“I love a man who cries. When I hit him.” The punchline was so unexpected, I had to laugh out loud. Her trembling voice helped, as well as her appearance. A slender woman in a cinched-at-the waist, swingy 50s-style dress and high-heeled ankle boots, who clearly posed no physical threat.
It was part of a comedy special that I saw on YouTube back in the early years. Only much later did I realise it was Tina Fey, first female head writer of Saturday Night Live (SNL) and creator of 30 Rock, the sitcom based on her time at SNL.
‘The Golden Girls’
I grew up with funny women in my life and on the screen. Funny men too, of course. In the 1970s and 1980s, Carol Burnett, Miss Piggy and The Golden Girls were great for a laugh.
But comedy, especially stand-up, is not for everyone. It is an art form that by definition is performed, and some people simply don’t like a tailored joke.
At some point I decided stand-up was the highest, bravest and purest art form. To stare into the bleary eye of humanity’s madness and put a funny spin on it takes some doing. Or perhaps your own madness, or that of your parents, boss or children. It never ceases to amaze where the truly gifted comedians draw inspiration from.
In 2000 there were relatively few female comedians and even fewer stand-ups. And it was pretty obvious that the hottest women didn’t gravitate towards the comedy stage. Because when men said they liked a woman with a sense of humour, they meant a woman who laughed at their jokes. Not a Delilah who could rip them seven new orifices, and in front of their friends at that!
Phyllis Diller went forth and multiplied
“In comedy it helps to be, in some way, not ideally beautiful because that tends to make you grow up not funny,” said Phyllis Diller in 1992, with a chuckle.
Diller (1917-2012) was America’s first famous female stand-up — and she was beautiful, but she hid behind baggy dresses, a wild wig and self-deprecating humour. As the only female stand-up on American stages in the 1950s, male colleagues regarded her with an expression of “beat it with a stick before it multiplies”.
And multiply she did. The late Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres have credited Diller as inspiration.
Sourdough for the soul
I choose to watch comedy because I do believe laughter is good medicine. I didn’t go out of my way to find funny women just to prove a point; comedians turned to social media during the pandemic, and it was sourdough for the soul.
Once the Metaverse knows what you like, the algorithm takes care of the rest. Sarah Cooper’s lip-syncing of Donald Trump’s batty statements went viral and landed her a Netflix special.
Not to forget the stalwarts, such as Tracey Ullman’s impersonations of female world leaders, or Kristen Wiig’s SNL sketches in which she delivers the full spectrum of female neurosis, or Wanda Sykes who cuts through dummies and double standards with a withering side-eye.
“To me, the whole complaint about cancel culture is a lot of men — especially straight men — are just pissed that they can’t say things any more, y’know?” says Sykes.
“And it’s not like you can’t say these things. You can say them, but now there’s just consequences.”
Wanda says only God can cancel her (which will be the day she kicks the bucket), and to this my instinctive, decidedly less bold reaction is: Whoa Wanda, don’t tempt fate!
Catherine Tate’s menagerie of batty characters — such as “Am I bovvered?” Lauren — has long been balm for the soul, but I only grasped the extent of her genius with Hard Cell on Netflix, a mockumentary she wrote, produced and directed, and in which she played six characters. Netflix clearly disagreed as it cancelled the series without informing Tate personally, which, quite understandably, bovvered her.
Trends emerged, for example that Canadian and Australian women are pretty damn funny. The Canadian comedy group that created the Baroness von Sketch Show extracts comedy gold from the everyday situations seemingly mature women tend to find themselves in.
Laura Ramoso from Toronto amassed more than 700,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram with hilarious impressions of her German mother and Italian father, as well as characters such as “that one girl who just got back from Amsterdam”.
Aussie Celeste Barber’s Instagram videos, in which she takes the mickey out of the impossible beauty standards that proliferate on social media, brought her international fame, a Netflix series, and and and…
But the two that stand out for their razor-sharp wit, brutal honesty and fearlessness are Judith Lucy in Judith Lucy vs Men (sadly no longer on Netflix) and Hannah Gadsby's Nanette (Netflix).
“I know better than anyone that what I did with Nanette wasn’t technically comedy — it’s not like I realised halfway through the show, fuck, I've run out of jokes, best I tell a sad story,” Gadsby said. The controversial Nanette probably won’t go down well with the brandy and Coke brigade but to me it equals the brilliant intensity of Bill Hicks.
‘Suzelle DIY’ and ‘Sussa’
Locally, Suzelle DIY was an online success long before the pandemic, but Julia Anastasopoulos’ series Tali’s Joburg Diary on Showmax introduced me to the hilarious Coconut Kelz character, aka writer and comedian Lesego Tlhabi, @coconut_kelz on IG. She roasts it as she sees it.
During the pandemic, Sutherland started doing intimate huiskonserte (house concerts) in which she plays four diverse women. From overly-concerned tannie Elsie to Luna, a voluptuous new-age healer type in a sexy bathing suit, and Verna Koekemoer who preaches the gospel through bodybuilding and the Swingers for Jesus club she started with her boyfriend, Christo, an ex-dominee.
How do the volk cope with so many holy cows on a kebab? “In such an intimate space, the bathing suit already shocks a lot of people, and then also the topics that I address… But actually everyone — old, young, men and women — they’ve all embraced it,” says Mandri.
She still draws on her childhood in Standerton for material. “I’ve held on to the knowledge of what it’s like without ever really poking fun at it. It comes from a soft place. I’m not trying to put people down. And I don’t choose sides between men and women. I invite everyone to the table for a complete meal.”
Brilliant Leanne Morgan
As I was crafting a slightly pious sentence about how it’s never necessary to get angry at comedy or comedians, it hit me: Leanne Morgan! How could I almost forget about Leanne?
She’s everything I never expected in a brilliant stand-up: a Southern belle in her late 50s, married to her college sweetheart, and a mother of three grown children who for decades only did stand-up at church and school functions. Her jokes are clean, or cleanish, but the delivery is where it’s at: the southern drawl and those facial expressions. But I’m not here to convince you. Leanne’s career took off in her mid-50s and now, at 58, she has her first Netflix special, (I’m Every Woman).
“Do you think Leanne Morgan is a Republican?” I recently asked an American guest from the deep south. “I mean, would she… uhm… do you think she’s a… Trump supporter?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Does it really matter?”
“Yeeeah,” I drawled. “I guess not.”
♦ VWB ♦
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