Funny girls

Of course they're funny - they continue to survive endless womanhood, writes Karen Hardy.

Urzila Carlson will perform at the Canberra Comedy Festival.
Urzila Carlson will perform at the Canberra Comedy Festival. 

Christopher Hitchens once famously posed the question, ''why are women who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny?'' Here's an idea. Because they're too busy doing stuff that they don't have time to put their hilariousness on display. Or when they do, it's seen as self indulgent, and who wants to be seen as that (even if we all long to be that?) Or here's another idea. They are.

Earlier this month, Will Ferrell, who can be kind of funny himself, launched a female-focused production company to develop television and film projects about and led by women. On the back of films such as Bridesmaids, television shows such as Girls, and starring roles across all mediums from women such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (when Fey called Academy Award nominated film Gravity "the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age'' at this year's Oscars we almost choked on our popcorn from laughing so much … and don't even mention the supermodel's vagina introduction they gave Leonardo DiCaprio at the Golden Globes), female humour is back under the spotlight.

Sydney based comedian Alice Fraser.
Sydney based comedian Alice Fraser. 

But can humour be classified along gender lines?

"I know plenty of women who aren't funny," says comedian Urzila Carlson, one of a handful of women appearing at the Canberra Comedy Festival from March 4-9.

Local comedians Chris Ryan, of Garran, and Eddy Nelson, of Curtin, take on the challenge are women funnier than men.
Local comedians Chris Ryan, of Garran, and Eddy Nelson, of Curtin, take on the challenge are women funnier than men. Photo: Melissa Adams

Carlson, a South African-born New Zealander (and there's got to be a joke in that somewhere), says she doesn't think comedy is a gender thing, it's all about being able to take the piss out of yourself. (And think about Carlson saying the word piss in her hybrid accent and there's another laugh.)

"Maybe it's easier for women to do that," she says.

"Guys find it easier to say I'm funny and they take the piss out of other people but women are more cautious.

"It's not about being funnier, it's more about going about it in a different way."

Carlson, 38, previously worked in advertising and has been doing stand-up for about five years. In 2013 she won the People's Choice at the NZ International Comedy Festival and featured at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival the same year.

This will be her first time in Canberra - "All I know is that it will be hot and I'll need to pack cotton pants" - and she's looking forward to the Comedy Festival.

"A pessimist looks at a situation and thinks what will be the worst thing that could happen, an optimist thinks what's the best thing … I think what's the funniest thing that could happen … Canberra might be a bit like that."

Sydney-based comedian Alice Fraser is more familiar with the Canberra comedy scene.

"I'm allergic to politicians but I really like Canberra," she says. "It's a fun, intelligent place to be with a cool arts scene, it feels edgy and dynamic."

And no, she's not joking.

"I'm not a political comedian though: I talk more about social issues, why things are happening rather than about the who. The news cycle doesn't interest me, I'm more interested in the why."

Fraser, 27, will be appearing on her own and as part of the all-girl group Aggressively Helpful during the Comedy Festival.

She's been described as super-smart, delightful and occasionally heartbreaking.

Will she be drawn on the idea that women are funnier than men?

"I actually got into comedy because someone told me girls aren't funny," she says. "It was the first time I really encountered discrimination. I have a twin brother and we were brought up the same, I went to an all girls school and we were young feminists and then studying law at Sydney University everyone was very egalitarian.

"The first time someone told me I couldn't do something because I was a girl was when I wanted to do comedy."

She worked her way up through the improv scene at university before heading to the Cambridge Footlights Club and later New York, where there wasn't a big improv scene so she moved into stand-up. She came back to Australia and started work as a corporate lawyer but left after 18 months and went into comedy full-time.

"I don't think comedy and humour is a gender thing, other than that gender is a part of who we are in the world. And all good comedy is about reality and the reality is that women and men have slightly different experiences of the world.

"I try to do comedy that brings people together, brings them to the same idea, whether they are men or women."

Chris Ryan and Eddy Nelson haven't let the fact that they've both always got 48 things going on at once get in the way of their stand-up. Indeed, sometimes that's their schtick.

As mothers and wives, with careers outside comedy, they feed off the humour that fills their hectic lives. Their show at the Comedy Festival is titled Unexpected Item and touches on what happens in a Tarago with four kids in the back, bad dancing and parenting skills, or lack thereof.

Nelson, 41, mother of four kids aged 12, 10, 9, 7 - "My own personal New Year's Eve countdown" - got into comedy because she was going "slightly mad at home with four children under five".

"What I discovered is that it actually sucked, that I didn't like little children all that much and it wasn't that much fun."

So she took her cynicism to the stage.

"I'd say things to my friends that we were all thinking … so why not get up on stage and cast myself as the mean mother."

But there's more to it than "housewife humour". She admits some people might find it confronting depending on their parenting style, but it's about keeping it real.

"I've realised that it's important to be who you are on stage. In real life I'm a very chatty, loud, outgoing person. I thought, bugger it, I have to be who I am, so I'm that cynical, bitchy old mother on stage as well."

Nelson is exaggerating - a little. She's been doing comedy since 2009 but "you could cram it into six months" because she has to fit it around everything else.

She initially did a four-week workshop with Canberra comedian Jay Sullivan and learned the process of comedy, the writing, the technique. There were two women out of the 20 participants.

She says comedy can be a hard gig for women.

"You'll get a couple of young comics at an open mic night and the young guy will get up tell a couple of dick jokes and his mates will laugh and he'll come off and go, 'I killed it' … and the woman will get up and tell three jokes and get great laughs and she'll go, 'The quality of the laughter wasn't that good', despite the fact she got more laughs.

"We can be hard on ourselves."

In 2012 she was at a Raw Comedy heat at Tilleys and met up with Chris Ryan. It was Ryan's first time behind the microphone so Nelson took her under her wing.

"She actually bowled up to me and went 'So you think you're a funny girl, do ya!' " says Ryan, who went on to win the heat.

"We just sort of clicked. It was good to have a buddy and as we worked more together we realised that our thing just sort of worked."

Ryan, 40, has a background in communications, is a mother of two, a girl and a boy, aged eight and one - "Comedy is like PR on steroids".

She's always loved performing, she's sung in cover bands and been involved in drama clubs right from school.

"When I thought about getting into comedy I went along to a few open mic nights just to watch and you see how bad some people are and you think 'I could do better than that'," Ryan says.

She believes comedy is a great outlet for all the shit that happens.

"All the bad things that happen to you, you can turn into comedy rather than bitch and moan … well you are bitching and moaning up on stage, but at least you're making it a little bit funny if it works. If it doesn't work it's just sad really isn't it?"

She agrees it can become a little self-indulgent but you can't let it get out of hand.

"We're not 20, we have families to look after and are blessed to have such supportive partners, we find time to write and rehearse and vent in between everything else.

"It's hard sometimes but you know what? If you go and do a gig and you die on stage, you come home and your kids still think you're funny and awesome and your partner makes you a cup of tea [and] everything is OK with the world."

So are women funnier than men?

"No comedian will hit the mark for everyone, but looking at our lives, you just have to laugh, don't you."

The Canberra Comedy Festival, March 4-9, various venues around Canberra. canberracomedyfestival.com.au