A couple of weeks ago, the long-running British political comedy panel show Have I Got News For You, a series that’s been on the air longer than I’ve been alive, had the wonderful Jo Brand as its guest host. Brand is a legend of British comedy, one of the most recognisable and popular women in a field dominated by white men, and she’s been a regular on this show for many years. She’s a dab hand at presenting, keeping the gags coming thick and fast, but happy to stop for a moment and take a panellist to task should the occasion call for it, and this occasion most certainly did. The episode had been a bumpy one, with conservative rent-a-gob Quentin Letts seemingly delighting in his misogyny and seldom being questioned on it unless Brand said something, but it was a comment from team captain Ian Hislop of the Private Eye that tipped things over the edge. As he tried to laugh off one of the many accusations of sexual harassment and assault made against Members of Parliament in the British House of Commons, joking that some of them weren’t ‘high level’ or comparable to the scandals of Putin and Trump, Jo Brand stepped in and gave a quick speech that represented the frustration every woman I know has been living with for far too long.
‘If I can just say, as the only representative of the female gender here today, I know it’s not high level, It doesn’t have to be high level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons. And actually, for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.’
As you can tell from the audience’s response, it resonated, and watching it, I punched the air in relief, but it was a short-lived feeling since the smirking faces on half the men there weighed heavily in my mind.
The thing about Jo Brand is that you just know she’s been through this routine hundreds of times before. You know that she’s spent decades in this industry being the only representative of the female gender on an array of shows, stand-up specials, quizzes and charity gigs. It’s five men on the panel and Jo Brand, so it goes. Watching her smack down those male sniggers of self-satisfied smarm, which she does with such restraint and calmer than I could ever manage, I thought of how often she was the only woman I saw in comedy.
I spent a lot of my teens deeply invested in the world of British comedy. It was my solace, my sanctuary, my station in life for when I desperately needed a pick-me-up. Britain’s great tradition of comedy panel shows, from Have I Got News For You to QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks ensured I always had something to watch, and I found a thrill of catharsis like no other through hours of laughter. When various channels started to broadcast repeats of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I became enraptured and spent hours memorising my favourite scenes and jokes, making my high-school friends watch along and scouring the internet for fellow fans to geek out with.
That led me to LiveJournal, where like-minded women my own age shared with me their excitement for a show that had been cancelled many years ago. We went to gigs together, we had drinks and got hugs from many of the original Whose Line cast, we attended stand-up shows and revelled in the eternal glory of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, taking delight in our encyclopaedic knowledge of which comedian was playing which venue and how good the reviews were. This was bliss in its purest form - joy through laughter.
I’m not sure precisely when it hit me that this world I adored seemed to have so little room for women. It just made sense that Jo Brand was the only woman on all the panel shows, or that Josie Lawrence was so frequently the only female presence on Whose Line, or that some episodes of Live at the Apollo had line-ups entirely comprised of white men who looked like they’d arrived from the same gene pool. You just got used to seeing YouTube comments of female comics ranting about how they weren’t as funny as men or that they were one trick ponies who only ever talked about periods and hating their husbands. When you walked the poster-laden streets of Edinburgh during the Fringe, it was never a surprise as to how few of the faces on the walls were women. By the time I discovered that now infamous Vanity Fair piece where Christopher Hitchens tried to argue that women aren’t funny, it just seemed like business as usual. This was how things were done and I only noticed it when it became too embarrassing to ignore.
Lindy West wrote in her wonderful essay collection Shrill about being a woman who loves comedy and what it was like to lose that enthusiasm following the fallout of the Daniel Tosh rape joke discussion, wherein she suffered greatly as the chosen ‘SJW feminazi PC police’ punching bag of the comedy world. Reading that part of her book hit me very hard as it felt like repeating history, albeit on a much more aggressive term than I’d personally experienced. I was reminded of every rape joke I’d heard in a stand-up set by someone I considered myself a fan of; I thought of the moments I’d be laughing at a gag before the comic delved into cheap digs at his wife or girlfriend or mother-in-law, and how I’d laugh nervously to ease my own awkwardness; I remembered one comedian I saw whose routine made me so uncomfortable that I tried to curl myself into a ball in the audience so as to avoid being pointed out as the dissenter in the supposed hilarity.
I quickly got bored of hearing the same old excuses of ‘It’s just a joke’ or proclamations that I was simply too sensitive to get the humour. The conversations around this problem began to overwhelm me too. It wasn’t about rape, so many comics I loved would insist, it’s about standing up against hecklers, or believing in free speech, or insisting that comedy was the untouchable beacon of strength and power in this dark world. The noise became too much and the message clearer than ever: Put up or shut up.
The shows that used to bring me such joy became staid as they were populated with the same old faces before being replaced by a new batch of bright young white men who were so similar in humour and appearance that I often couldn’t tell the difference between them. There were glimmers of hope and change, and many great non-white dude comics began to make their mark, but they were still left to the be token woman on the panel show, or the sole black comedian on the line-up. The expectations and critical responses were also noticeably skeweed. I watched so many mediocre 24 year old white dudes with floppy haircuts and buttoned up long-sleeved shirts tell the same jokes about mocking tramps and eating at Nando’s and thinking Boris Johnson was a bit of a laugh, but never saw them judged as the representation of their entire gender or race.
This is not to say that I don’t still enjoy comedy in various forms: I love the wry subversive surrealism of The Good Place, the askew observations with a feminist slant in the work of Bridget Christie, the loud nerdery of How Did This Get Made? and the gut-wrenching bleak laughs of BoJack Horseman. There are few sensations in our lifetime as effervescent as laughing so hard that your tears sting your eyes and you succumb to hiccups. Like pretty much every other aspect of pop culture, I’ve just learned to take less bullshit when it comes to finding things to enjoy. Being a woman - or indeed any minority - in pop culture is to live with the constant realisation that you’re going to be hated, and that builds up. It wears you down.