The women cracking up comedy – new wave of stars proving that making viewers laugh isn't just for the boys

Time once was that female comedy was strictly seen as being ‘for women’.

Its writers may have been covering the nuts and bolts of the entire human condition, from parenthood and relationships to existential crises, but much of it was signed off as ‘niche’, or ‘frivolous’ or ‘about sex and shopping’.

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A few years ago, Caitlin Moran – she of the hugely successful newspaper column and bestselling book, How To Be A Woman – brought her self-penned sitcom Raised By Wolves to a particular production company. The commissioner in question couldn’t touch it, she said, because ‘we’ve already got a female comedy’.

Similarly, it wasn’t too long ago that women showed up on the red carpet at awards ceremonies only to be asked about the dress and jewels they were wearing. Whatever their myriad accomplishments, it was a question that effectively made the female attendees plug the talents and efforts of a (usually male) designer.

And the less said about the red carpet ‘mani cam’, where actresses paraded their manicures for a close-up camera, the better. Last year, battle lines were drawn over red carpet sexism, prompted largely by actresses taking a stand against reporters asking little more than ‘who are you wearing?’ #AskherMore has certainly meant that the enquiry’s been shunted down in the shuffle, now more of a postscript than anything.

And Sunday’s BAFTA award ceremony put paid to all of it; the red carpet sexism, the industry inequality, the idea that female writers, directors and performers are meant to be on the fringes.

Women writers, directors and performers – among them Killing Eve’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fiona Shaw and Jodie Comer – were among the big winners from the TV award ceremony. Other winners included Sally4Ever (written by Julia Davis), actress Jessica Hynes (for There She Goes) and factual series Suffragettes With Lucy Worsley. In fact, the only online chatter drowning out Killing Eve’s impressive board sweep was outrage over the fact that Lisa McGee’s critically lauded Derry Girls went home empty-handed. Both Derry Girls and Killing Eve turned the archaic tradition of ‘comedy by women, for women’ on its head. Both men and women eagerly lapped up both female-led projects and lauded the acute writing, slick production and, in the case of the former, its feelgood vibes.

Channel 4 has revealed that Derry Girls has been its most successful comedy production in well over a decade.

And Waller-Bridge can do little wrong at the moment: such is the esteem that the movie industry is holding her in that she’s recently been tasked with sharpening the forthcoming James Bond script. One online gossip titbit recently noted how Waller-Bridge was on a flight with her boyfriend, the writer-director Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Fellow passengers allegedly inundated her with requests for selfies and autographs, while McDonagh enjoyed his flight largely unbothered… and unrecognised.

Closer to home, Irish comedy has seen a heartening influx of potent female voices of late.

Sharon Horgan has hit critical pay-dirt with Catastrophe and Women On The Verge, while RTÉ enjoyed success with Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy, Stefanie Preissner’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, and Alison Spittle’s Nowhere Fast.

It’s a notable success for one big reason: comedy has long been seen as a rather blokey domain. And if you asked the wrong person, girls simply weren’t funny.

Back in 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote an incendiary article in Vanity Fair entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’.

Hitchens attempted to address the question via the appliance of science: “Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be.

“The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men.

“In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh.”

Some years ago, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt was slated for saying of his co-star Emily Blunt: “She’s funny… and let’s face it, most pretty girls aren’t funny.” (To be fair to him, he apologised profusely later on).

Days later, Irish actor Chris O’Dowd waded into the fray: “I think there’s something in the fact that it’s hard to be good looking and funny. You have to have an oddball quality; people have to empathise with you to find you funny.” (Hmmm yes, try saying that about the classically stunning Phoebe Waller-Bridge).

Yet with women taking centre stage in film and TV, it’s a retrograde mindset that’s finally ebbing away.

It’s not just in comedy, either, that women are finally taking a more significant seat at the table.

The production of Virgin Media One’s drama-thriller Blood, starring Adrian Dunbar and Carolina Main, was notable for its largely female production crew.

In what was seen as a departure from the norm, many of the heads of department on Blood were female. Among them were writer Sophie Pezal, producer Ingrid Goodwin, directors Lisa Mulcahy and Hannah Quinn, editor Isobel Stephenson and director of photography Kate McCullough.

The post-#MeToo climate, says Goodwin, has affected opportunities for women in the film and TV industry for the better.

“It’s certainly become very popular to hire women, in a ‘let’s get a female director, because of the moment’,” she is quoted as saying. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘A few people I know have hired me because I’m a girl’.”

Certainly, other elements are afoot that have encouraged women to move closer to centre stage.

Waking The Feminists may have highlighted gender disparities within Irish theatre, but it’s thought that many other sectors have been beneficiaries of the dialogue. Additionally, Screen Ireland have announced a number of new funding initiatives for female writers and directors; one of which, Blood’s two directors Lisa Mulcahy and Hannah Quinn have benefited from. It’s a measure specifically targeted at incentivising female writers, directors and producers, in order to directly increase female representation in the Irish film, television and animation industry.

But even those who are the leading lights of this new wave concede that female writers and performers still have a ways to go yet: “TV hasn’t quite caught up just yet – I think there needs to be a lot more content and choice,” Derry Girls’ creator McGee is quoted as saying.

“We’ve picked out some examples but, if we were to talk about male-led shows, we could be here all day. That’s the point that we need to get to, where there’s lots of examples.”

She adds: “Everyone’s now saying that it’s a problem that there are no female writers, there’s not enough female leads, and there’s not enough female comedy. Eventually, people are going to have to put their money where their mouth is to challenge this.”

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