Jayne Dowle: A funny thing happened to women in comedy

LET me tell you a funny story. Go on, let me. I won't remember the punchline and I'll get all the characters mixed up, but that's because I'm a girl. It is a fact, unproven by scientific research as far as I know, that most women can't tell jokes. That said, there are exceptions. Like my friend Julie, who posted this as her Facebook status the other day and made me laugh out loud; "Just got an email from Screwfix. Disappointed to find it's not a dating agency".

I bet, even though researchers have come up with the official top 50 funniest jokes of all time, that not many female comedians rely on them to get a laugh. Especially when you consider that the top joke overall is the one about the woman who gets on the bus with her ugly baby and someone thinks it's a monkey. I can hear you splitting your sides.

But just because we can't tell jokes doesn't mean we aren't funny. What we do best is stories and observational stuff. And here in Yorkshire we do that better than most. It used to be said that in the North-East, if you went to the top of a coal-mine and whistled down, a football team would come up.

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Here in Yorkshire, if you sit on a bus, or find yourself queuing at a market stall, you are likely to end up with enough comic material to prevent Alan Bennett ever getting writer's block again. A woman who once stood on Barnsley Market was telling me about her customers. Her favourite story was about the old dear who splashed out and bought some soft-ply toilet rolls because "she was having posh guests". The next week, she brought them back for a refund, "because the guests didn't come". Is it any surprise that the late Les Dawson is most fondly remembered for Cissie and Ada, his drag act with Roy Barraclough? You'll still find those

two on any bus-trip, folding their arms across their bosoms and rolling their eyes.

It is gentle humour, I admit. But if you are ever lucky enough to go away for the weekend with a bunch of Yorkshire lasses, then I can guarantee that you will spend half of it with tears of laughter running down your cheeks.

It's the same observational stuff that made our grandmothers laugh. Nothing is sacred. And they give as good as they get from the blokes. If that sounds frightening, then they are only playing them at their own game. And somehow, they're funnier, because their verbal wit is sharper and they don't have to rely on crude insults to set everybody off.

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So I do despair when I see young female comedians desperately trying to shock with routines about tampons. Germaine Greer argues that female comics are only too willing to turn themselves into grotesques, and "to base their comedy in a disparagement of their physical selves". "Putting themselves down" in other words. Even mistresses of the form, like Dawn French and Jo Brand, get laughs by mocking their weight. This is where Catherine Tate excels; she takes all those female stereotypes, the nymphomaniac nurse, the cackling old granny, and takes them to extremes. It's the knowing way she does it that makes it funny, but she has had the luxury of a television show in which to develop her characters.

But most stand-ups – with a few extremely talented exceptions, like Victoria Wood, Peter Kay and Eddie Izzard – makes me cringe. It's that expectation that you've got to laugh because you've paid for it. It is interesting though that the comics who are really good at it excel with material which crosses the gender barrier. If Peter Kay mentions "putting the big light on" or Eddie Izzard goes off into a ramble about cats drilling for gold, it doesn't matter whether you're male or female. But really, there is nothing more squirm-making than a woman whingeing about her periods in front of 500 people.

Can you blame women for trying so hard? When we see the likes of Michael McIntyre earning wads as he struts the stage waffling about his shed, you can understand why we think we can do better. And I can understand why, on television shows like Mock the Week the token woman – it's always a token woman – fancies giving the boys a run for

their money.

But watching it is like being stuck at a sales conference with a load of lads in cheap suits competing over the size of their bonuses. They're not listening, and they don't care. They might say that they prize a woman for her "sense of humour" above her looks, but not when she's funnier

than them.

I'm not admitting defeat though. I think it is time to accept that we are just as funny as the fellas, with or without the so-called jokes. And we don't need to stand up to prove it.