It’s one thing to get on stage. It’s another thing to get on stage and be funny about your thigh gap or your period.
It’s not that bleeding for five days and not dying can’t be funny. But for female comedians, getting to the punchline, even in 2019, can still be about ticking boxes of appropriateness, wrapping up someone’s ego in cotton wool and sidestepping taboos.
On a cold night in late autumn, Claudine Ullman is at the Dunkelder Theatre in Johannesburg. She’s geed up her improv troupe, The Jittery Citizens, and kicks off her introductory set as the audience takes their seats. Ullman throws in a swear word or two, then asks: “Can we go there? It’s why we left the kids at home tonight, right?”
The audience laughs, she keeps going.
After the show, she says her male counterparts probably wouldn’t have bothered to clear the swearing with an audience but she knows that audiences still expect something different from female comics.
“I did a show with some others comedians recently and afterwards a woman came up to tell me she loved my set. She said she’d never seen a woman stand-up comic before and she didn’t expect a woman to be funny,” says Ullman.
The dangers of challenging comic cliché
The tired cliché that women aren’t funny, like cockroaches, seems impossible to kill off. It makes comedy by women less about material and timing that hits the sweet spot, and more about the hit and miss of what audiences still think are acceptable or appropriate topics for women comics to tackle.
While female comedians suck it up from their audiences, they also suffer the misplaced authority from some producers and comedy club owners who tell them to dial back the profanities and keep the “filth” in check, which means don’t try any of the Amy Schumer vagina talk or Ali Wong flashing her panties routines.
Maybe most insidiously, some female comics shut up altogether when it comes to discussing gender inequality and glass ceilings in their industry. They simply stand to lose too much if they’re called out by the old boys’ club as just another “bitching woman”.
Comedy critic and copywriter Suzanne du Toit has watched women comics make compromises or overcompensate in this hugely skewed landscape for years.
She says: “Women comics often either feel like they have to make their sets self-deprecating or they feel they have to take over. Like, if they’re going to do vulgar, they’re going to do it ‘better’ than the guys.”
Du Toit was the host of this year’s JoziWalks comedy tour in May, a first for the annual city event. She asked Ullman to lead her tours and ended her tours with a female-dominated line-up of comedians.
For Ullman, making women comics front and centre in line-ups is a start, but there’s also a need to shake up the ecosystem of local comedy. Du Toit adds: “It’s about who gets to headline, it’s about who gets interviewed by media and it’s about finding the platforms that make it easier for women to break into comedy.”
These issues are frequently on Kate Goliath’s mind. The managing director of Goliath and Goliath in Johannesburg says she’s tried events at their two clubs (before the Melrose Arch club closed recently) like Ladies Night with women-only audiences in the past, but they weren’t a success. Goliath says that in South Africa, the comedy audience is still predominantly male.
“The guys in the industry can be lovely and accommodating but they can also be hard, especially on women comedians. So I always say to women comics, learn to take it like a man, not to be like a man, then just get on stage and be excellent or the industry will spit you out,” she says.
That said, Goliath knows only too well that women have it tougher. In the early days of setting up the Goliath Comedy Clubs, she was treated like the secretary and the date-booker, in spite of being the managing director.
“Now that I’m a producer and a manager, they do treat me differently. But it wasn’t always like that. So I know as a woman, whatever industry you’re in, you’re always having to work harder, especially when you’re starting out,” she says.
For a newcomer to comedy like Campbell Meas, success in this field begins with having other day jobs. She’s part of Ullman’s long-form improv troupe, but she’s also an actor, model and lecturer. Meas perseveres with comedy because she says it’s a great form of self-expression, pushes boundaries and is fun.
“Women comics can speak to the female experience, that’s half the world,” says Meas. “Some days in improv rehearsals, we may just be talking about who’s got the biggest boobs. Being able to talk about anything and use anything as material with the men and women in our troupe comes down to trust and consent, about developing a got-you attitude, a yes attitude and no judgement,” she says.
There is strength in owning this, which is where Meas feels that women may have the upper hand.
Meas sees this play out at open mic nights, too, when women comics hone in on the women in the audience. The Yaaasss Queen phenomenon, as she calls it, when it kicks in, can be contagious. It “trains” women in the audience to support a female body on stage because women know the truth of the million judgements a female body faces – from all genders – even before she’s dropped her first joke.
These are the opportunities and spaces in which to push forward, not push back. Ullman feels the same about breaking new ground rather than breaking men. She says: “Of course there’s gender inequality and harassment in our industry, but I believe women comics can go after our comedy aggressively without even having to be aggressive.”
Social media has been another boon for women comics. They can post vlogs to Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and build their brand without ever dipping a toe into the heckler-infested waters of stand-up comedy.
The likes of Coconut Kelz (Lesego Thlabi) and PharoahFi (Farieda Metsileng) are comedy sensations. Newcomer Lindy Johnson, whom Trevor Noah handpicked for his NationWild televised comedy showcase, uses her Instagram to build her profile and to throw in one-liners – and is a sensational user of the 140-character Twitter update limit.
On her own terms
Celeste Ntuli, a veteran in the industry with her 391 000 followers on Instagram and routinely sold out one-woman shows, including Black Tax in 2017, has learnt to hold her own as the “proud Zulu, dark-skinned funny girl”, as she calls herself.
“Women, and black women especially, are the lowest on the food chain. So, for me it was always a case of doing comedy on my terms, because it’s a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she says.
Ntuli has also experienced the worst of big theatre’s sexism and racism about her ability to fill a theatre, and she admits to having to learn to silence the noise from “the mainstream of four people”. It includes article comments focused on her being 40, unmarried and childless – just not the kind of scrutiny any male counterpart would have to endure.
But Ntuli is still shouting louder. She says: “We are here to disturb the peace. It’s what we do as comedians.”
It’s her antidote, advice and mantra to surviving in an industry that is all laughs but desperately unfunny with still unequal playing fields. Ultimately though, Ntuli says, it’s about getting on stage and working the material.
“Just do your job. Just be funny,” she says.