Weird Seance summons… Lynne Parker
Despite the wealth of brilliant female comedians - think Katherine Ryan, Sara Pascoe, Jo Brand - many still think 'women aren't funny'. Lynne Parker [fourth from right], is the founder of Funny Women and a champion of female comedians. She talks to Amy Kean about why so many men (and too many women) think females aren't funny, the creativity of comedy, and her ongoing mission.
An English female comedian, a Scottish female comedian, a Welsh female comedian and an Irish female Comedian walk into a bar.
The barman says: “Hi ladies, only one of you can play the comedy night tonight cos we’ve already got five men.”
Why did the female comedian cross the road? Because she was walking to the comedy club where she’s token female on the lineup.
In 1998 Jerry Lewis told a group at the US Comedy Arts Festival; “I don’t like any female comedians… a woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit.
A female comedian.
A female comedian who?
REALLY? EVEN IN 2022 WE’RE DOING THIS?!
The question of whether women are naturally funny or not is still asked in certain pockets of society. In 1998 Jerry Lewis told a group at the US Comedy Arts Festival; “I don’t like any female comedians… a woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.” Everybody has a right to their own opinion. Especially male comedians, it seems! A number of whom are doing very well at the moment courting controversy by being mean to minorities, thus guaranteeing good numbers for their Netflix specials.
Above: Founder of Funny Women, Lynne Parker.
It’s a funny old game. And Lynne Parker knows the rules well.
Lynne is one of those people that I believe truly owns a space, and owns it magnificently. Funny Women is a community of women who are and want to be funny, using comedy to boost their confidence and make a mark in the stale corporate world. She believes in using comedy to spark positive change for women in the workplace. So, Parker has a very precise lane and, over the last 20 years, she’s turned that lane into a yellow brick road; a Wizardess of Oz in an industry that takes itself way too seriously.
I’d like to see women getting weirder, everywhere, without being written off as witches or crazy cat ladies.
I’ve always wondered why women are considered less funny than men. I think it can be a true observation, sometimes, but only due to the socialisation of boys and girls from a very young age, in which boys are encouraged to play the fool whilst girls are told to work hard and obey. Even now.
Women aren’t celebrated for being weird, really. I’d like to see women getting weirder, everywhere, without being written off as witches or crazy cat ladies. So, I decided to have a chat with Lynne about the pressures on women in society to conform, and how it’s incredibly difficult to be taken seriously as a woman… if you’re not serious.
Above: Parker, forth from right, at last year's Funny Women Awards.
AK: Hello, Lynne! Tell me a joke.
LP: I leave the joke-telling to the pros! I’m not a comedian, not intentionally anyway. If I’d wanted to be, I would have done it years ago. My role is to facilitate, coach and encourage women to have their own voice via the Funny Women community.
I’m not a comedian, not intentionally anyway. My role is to facilitate, coach and encourage women.
AK: Now, I always like to start my interviews in the same weird way. Can you please draw me a picture of the inside of your mind? Feel free to be as ridiculous and creative as you like!
LP: It’s a tangled web; there are two parts like a ‘normal’ brain looks, but many electrodes going backwards and forwards all the time, night and day. My brain is on 24/7, even in my sleep, but that’s a good creative space. Perchance to dream and all that.
Above: Parker's self-portrait of her brain.
AK: Have you ever dreamed an idea that you made happen in real life? When I was a kid I used to dream songs and then wake up and write them down. They were pretty terrible. Weird, though.
LP: Oh yes! I had full scale theatrical productions going on in my dreams! My crazy father (long since deceased) used to facilitate my early ambitions by building a stage in the garage and providing seating in the narrow driveway for me to put on shows featuring all the neighbourhood kids. This does now all feel like a crazy dream but definitely fed into my decision to create Funny Women.
The classic is when a promoter says, "I don’t need another woman on the bill because I already have one’" Why not have two, three or an all female bill?
AK: All good creatives have a purpose. What’s yours? And how long did it take to find it?
LP: How long have you got?
AK: About 1000 words…
LP: OK, I’ll give you the condensed version. I’ve always set out to prove (following a very linear grammar school education) that you can make a living doing what comes naturally and creatively; writing, drawing, performing and more. So, I trained as a journalist, went into PR, ran several businesses and then a light went on when I did some work for a comedy client. Where were the women on the comedy circuit? Were they invisible, or just not being booked? I was told, when I asked the promoter I worked for, that “women aren’t funny” and that “there are no funny women”. Twenty years on and I’ve proved him wrong many times over.
And, just when I think that I might be able to walk away and hand over the baton to a different kind of positioning, it all starts over again! The classic is when a promoter says, "I don’t need another woman on the bill because I already have one’" Why not have two, three or an all female bill? Unfortunately, female comics are still judged on their appearance, and when I first set up Funny Women there was a ‘dumbing down’, so no fashion statements or makeup. It was seen as objectifying. Whereas now it’s more about owning our femininity or diversity. Role models include Katherine Ryan, Sara Pascoe, Susan Calman (wears makeup!), and look out for Jayde Adams about to rip up the dance floor on BBC Strictly.
Above: Trailblazing comedic role model, Katherine Ryan.
AK: And how does Funny Women fix the problems of sexism in the LOL industry? What kind of stuff do you do?
LP: We’re an incubator for new talent. I want women to have a voice both professionally and personally, and being comfortable around humour and using comedy makes you memorable. Women are more risk averse, hence why there are more male comics than female. So, we provide a safe environment to exercise your feminine funny bones both online and in real life. I’ve been running my Stand Up to Stand Out comedy workshops for 14 years and our online Comedy Crash Courses are one of the best things to come out of lockdown. Ongoing at the moment are the 2022 Funny Women Awards which provide opportunities for women who want to perform, write or create comedy.
AK: You specialise in women being funny, but I want to talk to you about women being weird, because I think the two are related. Are women groomed to become boring in society? Is that the biggest hurdle to women being celebrated as comedians?
LP: We need to embrace being weird. I strongly identify with being weird and often use the term very glibly. We used to call people eccentric or wacky but now we have measures for neurodiversity, we are all somewhere on the ‘weird scale’ aren’t we?
If I had a pound for every woman who has told me she’s not funny I would be indescribably wealthy.
We use this as a catch-all for anything out of the ordinary and if, like me, or a comedian, you say it like it is, certain sectors don’t like it. In these difficult and changing times there’s no need for boundaries. It it seems we can still exploit women to make pornography or sell clothes on anorexic models, but FUNNY?! Never! I run my Stand Up to Stand Out workshops to empower women to do just that; say what they think, when it comes into their heads, and with passion and volume.
AK: What kind of women come to you, in search of their ‘funny’? And what are the biggest personal barriers they have to overcome when putting themselves out there?
LP: If I had a pound for every woman who has told me she’s not funny I would be indescribably wealthy. We second guess ourselves all the time, as it’s not the societal norm for women to express themselves with humour unless (now) they are on stage in a comedy club. I get all sorts of women – all ages, ethnicities, neurodivergence, ability – there is no template. The funniest women are often a complete surprise package. I just want all women to have the freedom to express themselves honestly and not be fearful of using their innate sense of humour.
Above: 2021's Funny Women Stage Award winner, Lara Ricote.
AK: What’s the sociology or psychology of women and humour though? Because little girls are the strangest, funniest things ever. What, over time, changes?
LP: Women are still conditioned to be submissive in many cultures, and humour is often the domain of males who want to ‘laugh a woman into bed’. Dating apps rate GSOH high up in a female’s search for a male mate.
Male comedians brag about having “gag hags” (groupies!). Women just get odd stalkers. The use of comedy and humour are seen as masculine attributes, tied up with power, posture and presence. When I started out I used to be told all the time that ‘all female comedians are lesbians’. Thankfully this narrative has been exposed in recent years for its inaccuracy and bigotry.
Women are still conditioned to be submissive in many cultures, and humour is often the domain of males who want to ‘laugh a woman into bed’.
AK: So, is there a stereotype for what the standard female comedian looks like and tells jokes about?
LP: The stereotypes were created by the media and some archaic comedy promoters. The comedy world has been ‘levelling up’ very successfully, particularly in the last 10 years, and this is being reflected on TV and in good clubs. Culture is always a reflection of our society and I don’t want to see us going backwards again, which is why I keep on keeping on.
AK: I have a hunch that - given the times we’re in - a lot of mainstream comedy has become very literal; driven by soundbites that get bundled into social clips that will rile people up and not nearly as surreal as it used to be. Who out there is taking risks at the moment?
LP: All good comedy takes risks. Comedians say out loud what is going on in most of our politically correct and high minded heads, so it’s bound to offend somebody, somewhere. I’ve just come back from the Edinburgh Fringe and there’s a new wave of surreal comedy, with clowning and generally offbeat stuff. Last year’s Funny Women Stage Award winner, Lara Ricote, is making real waves and she combines some clowning techniques with stand up. She is partially deaf, Mexican, and uprooted herself to live in Amsterdam. To some this is considered a ‘weird’ combination, so people are taking notice and she’s getting rave reviews.
Above: Comedian Jayde Adams will be competing in this year's Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC.
AK: What’s the weirdest (most amazing) performance you’ve seen from a woman lately?
LP: Probably Jayde Adams’ show at Edinburgh Fringe; Men, I Can Save You. She owns the stage, uses mime, and generally subverts all the norms.
AK: Do women tend to joke about certain things at your workshops? Are there any recurrent themes?
LP: All the usual suspects: relationships, sexuality, ethnicity, family… there's a huge trend for neurodiversity and menopause currently, post-lockdown. We’ve all had a lot of time to think about things.
[Comedy is] honest, raw and unfiltered, so what could be more creative?
AK: How creative is comedy? Describe to me the process… it’s not just as simple as writing down jokes, surely?
LP: Now, I need to write a book about this! In brief, comedy is the ultimate manifestation of the creative process. Being able to iterate what goes on in your head by performing, writing, or creating something visual that makes people laugh, is a real talent. Actors often acknowledge that comedy parts are far more challenging than straight roles. It’s the art of getting an idea or thought onto a stage, into a script or onto social media – it’s honest, raw and unfiltered, so what could be more creative?
Above: The glass ceiling has been reinforced with double glazing.
AK: Let’s talk a bit about ageism, because I know this is something you’re passionate about. Do you think midlife women feel like outsiders at work? For me, there’s a power in being the outsider. Creatively, at least. But I guess that depends on how you’re treated and what opportunities you’re given?
LP: I’ve always felt like an outsider and, while I agree there is power in that, my generation didn’t have the advantages that we have now. I didn't have social media to express my views when I was a young woman and I was ‘dumbed down’ at my traditional grammar school because I had an opinion on pretty much everything! That wasn’t ‘ladylike’ and they didn’t like disruptors like me who wanted to change the world. There was very little space to be clever and weird and being from a working class background who hadn’t had much education, nobody in my family knew what to do with me either!
I’m still on a mission and, like many women of my generation, we’ve done so much to change things - all the bra burning and protesting can’t be in vain.
Now I’m old and weird and fucking mouthy there is power in that, but I can’t get away with as much as I could when I was young. The invisibility cloak is real and, given that the glass ceiling was put in place by my generation, and now there’s ‘double glazing’ to keep us out. There’s a perception and, indeed, some truth in the fact that a lot of us in our sixties have had enough and want to retire or do something else. I’m still on a mission and, like many women of my generation, we’ve done so much to change things - all the bra burning and protesting can’t be in vain. As a young woman starting out as a magazine journalist it was the older ‘wise women’ who I turned to for advice, help and guidance. That was the making of me.
AK: I love this. I think women need to get better at letting each other be loud. But, more importantly, be loud in whichever way they want to be loud, whether that loudness sounds weird or unorthodox. Are we there yet? Dunno. But the invisibility cloak can kiss my arse.
LP: Mine too.