Apparently it’s been scientifically proven that men are funnier than women. But only just.
Before you flick off your screen in disgust, let me state up front that I think it’s rubbish. Or rather, that the question doesn’t interest me.
Comedy performance is one of the great joys of my life, from narrative film through to stand-up. And for me, the gender and sexual orientation of the performance is the least important part of what makes me laugh, and keeps me returning to the same pieces again and again. It’s all about the art – and it is an art – of performance.
But back to the research briefly. A psychology study at the University of California pitted men against women in a competition to write captions for New Yorker cartoons. One team wrote the captions, and another chose the funniest in a knockout-style tournament where cartoons were shown with two random captions underneath.
“…men did better than women, but not by much: Male writers earned an average 0.11 more points than female writers. But what’s even more interesting, the researchers say, and what runs contrary to the standard explanations of why men might be funnier, is that men did better with other men: Female raters allocated only an average 0.06 more points to the male writers, while the male raters gave them a significantly higher average of 0.16 more points.
“Sad for the guys,” [researcher Nicholas] Christenfeld said, “who think that by being funny they will impress the ladies, but really just impress other men who want to impress the ladies.””
Well, professional comics are in it to make their audience laugh, I don’t think by and large they care about the gender make-up of the audience either. In fact, anecdotally from the comics I’ve spoken to, they’re far more likely to zero in on the person who *isn’t* laughing, which fuels their insecurities about performance.
Another finding of the study was interesting in terms of self-perception: when asked how funny they thought they’d be, the women were far less likely to rate themselves as high as the men. So while the study showed that there’s sod-all difference between the sexes, women tend to downplay.
As in many careers, men have tended to dominate comedy. But my favourite female comedians are exceptional. Today I’m going to pick just five that I admire:
Supporting players are often overlooked, and Olivia Colman is one of these. She’s a recurring character in the sitcom “Peep Show”, played a succession of characters in two series of “That Mitchell & Webb Look” on TV and four series of “That Mitchell & Webb Sound” on radio, and had perhaps her highest profile role yet as Carol Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”. Her versatility, voice and timing are beautifully understated, as seen here in this spoof advertisement for the shockumentary “The Boy With An Arse For A Face”.
The darling of 70s comic cinema, her roles in Mel Brooks’ films such as “Blazing Saddles” are legendary. I get such delight from her performances and return to them again and again because of the way she can take an ordinary line or gesture and turn it into something extraordinary by just playing it – how can I put this – two degrees off the station.
My favourite role of hers remains the obscure 1985 comedy “Clue”, where she played Mrs White. This is the scene where she confesses to the murder of the maid, at first melodramatically before wandering off into a brilliantly confused ramble of non-sequitirs.
But for a few films, Ms Posey has never sold out, earning her the label “indie queen”. She’s held lead roles in serious drama and in comedy where she’s played it reasonably straight, like “Party Girl”, but her talents are a versatile character actress are where she really stands out.
Her performances in Christopher Guest’s improv comedies “Waiting For Guffman” and “Best In Show” are particular favourites. In “Guffman” she plays a trailer trash Dairy Queen worker who dreams of acting stardom, while in “Best In Show” she’s an uptight New Yorker with a badly-behaved Weimaraner. The scene above, where she goes in search of a replacement bee toy for her dog, is a masterclass in controlled comic anger.
When I was at high school, I used to look forward to the Australian sketch show “Fast Forward” every week. Probably best known to younger audiences for her turn in “Kath & Kim”, Szubanski played a stable of Australian archetypes each truer and funnier than the last.
I loved the sex-starved, plump and tipsy Scotswoman Mary McGregor who used to provide “tips for the recession” while seducing the cameraman, the bogan Michelle who used to headbutt anyone who got in her way, and the character above – the type of lazy moaner who thinks they’re a gift to everyone in the world but in fact are selfish twits. Exaggerated as the character may look, we all know someone like her.
My heart breaks for Yootha, who died in 1980 after a long battle with alcoholism. As the long-suffering Mildred in “Man About The House” and later “George & Mildred”, she played a comic character that you believed was truly real. She was caring and loving, but rarely got it in return. She had a turn of phrase so sharp it’d take your fingers off. If something needed doing, she was the battleax who stepped in with the balls her husband didn’t have and got it done. And despite the jokes often made about her appearance, she was very beautiful. Like all great comedy, tragedy lurked close by.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Yootha’s portrayal of Mrs Roper was the concessions made to the American market when the character was reincarnated in “Three’s Company”: she became a whining, weak, pathetic creature – like something from the 1950s.
If only the strength she’d shown on-screen had been nurtured more in real life, she might still be with us today.