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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Are men funnier than women?
After a wait of nine years, a female comic has made the shortlist for one of comedy's top prizes. It must mean that most women can't tell jokes, or comedy is sexist.

Did you hear the one about the funny woman?

For the first time since 1995 a female name is on the short-list for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival's hotly-contested Perrier Comedy Awards.

Sarah Kendall
A lot rests on the success of Sarah Kendall

Nominee Sarah Kendall says the prize is all about the laughs, adding: "I don't think I'm at a disadvantage because I'm a girl."

But history suggests otherwise, with 1995 winner Jenny Eclair deemed the last woman good enough to get this far.

Could it really be that the women most able to raise a titter are those made the subject of tired mother-in-law jokes?

Clumsy compliments

Fans of Kendall's stand-up routine often make fond reference to the fact she does not just tell "female" gags.

What I notice is that a lot of women comics tend to do character comedy, rather than stand-up,
Nica Burns

The kind of gags that have made her popular are observations like "50 Cent, or as he's called over here, approximately 29p".

It may be clumsy, but Kendall's admirers mean to pay tribute when they say her jokes are so versatile they could equally be told by men.

In the comedy clubs such traits can still be seen as a touchstone of quality; it remains the case that the bulk of performers, and their audiences, are male.

In a list of the Top 20 UK comedians of all time, published by Reader's Digest this week, Dawn French - at number 11 - was the only woman in a list headed by Tommy Cooper.

'New territory'

Announcing Kendall's nomination, Perrier Comedy Awards director Nica Burns said it was richly deserved and marked the end of "nine barren years".

Jenny Eclair
It was nine years ago that Jenny Eclair won the award

For Burns, a woman who one day hopes to see an all-female list, the lack of nominations in recent years is down to one thing: sexism.

"Comedy is very male dominated," she says. "There will be less woman comics on any bill because it's new territory for them. It's been a male area for so long."

The working men's club humour of Bernard Manning and the like is no longer in fashion, and women are increasingly likely to go to see some stand-up.

But there is still a long way to go, says Burns, who recalls the story of a man who called one Birmingham venue to book 10 tickets.

On discovering the compere was the Australian comic Julia Morris - a woman no less - he asked for a discount, before calling back to cancel the booking.

The gender-divide of the clubs is equally clear to Kendall.

"It is quite blokey and I don't often get to be with other women when I am working because often they won't book two women on the same bill," she says.

"They think 'we've got 15 women we can book, we won't book them on one night - we'll spread it out during the year'."

TV success

With the boozy laddishness of many clubs persuading some female comics to steer clear, it can appear to the untrained ear that women just aren't funny enough to make it.

French and Saunders
Millions watch French and Saunders on TV

But Burns points to the enduring success of comediennes on TV, where the likes of French and her comedy partner Jennifer Saunders, Jo Brand, Victoria Wood and Rhona Cameron entertain millions.

She tips 30-year-old Mancunian Lucy Porter, double act Gavin and Gavin and stand-up Natalie Haynes for big things and points out that many other women are making it as producers, directors and agents

Comediennes often tell different kinds of jokes to their male counterparts, but this is simply because they have been through different things.

There is also the question of style though.

"What I notice is that a lot of women comics tend to do character comedy, rather than stand-up, which is a way of hiding their own persona a bit," says Burns.

"What I would like to ask them is, do women find it hard to put their lives in public?"

Highly critical

Kendall, a 27-year-old Australian with five years of facing down the hecklers, suggests she is both robust enough and funny enough to face down any doubters.

While she is highly critical of sexism in society, she does not see herself as any kind of equal rights campaigner.

Burns is just one admirer who thinks Kendall will prove a point for women comics whether she means to or not.

In the meantime, she makes just one request: "We don't believe in positive discrimination or tokenism, we just want a level playing field."

The winner of the Perrier Comedy Awards is announced at midnight on Saturday, 28August.


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