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Levelling the playing field for women in comedy

Comedian Louise Stevenson has released her second book, The New Comedian's Handbook, plus she's running online comedy courses for beginners, with the next on taking place on November 18.

Brighton Comedy Course founder Louise Stevenson has been busy during lockdown. She’s published two comedy books including The New Comedian’s Handbook released this week, with another in the pipeline.

Following on from How to Be a Comedian and Smash Your First Gig, a step-by-step guide to help aspiring comedians reach their first gig, The New Comedian’s Handbook covers everything a working comedian needs to know about the comedy circuit and how to stand out in a crowded comedy scene. It also includes chapters on women in comedy and the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the industry.

Here, Louise shares why she wrote the latest guide in The Learn Stand-up Comedy Series, plus we publish an extract from the book on women in comedy.

Read more: How I became a comedian and my advice to you

Everyone needs some humour

Stand-up comedian, writer and comedy coach Louise Stevenson has more than 20 years comedy industry experience. She’s also the CEO of Brighton Comedy Course, which gives aspiring comedians the tools and knowledge they need to do the job. 

She wrote her comedy guides for aspiring comedians who want to get their foot in the door of the industry, but, she says, these books are for everyone.

“The books aren’t just for inspiring comedians, they are for anyone who wants to be a better communicator,” says Louise. “Delivery, timing and humour and all essential ingredients for strong public speakers and the mindset and confidence aspects of the book will improve confidence levels and help write contents that will really grab an audience.

“Everyone needs some humour in their lives.”

Die Laughing

As well as writing comedy guides, the comedian will also make her debut into fiction this year.

“This is my second book and I plan to edit and release my third book in December this year,” Louise said. “The book is called Die Laughing. It’s a fiction book about a stand-up comedian who is a serial killer, and he chooses his victims from the audience.

“It’s the book I wrote to gain my master’s degree in creative writing eight years ago at West Dean Chichester, so it’s long overdue to have published.

“I studied under Greg Mosse and had my degree awarded to me by Sir Trevor McDonald (I know, check me!).”

A love of writing

On why she started writing, Louise said: “I’ve always loved writing since I was a child.

“I studied journalism though didn’t have success in getting into the industry. Maybe it was a lack of qualifications at the time. It was very hard to get my foot in the door, but as a comedian have been writing comedy for 20 years. And as a businessperson I have been writing website, blogs and business comms for the last ten years. I love writing fiction mostly, and I’m hoping when I have all the books I have written (five) edited and published then I’ll dive into a new writing project, a fictional novel I imagine.”

Get out of your comfort zone

On what she’d tell someone who wants to pursue a career in stand-up, Louise says: “Don’t leave it too long. You’ll never know and you’re a long time dead. Have some fun and come out of your comfort zone. You won’t regret it!”

For those interested in a career in comedy, the next beginners Brighton Comedy Course takes place online from November 18, 2020. To find out more about upcoming courses, visit:

Women in Comedy

An extract from The New Comedian’s Handbook

People often ask if there’s a level playing field in the comedy industry for men and women.

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Most comedy clubs all over the world have a predominately male cast. When I was working the bigger clubs as a semi-professional comedian, I was often the only female on the bill. That was around ten years ago. If only one in five comics is female, then it’s fair to conclude that there are less gig opportunities in the bigger clubs.

Some may argue that there are fewer women than men doing stand-up, so the ratio is reflective of the comedy circuit. It’s difficult to find solid stats to say one way or another.

There are comedy clubs and promoters that are big champions of female acts though I suspect that there are few female comedians working the circuit who’d state that male and female comics have equal opportunities in the comedy industry. 

The bigger clubs and promoters tend to book acts that they think will get bums on seats. This may be why they opt for a male line up or a male headline act.

There are still those out there who are convinced that women aren’t funny. These individuals may be less likely to go to a comedy show with equally billed sexes. I’ve seen men at comedy nights use the female performance as a signal for a loo break.

Think women aren’t funny? Try watching these ladies in action (in no particular order):

  • Gina Yashere
  • Amy Schumer
  • Lucy Porter
  • Aisling Bea
  • Roisin Conaty
  • Katherine Ryan
  • Sara Pascoe
  • Zoe Lyons
  • Susan Calman
  • Holly Walsh
  • Kerry Godliman
  • Sarah Millican
  • Suzi Ruffell
  • Shappi Khorsandi
  • Luisa Omielan 

Is there male and female equality for comedy gigs and opportunities? To answer the question, I’ve ploughed through competitions, gig stats, money-making stats and accolades that are important to working comedians.

In the Forbes top ten earning comedians of 2019, there was only one female, Amy Schumer. This is an unbelievable improvement on other years when there have been none. Amy is the only woman to have made the list twice, she was previously listed in 2016. These lists have historically been dominated by men.

There are substantially fewer female comedians with their own TV shows, than their male counterparts, in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. American late-night television (The Tonight Show, The Daily Show etc.) has been dominated by white men for almost its entire existence. With the exceptions like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Joan Rivers no woman has had a late-night show on a major network of her own. 

In the UK, there has been less than a handful of female chat hosts with their own primetime shows.

Katherine Ryan recently spoke about the gender divide, urging women to share their stories on social media. Katherine said that they had “Zero primetime entertainment TV shows”.

The prestigious Perrier Award has had only three female winners in 34 years.

Channel 4’s So You Think Your Funny competition has had only five female winners in 31 years.

The UK industry website Chortle lists 269 female comedians as opposed to 1,279 male comedians. 

A study in 2017 found a large gender imbalance in UK comedic panel shows, with only 31% of the appearances being filled by women.

US comedian, Lisa Lampanelli says, “Female comics still have a hard time winning over new male crowds and finding acceptance in spaces full of male performers though that’s finally turning around.”

Here are some Wikipedia facts about comedy, the first one’s a kicker!

A sense of humour in women was previously thought to have meant the ability to laugh at a man’s joke, rather than tell the joke herself.

Systematic sexism can be found at all levels, from audience members through to bookers, agents, and male comics.

In the film industry in 2010 there was a huge gender imbalance. Women made up 10% of writers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films and 15% of writers and 18% of creators in prime-time television during the 2010–2011 season.  It has got better, in 2019-2020, the percentages of women working as directors and writers on independent films reached historic highs. Women compromised 38% of directors working on features and documentaries, up from 33% in 2019-19. Women accounted for 35% of writers, up from 2018-19.

In stand-up, the imbalance can also be seen at the level of the comedy club. For example, the prestigious New York comedy club Caroline’s featured 20% female performers to 80% male in 2014.

Case study in the UK on comedian bookings

Madam J-Mo writes an interesting blog. In one post she carried out a test to randomly search ten listings for comedy clubs around the UK to find out what kind of gender balance there was. She found that out of ten clubs and 48 acts, only four were women. Six of those clubs had no women on, and the four that did, had one woman each (alongside a proportionally greater number of male comedians).   

Worth noting is that this test was carried out some time ago (in 2012), but please, do your own research and when comedy clubs are properly up and running again (post-pandemic restrictions), carry out the same test. I sincerely hope the results are better.

In conclusion, I think that the comedy industry has got better but still has a long, long, way to go to make it a level playing field.

Brighton Comedy Course now has nearer to a 60/40 mix of male and females coming on the courses, which is much improved from the 80/20 split five years ago. I’m delighted that so many more women are getting into comedy and working the open mic nights and making their way up the ranks. 

A balanced comedy industry free of gender bias should have already been well established by now. Much more must be done.

Promoters and bookers need to be called out by both comedians and audiences to create a more balanced night of comedy which reflects our society.

You can buy The New Comedian’s Handbook in paperback for £9.99 or on Kindle for £7.50.

Bex Bastable
Bex Bastable
Bex is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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