Funny girls

2012-07-13 15:35

It takes a brave woman to stand up and tell jokes in South Africa. We talk to some of our comic crusaders.

Everybody wants to be funny. There is power in being the one telling the jokes and controlling the flow of mirth at a party.

However, from Saturday braais to national comedy festivals, nine out of 10 times, it’s men who are dishing out the one-liners.

Women are funny, effortlessly so, but why are we not getting as much stage time as our male counterparts?

When I went to my first comedy show, I expected to be swooning in hilarity. Comedy shows are the perfect antidote to stress.

You are sequestered in a dark room in a delightful bubble of laughter. Sadly, the bubble popped when a young woman took to the stage.

My stomach turned to mush as she lurched herself into her performance and failed to land accurately.

She tanked in dramatic fashion. The crowd booed her off the stage.

The comedy scene is quite a ruthless one.

On stage the laughter may be boiling quite riotously, but backstage it’s a fierce world that only those with alligator skin can survive.

‘The comic circuit is quite competitive and driven by testosterone,’ says Marianne Thamm, founder of the Cape Town-based quartet of female comedians, Cracks Only.
‘I think it’s sometimes difficult for women to fit into this space… a bit like sending us out to play rugby, but we have to take it. I do think women make comedy differently though.’

There have been a handful of women who have broken ranks and are leading the way for other female comedians in South Africa.

Shimmy Isaacs, Anne Hirsch and Anthea Thompson join Marianne in creating a comedy extravaganza that has become a staple of Cape
Town’s nightlife. Marianne’s been telling jokes for 25 years now – or rather, ‘doing comedy’.

I thought comedians were people who told jokes.

But Marianne says, ‘Jokes are like bad sweets, but comedy makes you think.’

Back for more
Cracks Only has given a voice to female comedians, with men in particular coming back for more.

Marianne explains, ‘I wasn’t hearing enough from female comedians.

If women don’t take to the stage, we won’t know what 51% of the world finds funny.

Men keep coming back to the show because they find it insightful and informative.’

Krijay Govender showed a penchant for comedy from a young age, working as a clown at age 12.

She says that female comedians have to work harder than male comedians.

‘Female comedians are smarter, but we have to work harder.

There are more male comedians out there, so if a woman wants to be heard, she needs to be that much better.

Women need to realise that funny isn’t male, funny is funny.’ Krijay is now a director of the popular M-Net soapie The Wild.

Telling it like it is
Tumi Morake is probably one of the most outspoken comedians, regardless of gender.

When she’s on stage, her vivaciousness is all-consuming, leaving you teary eyed with laughter.

Widely regarded as the top female comedian right now, she echoes Krijay’s sentiments.

‘A big problem with female comedians is that they play to the fact that they are women on stage, instead of comics with a view.

You need to own the stage, regardless of your gender, and make the audience feel like they are privileged to have you there, not the other way around.

My biggest aspiration in comedy was to be seen as a comic, a kick-ass one, without the prefix of “female”.

I hope more female comics leave being female to their biology and just let the funny happen.’

The legendary Irit Nobel launched

a career in comedy when the prospects of success were rather bleak, taking to the stage in the late 80s, at the dawn of South Africa’s comedy scene. She recalls how her being female ruffled a few feathers.

‘I remember being told not to put on make-up and that I shouldn’t dress up for the stage. While I don’t think you need to be sexy to be funny, I didn’t see why I had to dress down. I dress up for everything else, so why not the stage?’

Her advice for aspiring comedians is simple: ‘You have to put your heart, soul and money into this if you’re going to make it. Comedy is like a muscle – you have to exercise it constantly and the only place to do that is on stage. Practising in front of the mirror and writing won’t do much for you. The stage is the school. Grab every opportunity you get to perform.’

Funny mommies
Grabbing every opportunity to perform gets harder for the female comedian, if she’s a mom. Tumi muses that the only benefits of being a female comedian are free drinks and maternity leave.

On a serious note, how do you balance being out till late making the masses laugh with the demands of feeding, nappy changing and potty-training? Copious amounts of dedication balanced by lots of support are needed to make it work.

Irit Noble refused to move to Joburg so that she could stay close to her daughter, who lives in Cape Town.

She was also blessed to have a partner who took to fatherhood like a duck to water. She describes him affectionately as a ‘big, walking, talking boob’.

‘My daughter’s father is the most maternal man you will ever meet. Having his help definitely enabled me to get more done than other female comedians.’

Tracy Klass, another comedian based in Cape Town, has used her single mother status liberally in her comedy show Klass Act and nothing is out of bounds.

She tackles parenting, weight, aging and food with her trademark ‘growing up disgracefully’ attitude.

Slick tongues
Kellyn Coetzee, an openly gay comedian, says, ‘There’s a sense of pride and belonging when I see women making waves in the comedy arena.

This country could always stand to do with a bit more laughter and I’m excited to be a part of the women who are making it happen.
‘There is a bit of a boys club in the comedy underground, but they have been nothing but supportive right from the beginning.

However, I’ve been struggling to break out of the “bar/club” scene as most of my material isn’t really PG13. It’s a bit of a double standard.

I’ve been told girls can’t really deliver fat jokes, or they’re uncomfortable to hear.

So it takes a little more work to deliver the joke tactfully or in a way that gets the audience to forget that I’m a girl.

I try to keep my material as funny as possible without succumbing to the pressure to refrain from taboo subjects. Hopefully the audience will appreciate the punchline regardless of my gender.’

Female or not, there is a liberty awarded to comedians that other social commentators are not privy to.

Marianne, who uses her satirical style to comment on politics, explains that comedians say what people think, but are too afraid to say.

‘Most comedians are dissatisfied with the world. We take stuff that we don’t like about the world and make it funny.’

‘Comedians make you realise that you are right and that the world is wrong. There is stuff going on globally that we need to think and talk about. If you look at America, the people who are saying the most poignant things are the comedians, not the politicians. If you want to find out the truth, you’ll hear it from the comedians.’

It’s fair to say that for every female comedian out there, there are at least 10 male comics and men are also struggling to garner applause.

Men are not going to just give female comedians the limelight. Female comedians have to take it and earn it by just being darn funny.

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