Female gags: feminist comedy festival launches in Haggerston

Notflix, a show by waiting for the call of Tiny Women Brain Festival. Pic: Emmanuella Kwenortey

Notflix, a show by waiting for the call of Tiny Women Brain Festival. Pic: Emmanuella Kwenortey

“I saw an advert in Time Out for the Being a Man Festival and I thought, right, that’s it let’s do our own thing”, explains Sarah Spencer. She came up with the Tiny Women’s Brain Festival, a feminist comedy festival showcasing women in the comedy industry. The three-day event will be held at the Proud Archivist in Haggerston, North London, starting on January 29.

But do we really need feminist comedy festivals? After all, figures such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer have exponentially raised the platform of female comedians in recent years. Films such as 2015’s Trainwreck have been critically acclaimed, and five out of the six films in the Best Comedy category at the 21st Critics’ Choice Awards earlier this month had women as the main leads.

“We do,” says Spencer emphatically. “There’s a natural disadvantage for female comedians. I remember walking into a comedy club for my set in my earlier years and the audience would be all blokes. It made the challenge [twice] as hard, especially when it was full of city boys who were used to misogynistic gags. I would have given anything back then to have a safe space for female comedy, and that’s what this festival aims to create.”

Pernilla Holland, a member of Spencer’s improv group, Waiting for the Call (which will perform in the festival) adds: “I remember listening to some male comedians at the Cavendish Arms pub [in Stockwell, South London] a while ago and thinking we’d gone 20 years back in time.”

They make a valid point: sexist humour is alive and well. Take the case of Daniel O’Reilly, also known as the infamous Dapper Laughs, who was commissioned by ITV2 to do his own show. The show was widely criticised for being sexist and promoting violence against women, and was axed by ITV bosses late last year. Yet despite his show’s demise, O’Reilly is as popular as ever – he still has 368,000 followers on twitter.

Spencer took six months off from her teaching job to create the Tiny Women’s Brains festival. In that time, she sent over 400 emails to friends, venues and colleagues asking for help. Alice Humphreys from The Proud Archivist responded. Humphrey’s said: “This festival is important to us because imbalances still exist between men and women, both culturally and professionally [in the industry].”

“It encourages a discussion around topics that are hard to hit head on… [and means that] the debate is broadened and democratised,” she added.

Sarah Spencer and Pernilla Holland. Pic: Emmanuella Kwenortey

Sarah Spencer and Pernilla Holland. Pic: Emmanuella Kwenortey

These imbalances are clear to see: in 2015, the world’s 10 highest paid comedians were all male. Sarah Millican, Britain’s highest earning female stand-up earned £2 million in 2013. Her highest-earning male colleague, Peter Kay earned a cool £32.8 million in the same year.

“Women are better comedy writers. Genuinely,” says Holland. “Our writing is much more layered and complex than our male counterparts… by strengthening networks in this community and giving female comedians a platform, female comedy writers will continue to break through industry barriers.”

Lynne Parker, founder of the online community website Funny Women which sponsors the festival says: “I think what Pernilla and the girls are doing is amazing and I’m proud that Funny Women is supporting the festival.” She’s not a big fan of the name, ‘Tiny Brains’ though, and she’s not the only one.

“Some people have said the festival’s title is passive aggressive,” says Holland, “but it’s about reclaiming the word feminism.”

Spencer explains: “There’s a scene in the film Anchorman, where Christina Applegate and Will Ferell are arguing about something trivial. Ferell uses the phrase ‘tiny women brain’. I thought, ‘that’s perfect.’ There was something about reclaiming the phrase that appealed to me.”

For Spencer, alongside building and sharing a platform for female writers, the festival is about helping female comedians to move beyond typecast roles: “Either they’re the ‘kooky funny’ like in New Girl or ‘neurotic funny’ – there’s so much more to us that that.

“My hope for this festival is that people will think ‘those comedians were funny’, rather than ‘those female comedians were funny’.”

The Tiny Women Brain Festival starts on the January 29 at the Proud Archivist. You can find more information here.

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