by its own virtue or by the virtue of other’s shortcomings.
Sudden Glory, is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called LAUGHTER: and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.(1968:125)
As well as believing laughing at others’ limitations makes one feel superior, Hobbes also held the notion that people with more limitations will laugh more often. Hobbes’s theory works well within a self-deprecatory humour framework, although as Lawrence La Fave (1976:65) illustrated when writing “this egocentric, competitive interpretation of superiority humour theory, the individual is amused only when he feels triumphant and/or another person looks bad in comparison with himself”, it cannot account for all that people find amusing. La Fave cites studies that have revealed not everyone finds disparaging humour funny. Members of social groups that have been subjected to some kind of social discrimination find humour directed at other victimised groups less funny than people who have not experienced discrimination based upon their social identity. In addition, it can be found that not all individuals sharing an ethnic identity will find jokes directed at their minorities as ‘unfunny’. Nonetheless, the psychological nature of Hobbes’s theory that laughter stems from a ‘glorification’ of the self, suggests humour plays a large role in establishing ones identity and rebuffing perceived threats to that identity. With this comprehension, superiority theory (in a diluted form) can be analysed in terms of psychological theories of humour that claim we engage in humour that validates our personal and collective identities. Because domination plays an elementary and integral role in the protection of our identities, humour therefore will also inevitably play a primary role within methods of power and control. Humour can be utilised as a tool in maintaining and establishing domination in the service of the self-preservation and protection of the ego.
This inclusion of the ego introduces the Freudian realm of repression and release theories. Sigmund Freud (1931:243-258) argued that aggressive and sexual drives, necessary for survival, are repressed in their socially unacceptable form by the ego. Humour, therefore, provides a socially acceptable form for this release of repressed psychic energy (Goldstein & McGhee, 1972:13). Similar to that of the superiority theory, this model contends that humour serves the ego as a defence mechanism rather than an offensive tool. As a consequence Freudian theorists on humour tend to analyse humour in terms of the revelations it provides about the psyche of the comedian, as opposed to how it might be used as a strategic means of control. Sexual jokes reveal an individual’s repressed sex drive and disparaging jokes are seen as examples of aggression or fear toward certain groups or individuals.
The notion of incongruity as a primary element of humour has ancient roots. Incongruity theories focus on similarity and dissimilarity and how, in the presence of other factors such as perception of harmlessness / surprise or suddenness, they evoke a laughter response (Nerhardt, 1976:55). The 18th century philosophers Joseph Addison and David Harley rehashed earlier theories and contended that ‘resemblance and opposition’ are integral ingredients to humour. According to most incongruity theorists, humour occurs when two distinct logic patterns or models of thought unexpectedly collide. In terms of a language approach, G.B Milner’s (1982:27) semiotic analysis of laughter asserts that ‘The stimulus to laughter consists of the collision of two normally quite distinct universes of discourse within a single context.’ For example, when words converge, we have puns or malaprops; and when sentence structures collide we have spoonerisms. We laugh when we recognise new differential relations (Naranjo-Huebl, 1995). According to Milner (1982:27), behind these unexpected reversals ‘stands the human tension between nature and culture, deeply rooted in the unconscious.’ In 1900, Henri Bergson (1911:27) contended the same notion: ‘A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time.’ Incongruity, as Norman Holland (1982:22) states, can take numerous forms. Cognitive incongruity occurring when ‘something affirms and denies the same proposition simultaneously, when something creates disorder and then resolves that disorder, when something shows the limitations of the real word as a way to affirm the logical order of some other, ideal plane.’ Ethical incongruity involves our sense of values, as Naranjo-Heubl (1995) argues ‘the contrast between good and evil, the noble and the contemptible, the high and the low, the beautiful and the disgusting.’ Formal incongruity involves defects of forms – ‘Something harmful presented harmlessly,’ the tragic or harrowing presented as painless, something of little consequence delivered as something of great value, or vice versa. German theorist Theodor Lipps (1903:575) talked about the comic nature of ‘that little thing which behaves as though it were a big one, that swells itself to do it, that plays the role of a big thing and then behaves again like a little thing or melts into something insignificant.’
Early twentieth-century theorists of humour, including Bergson and Freud (1911a, 1931b) further pointed out that incongruity should be followed by resolution to truly maximise humour and take the mere level of ‘nonsense’ forward to the accolade of being called a ‘joke’. According to the model of incongruity/resolution, humour comes from a gap between what is expected and what actually occurs, concluding with understanding, or resolution, of the incongruity. Several theorists discuss the importance of the presence of a feeling of play that makes humour possible, an affirmation that there is no danger to one’s person or existing schemas (Rothbart, 1976). Resolution of the incongruity signifies its nonthreatening nature and restores order. When digesting humour in this capacity, one can construe humour as ultimately a form of social control – in the respect that social structures, although initially challenged are eventually reinforced. Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that the perception of incongruity, safety and resolution is always going to be highly subjective to the audience in question.
Mary Rothbart (1976:38) has contended that individual responses to incongruity vary widely and may preclude the offered resolution – different people find different stimuli more or less incongruous. The ambiguity presented must first be recognised by the hearer and this recognition remains dependant upon the person’s cultural and personal life experience. Bruère and Beard (1934), in their anthology of women’s humour, acknowledged women’s contrasting paradigms and their differences to that of the male world: ‘The angle of vision from which women see a lack of balance, wrong proportion, disharmonies, and incongruities in life is a thing of their world as it must be – a world always a little apart’
To engage in the history of women in comedy is to rake up a history of hostility. A prime instance of this being the denial of a woman’s right to vote for over 140 years - a perfect example of incongruity in a historical context – this law being upheld in a nation based on the moral foundations of equality of all people. This has not gone unnoticed by almost all of the humourists in Bruère and Beard’s anthology. A society that supported political, economic and social equality in principle but denied enfranchisement to over half the members of its population exuded incongruity and provided an unlimited source of material for women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to condemn and mock.
Alice Duer Miller, an author of satiric novels, short stories and verse, as well as a columnist for the New York Tribune from 1914 to 1917, composed an introduction to her first column under the title of ‘Are Women People?’ which includes a dialogue between a father and son that emphasises the longstanding contradiction of woman’s disfranchisement:
Father, what is a Legislature?
A representative body elected by the people of the state.
Are women people?
No my son, criminals, lunatics and women are not people.
Do legislators legislate for nothing?
Oh, no; they are paid a salary.
By the people.
Are women people?
Of course, my son, just as much as men are.
Miller returned to the subject numerous times in her column, and once highlighted the incongruities of the argument by turning the argument on its head:
Why We Oppose Votes for Men
1. Because a man’s place is in the armoury.
2. Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.
3. Because if men should adopt peaceable methods women will no longer look up to them.
4. Because men will lost their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms, and drums.
5. Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them peculiarly unfit for the task of government.
While these ideas are largely out-dated and laughable in today’s modern British society it is not to say that incongruities in the perception of gender roles and the devaluation of the female are a thing of the past. Those women that have theorised on women’s humour have almost always had to address the negative stereotyping of women’s lack of a sense of humour. Kat Sanborn (1885) in her anthology of female humourists, The Wit of Women, lays claim to the motive of her work was a means to challenge this stereotypical assertion. In her introduction, Sanborn disregards these preconceptions, instead discussing the plethora of excellent writings and her predicament to be selective when compiling the anthology. Perhaps her lack of address to this issue prompted her to revisit the topic in her 1905 article entitled ‘New England Women Humorists’, within the piece she admits that the stereotype of the humourless woman has persisted. Close to a century later, Robin Lakoff, in her 1975 study on ‘women’s language’ confirmed the common cultural perception: ‘[I]t is axiomatic in middle-class American society that, first, women can’t tell jokes- they are bound to ruin the punch line, they mix up the order of things, and so on. Moreover, they don’t ‘get’ jokes. In short, women have no sense of humour.’
The dedicated scholars exploring and documenting the preservation of women’s humour - including the works of Regina Barreca , Nancy Walker and Zita Dresner (1988abc) to name but a few - have compiled sophisticated anthologies and bodies of theory investigating, identifying and combatting these negative stereotypes. A study of their responses to these questions reveals three primary explanations to these accusations. The first explanation relates back to Lakoff’s (1975) observations on women’s employment of language: women have been discouraged from using humour in public situations just as expressing themselves in general has been restricted. Lakoff and Regina Barreca (1988) note that humour, particular disparaging humour, is not considered as ‘polite’, and historically women have been brought up to avoid any instances of impoliteness. In addition, much humour is candidly aggressive, and women have been discouraged, throughout the course of history, from exhibiting signs of aggression in any form. In her cross-cultural study on social anthropology, Mahadev Apte (1985) states:
The use of humor to compete with or to belittle others, thereby enhancing a person’s own status, or to humiliate others either psychologically or physically, seems generally absent among women. Thus the most commonly institutionalized ways of engaging in such humour, namely, verbal duels, ritual insults, and practical jokes and pranks, are rarely reported for women.
Therefore many cultures, in past and present, discourage women from participating in disparaging forms of humour.
The second reason theorised as to why this stereotype persists is that of the censorship or misinterpretation of women’s humour. In this scenario, women do not lack a sense of humour; but their humour goes unrecognised or ignored. This censoring and misinterpretation of women’s humour is somewhat recognised in the anthologies compiled by the scholars mentioned above. As of the selective nature of these collections, many works of humourists have been omitted – the publishers and academics, given the almighty task of handing down the greatest wits of women from the written world for further generations to study - cannot fathomably include every great work of humour. Therefore the legacy of humour left by our foremothers is not largely in circulation compared to many other areas of academia and publication. Included within this censorship and misinterpretation of women’s humour are faulty research methods that favour towards the male forms of humour, making women’s sense of humour appear to lack development. Closer examination of the studies often reveals serious methodological flaws, as Mary Crawford (1992:24) highlights when pointing out that such experiments use humorous stimuli that reflect masculinist and androcentric values with the results being used to ‘probe’ that men are funnier than women. Naranjo-Huebl (1995) succinctly summarises a prime example of this biased favouring with her articulation of Cox, Read and Van Auken’s (1990:288) study. In which a survey was issued to approximately 250 undergraduate business students from a major university to determine their response to the hypothetical situation of a colleague whose briefcase flies open, spilling papers all over the hallway. The choices given were divided into three differing response categories: (1) ignoring (‘I would avoid looking at him and keep on walking’) (2) helpfulness (‘I would stop and help him pick up his papers’) or (3) use of humour (‘I would tease him about being a master paper shuffler’). As can be predicted, men had a higher ‘humour’ response and women had a higher ‘helping’ response, both genders rated equally on the ‘ignoring’ response. The, entirely male, creators of the survey asked the students to pick one of three types of responses, revealing their view that one cannot be helpful and humorous at the same time. If issued the choice of being helpful or being humorous, it is not surprising that women more often choose to be helpful. It also does not account for the possibility that some women might integrate humour whilst also helping in such a situation. Another drawback to the study is that it asserts ‘humour’ as a mere one-line quip in a solely slapstick situation, which is not women’s preferred form of humour.