Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” William Hazlitt “On Wit and Humour” 1819.
The heartfelt tributes to Victoria Wood last week showed, however much she personally disliked the label, her status as a national treasure was well earned. There have been many thoughtful tributes to her, her work, her life, her decision to die out of the public eye. Many of the obituaries have picked up on her long journey to become known as funny. Why has it taken us so much longer to accept the comedienne?
It’s a question is becoming more stridently asked of our media producers. From TV to radio and film, the imbalance of female presence has been challenged. In response the BBC banned all-male panel shows in 2014 “There should be greater diversity in comedy,” says Meera Syal MBE. “In my opinion, homogeneity destroys originality and so comedy shows should strive to include as many contrasting acts of both genders and varied backgrounds.” But funny women have always lagged behind.
We find why by looking back. An examination of our cultural past shows the importance of the place of the joker. Clowns or jesters have played an important role across cultures, over time. Their ubiquitousness suggests they fulfilled an essential role in society – in both presence and form. But the record suggests they were always men. Why? To be a truly great Fool, one had to be able to memorize long-form poetry, tailor jokes to fit the crowd and tactfully tease without committing offense. They played instruments, sung, danced, even performed acrobatics. They were skilled in puppetry, ventriloquism and juggling. Women were fulfilling a very different position in society – they were for looking at or for domestic work. A function entrenched for centuries; few ever achieving public, performance or intellectual roles.
Further the development of comedy in Western culture was male dominated. In the Aristotelian texts, Poetics and Tractatus Coislinianus acknowledged as the beginnings of comedy, the epic poems were written to civilize; as a means of correction and/or maintenance of order. Their purpose was to reflect society’s follies and vices to faciliate change or improvement. were able to mock social structures, the prevailing order and personal relationships. They were “anti-rulers”and nearly all cultures sought their disordering perspectives. This was definitely male territory. (Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art and History, Vicki K. Janik 2000, xiv)
And a potted literary history of female roles shows women really made little comic impact. Indeed men often played the lady parts:
1600s: Shakespeare – As so oft said, the Bard was ahead of his time. He gave us Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing – independent, courageous and funny and Rosalind in As You Like It, intelligent, beautiful and quick witted.
But then, it’s centuries for roles to appear to compete with these.
1662: Punch and Judy made their first recorded appearance in Britain in 1662, when Samuel Pepys noted a “pretty” puppet play being performed in Covent Garden, London. Judy on the receiving end of the punch line. But women were now allowed to become actresses thanks to Charles II (and his mistress Nell Gwynn).
Next in popularity; satirical cartoons . Bold, cutting, overblown – too much for our politically correct times – but they arguably developed British wit and political commentary. Women were mainly the butt of the joke, not the author. But there were three women playwrights who made more of an impression; Charlotte Charke, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre produced restoration comedies on the institution and reality of marriage.
1800s: Pantomime and music hall theatre developed slapstick comedy, still loved today. Women were usually cartoonish – hag or whore.
It was also the century of literary greats but few (any?) considered creating a funny female character. The obsession of these times; sex, murder, and scandal were contemplated in a serious way (but at last, women writers were finding a louder voice).
So it was arguably due to the technological developments of the twentieth century that comedy found the spotlight. Through radio and film male comics found a profession, even fame and fortune. But still the chance to shine for women would be much slower. There just weren’t the female role models, or jokes from a woman’s view from which to learn nor much audience demand.
It was when observers began to point out that jokes are improved if the writer adds something of his own—namely, wit – that forms of modern comedy began to emerge.
Humour is the describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit is the exposing it, by comparing or contrasting it with something else. Humour is, as it were, the growth of nature and accident; wit is the product of art and fancy. William Hazlitt “On Wit and Humour” 1819.
We know this so well today. Our most skilled comics (both British and American) know that jokes can be thin on their own, they work better with context, character and story. Wit also implies both a mental agility and a linguistic grace that is very much a product of conscious art. This is very much a comedian in the modern sense. Today comedians are feted for their narrative, timing and (often physical) effort.
Arguably then, women didn’t really get a go until TV gained in popularity. As TV comedy developed and found mass popularity, female comics started to find a voice. And for Victoria Wood, it was in this medium she slowly found her mainstream success. TV gave a pictorial home to her cast of batty characters. She could be waspish and acute but because she looked rather comfy, perhaps, the audience always found her warmth.
Today, it would seem, other women are finally finding their place – on tour, on TV shows, on radio, in film and importantly, winning newcomer awards.
Play clip – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p038n60h.
(Though still there’s an occasional back-looking step; Why women aren’t funny, Christopher Hitchens Vanity Fair, 2007).
May Victoria Wood rest in peace, her legacy of funny work will play on. Her long road to recognition may have been driven by her talent and a dogged determination but she made the way a whole lot easier for the next generation;
Further Funny Reading:
BBC R4 – The Frequency of Laughter: A six-part history of radio comedy, covering 1975-2005,
http://funnywomen.com – Funny Women was founded by Lynne Parker in 2002 to help women find their voice through performing, writing and using humour in business and everyday life.
Are Women funny? Michèle A’Court
10 ways to improve your writing – comedy tips
Feature photo: Photograph: Peter Rosenbaum/ Mirrorpix
Perhaps in an ancient interpretation of the “low brow, high brow” distinctions we see this in the arts today; comedy and it’s reflection of the personal was directed at the lower (less intelligent) orders and it’s anti-thesis, tragedy, addressed important matters of public life (for the higher/ intellectuals). Over time this has been developed by philisophers and writers looking for further meaning. They have decided that comedy fills the gap caused by the inherent contradiction between our animal (personal) instincts and the civilizing/ social demands of (public) society;
Laughter then takes out the pain of everyday life; tragedy mainly offers us despair.