Mixed Bill is GO!

 

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Earlier this year, around a kitchen table, two other amazing women and myself established Mixed Bill, a comedy and gender research network. Sara Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life (2017) writes evocatively on the significance of tables for feminist work (gaining a place at the table, turning tables, family disagreements at the dinner table) and her work continues to inspire me to create my own opportunities to progress the feminist agenda of my work. In this instance with a (to use Ahmed’s term) ‘fragile’ feminist network external to any one institution.

I had been thinking about producing an engagement event in relation to my research for a while and couldn’t think of two better partners in crime than Lisa Moore of the University of Salford and Kate Fox, stand-up poet and PhD candidate at Leeds University. Together we are a pretty formidable team and our research areas and interests fit very nicely alongside each other.  The event we have been planning is shaping up to be the mother of all symposia. It has been quite tricky to plan due to the quality and range of abstracts we received – we had to make some ruthless decisions as every single abstract outlined a paper that we would have loved to have seen.

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Last week we sat down and thrashed it out and have programmed an event that feels in many ways quite revolutionary. We aren’t running concurrent papers so everyone’s voice can be heard by all attendees. There is nothing more frustrating than having to pick between attending one presentation when another, just as relevant, is taking place down the hall – although maybe being the presenter of a paper to a split audience is a contender for the crown? The opportunity for those researching gender and comedy, a growing field, to engage and be challenged by so many different approaches that speak directly to their area is exciting too – as often gender and comedy is ring-fenced in a panel of its own within larger discussions of comedy (those researching gender and comedy often find themselves thrown together irrespective of the way their paper may be a better fit with, say, panels on political satire or musical comedy). As the fundamental premise of our event is women and comedy and the opportunities women have to represent themselves through comedy, the programmed panels give a chance to address this from multiple perspectives, with multiple examples from different countries, eras and approaches.

Our event will also include several non-traditional presentations/ performances and interventions into the area to give attendees the chance to engage with (and learn from) the ideas and opinions of those who work within comedy and performance. We are pushing very hard to ensure our event is inclusive to all and are discussing various approaches we can take to try to impact on the diversity of our field. We all feel strongly that we have to go beyond just saying we want to be diverse in our programming and attendance make-up to find active and practical ways of addressing this.

It is very exciting to be setting off on this new adventure with Mixed Bill, as producing events and inspiring engagement as part of a team is where I think I work best. Between us we have lots of ideas about where to explore next and I also can’t wait to meet all the amazing people who will be joining us at the start of this exciting new phase for gender and comedy research in October.

ONWARDS.

More on Mixed Bill and our first event here.

 

 

Kid most likely

 

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February 2017 was notable – I was published for the first time…. and no I will not stop banging on about it. I can (nay will) be referenced!

Tomsett, E. (2017) ‘Twenty-first century fumerist: Bridget Christie and the backlash against feminist humour’. Comedy Studies. 8:1. Taylor and Francis.

I get to use the best of all phrases in my PhD thesis now… the textbook ‘as I have argued elsewhere’. Exciting times.

The article evolved from a conference presentation I gave way back in 2014 at the University of Hull and centres around the argument that 2013, although notable for its many high profile successes for female comics, was not the ‘FINALLY THE WOMEN HAVE ARRIVED’ all-out party the media seemed to think it was. In terms of the party metaphor, it wasn’t really even time to open the buffet. In fact just as with every advancement for women into areas of labour outside the home, there was a swift inverse reaction, this time played out through reactionary and sexist humour.

I’m in the process of finishing the draft of my follow up article which will explore uses of self-deprecation in stand-up comedy. I was in total lock down over the Xmas period finishing the thesis chapter upon which this article will be based and am now counting the seconds until the end of term so I can get a day off.

Oh yeah and I have also recently co-founded a research network (Mixed Bill) – more on that here.

In other news…..

A random recent moment was the sudden posting of this image to social media by a fellow student of my high school (a school that has subsequently had both a name change and a complete facelift… as if in a kind of witness protection programme for buildings). The classic Sixth Form leaving book activity of ‘Person most likely’ – decorated with some pretty flipping snazzy clip art.

I had a vague memory of this… but here it was again in black and white. Five words that drive at the very heart of everything that, as an adult, regularly and completely does my head in.

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SRSLY?

FEMALE. VERSION. OF. PAUL. MERTON

This was the early 2000s (equality was achieved by then right, guys – *eye roll*) and 18 year old me didn’t really think twice about this – fast forward 3 years and this would have not stood for a second. At university I learnt that I’m not the female version of anything, thanks very much. I’m not some kind of rubbish tribute act to a guy who’s funny on TV.

I’ll be tackling this kind of subtle reinforcing of gendered expectation in the introduction to my research – as this really gets to the crux of why I am interested my area. The enduring need for society to define people in binary and to give women power or station only in its relation to their male counterparts. This renegotiation of gendered expectations constantly plays out through humour… another thing for the introduction to the thesis then.

Oh and my bestie Amy is kick-ass CBT therapist, not an interior designer – so take that The Man!

 

 

 

2016 in review and resolutions

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smash it up and start again

2016 upon reflection…

Jan : Planned and wrote all the lectures and session plans (from scratch) for my TV Comedy and Drama module at SHU.

Feb/ Mar/ Apr: A blur of endless teaching and commuting to and from Sheffield. 2 sets of board pens ruined. It was cold and rainy. That’s all I have in terms of memories of this period.

May: The markathon. Also briefly left the house to see Penny Arcade’s Loving Lasts Longer at Contact Theatre.

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Festival face

June: Having completed marking I headed off to Barcelona for the Primavera Sound Music Festival (my 3rd visit). Greatly enjoyed the line-up which included LCD Soundsystem (who were off the chart amazing – I never thought I’d have the chance to see them live) Tame Impala, Wild Nothing, Suede, AR Kane, Daughter, Air, Savages, Radiohead, Beirut, Brian Wilson doing Pet Sounds, Orchestra Baobab, Bradford Cox… and so on….. Plus there was a really cool punk exhibition in the Modern Art museum in Barcelona too (which is where I took the photo of the smashed up room above).

July: Wrote my paper (Positives and Negatives: Reclaiming the Female Body and Self-Deprecation in Stand-up Comedy) for the Mock the Weak conference.

 

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Plan ahead

Aug: Headed up to the Edinburgh Festival – saw the following Daniel Kitson, Bridget Christie, Lolly Adefope, Tez Ilyas,  Alison Spittle, David O’Doherty, Tessa Waters, Grainne Maguire, Ellie Taylor, Elf Lyons.……Oh and I completed designing the programme for the Women in Comedy Festival.

 

Sept: Presented my paper at Mock The Week Conference at University of Teesside and subsequently had the abstract of my paper accepted as part of a special issue of Comedy Studies Journal in 2018. Saw Amy Schumer perform live at the Manchester Apollo. Commenced mentoring my Arts Emergency student.

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Books and boxes

Oct: Moved house – will never be moving again. Watched a huge amount of comic talent as part of Women in Comedy Festival 2016! Started back at MMU working with the first year filmmakers on Contextualising Practice.

Nov: Tried to get our house into a house shape plus teaching, writing, writing, writing.

Dec: Xmased. Bunkered down for a few weeks to get a chapter of my thesis drafted.

2017 looking ahead…..

Resolutions:

 

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A start

1: Read more fiction by female writers – I read a huge amount of non-fiction by female academics and theorists but as an avid reader and stories I need to up my game. I have just finished Chris Kraus’ epistolary novel I Love Dick and stacked up on the bookshelf ready for deployment are a variety of novels to enjoy – including titles by Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, Harper Lee, Sarah Waters and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who was responsible for one of the most admirable television moments of 2016 when she reminded the terrifyingly short-sighted, Trump supporting editor of the U.S Spectator that as a white man he doesn’t get to decide who can feel discriminated against by racism (See here). How she remained composed when faced with such unbelievable ignorance was frankly astounding.

 

2: Accept that I can’t do everything – 2016 was a tough cookie and probably the limit for me in terms of commitments I can undertake whilst studying and trying to remain a functioning human being. There was a lot of turning down social engagements/ invites and then feeling guilty about having to do so. Moving house was also an exhausting and time-consuming activity and so 2017 will be about refocusing on what matters and accepting that I can’t be all things to all people. Get the research written, write the journal articles that have been accepted, teach to the best of my ability and be nicer to myself.

3: Try and do practical things that impact positively on others. Last year was basically a series of mornings that I woke up and cried about the direction humanity is heading in. I reject the inward looking rhetoric of placing certain nationalities/ classes/ economic groups/ ethnicities/ religions above others (anything that ends with the term ‘first’ needs to seriously consider the message it is sending). I will not let this stop me being positive but nor will I shut up and let thing just happen unchallenged either. The resources I have are small (and in many cases irrelevant – I research comedy) and I might not be able to do everything (see above) but I am hoping to find ways to make practical contributions myself and to facilitate others in making small contributions of time and skills to small organisations/ charities that need help too (by revolutionising the way one of the organisations I work for makes use of its volunteering policy).

4: March – www.womensmarchlondon.com Today there is an image in the press of two rich white men giving everyone the thumbs up having successfully stirred up hatred and division. In the background of this photo is a framed cover of a Playboy cover. This image says absolutely everything about how inequality is maintained and how systems continue to discriminate and ‘other’ those who do not come from privilege. NO MORE.

Mock The Weak Conference

Back in September I had the chance to present a small (but significant) aspect of my research at the Mock The Weak conference at the University of Teesside. The conference organisers Sarah Illot and Helen Davies had brought together a variety of researchers, academics and industry professionals to discuss comedy and the politics of representation. It was a great opportunity for me to explore some of the themes I am engaging with in one of my chapters – the use of self-deprecation and, conversely, body positivity in stand-up comedy by female performers.

The paper I presented  was called Positives and Negatives: Reclaiming the Female Body and Self-Deprecation in Stand-up Comedy (snappy title eh). Here’s a shot of my PowerPoint up and ready to go (with a cameo from Rosie White who chaired the panel).

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Presenting in the theatre at Stockton Arc

 

The audience offered some great points for further consideration and asked some interesting questions. Many hadn’t seen the work of the comedian I used as my key example (Luisa Omielan) and so the decision to play a short clip of her work was definitely the right way to go.

One of the really useful things about the conference was that it kicked off with a workshop for early career researchers in publishing. Having just (I mean literally just  – as in the day before going to the conference) finished making amendments to an article following on from peer review, it felt timely to reflect on the challenges this throws up for PhD researchers. It was exactly the kind of workshop you wish you had attended before you started your PhD. In the session we had the opportunity to hear about the experiences of Dr Rosie White, who was awarded her Doctorate in the late 90s, and early career researcher Megan Sormus, and talk through the process from submission to publication. All the PhD candidates in the room discussed the difficulty of getting our heads round the REF (Research Excellence Framework) and what, if anything, this meant in terms of the work we would hopefully go on to publish whilst studying. The ever-present pressure to spin all the different plates (getting the research written, gaining teaching experience, getting articles published) simultaneously was also explored. I definitely left the room feeling more aware of what I should be focusing on and some of the key things I need to consider the next time I submit work for publication (it seems very much like I lucked out – approaching a journal cold and their responding swiftly and positively). There’s a great summary of advice form the workshop here.

The conference included a broad range of topics and approaches (Rob Hawkes on Stewart Lee and trust, Kate Fox on Northernness and class in comedy, were just a few of the highlights) as well as illuminating keynotes from Anshuman Mondal and Sharon Lockyer.

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The two days concluded with a panel discussion  which gave a really eye-opening account of the complex issues involved in comedy and representation, and featured contributions from a range of perspectives, including comedian Kate Smurthwaite, Lynne Parker from Funny Women (both of whom  I have interviewed as part of my research), trans activist and comedian Clare Parker, comedy writer and director Matthew Greenhough and Akua Gymafi founder of the British Black List, as well as the keynote speakers and conference organisers.

The conference blog is still active and includes interviews with several of the presenters for the event. Check it out here.

 

 

Fringed

Last week I headed up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of my research to see some funny women in action. As is traditional all of the weathers were happening as illustrated in the image below.

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A brief break in the rain

What is particularly great about Fringe for me as a researcher is the opportunity to see so many varied performances in such a short space of time. As I have just started putting together the brochure for the UK Women in Comedy Festival (taking place in Manchester 20th-30th October – more info here) I could work out who I would be able to see on my home turf later in the year and prioritise accordingly. Nothing beats experiencing the Fringe first hand and even between shows I picked up a lot of useful information and did some really helpful thinking about how this festival is directly linked to my subject of study.

Fringe-specific things of note for me:

  1. The competition – There is an overwhelming amount of shows happening simultaneously so it is interesting to see how different things effect the decisions made by audiences – weather, location, art-form, shows scheduled time in relation to other shows, cost (we were there during the 2 for 1 days at the start of the festival) and…..
  2. Critical commentary – The role of reviewers, bloggers and journalists in informing the decisions of the audiences is an interesting thing to consider (Sam Friedman’s  work Comedy and Distinction: The Cultural Currency of a ‘Good’ Sense of Humour (2014), remains highly relevant here). The journalism around the Fringe clearly impacts in different ways to how touring comedy is reviewed, and can be a stressful aspect of the Fringe for acts. How does getting a great review impact on the expectations the audience have for a show? Conversely how does getting an awful review impact on attendance? How do the reviews that the acts get in Edinburgh inform the audiences that they may attract when on tour? These questions definitely feed in to my own work.
  3. Flyers – I accepted every flyer handed my way with the view to seeing how in this highly competitive environment acts promote their work. How do you get the audiences attention in this environment and are do themes emerge in the way artists promote themselves? For me a key consideration is how the language of empowerment or equality may be evoked as part of the marketing of  a show by a female performer (and critically how this sits with ideas of post-feminism and the current cultural context for women).
  4. Social media and the Edinburgh Bubble – From social media it was clear that the focus during August is all things festival. Even those not performing at the Fringe were tweeting about it – either to recommend other acts, lament the fact they weren’t there or commenting on the journalism surrounding the festival. The last of these points directly relates to a tweet by comedian Sara Pascoe, who, whilst not performing at this year’s festival, publicly challenged the way journalists repeatedly ‘make a thing’ of the rise in the number of female performers by writing articles about women and comedy.

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    She argued that the only time the ‘women aren’t funny myth’ is wheeled out is as part of a defence of women in comedy. She comments  that “we [female comedians] are not a sub-culture and talking about us as if we are plays a huge part in reinforcing that comedy is ‘A Man’s Job’ and we’re novelties.”. This was obviously interesting to me as someone investigating this area, especially as I am acutely aware of how much of the writing on this subject (predominantly but not exclusively journalistic rather than academic) perpetuates a divide in humour along gendered lines. A timely reminder then that when writing on a subject it is all too easy to replicate internalised inequalities and inadvertently reinforce rather than challenge stereotypes. Pascoe is definitely not the only performer on the circuit with this view point. As part of my interviews I have encountered similar attitudes, and this is something I wish to explore further in my research.

Apart from this trip being useful in terms of experiencing the environment of Edinburgh I also tried to see as much as I could. Some plans fell by the wayside due to the bad weather, my inability to leave enough time to get to venues and general tiredness. We also took in some other Edinburgh cultural activities including the Museum of Scotland, The Scottish National Gallery, The Scottish National Portrait Gallery (specifically the Facing The World exhibition of self-portraits), and trekked about looking for record and books shops. I also had chance to catch up with a friend who I’d not seen in ages and was coincidentally sat behind me for David O’Doherty – hooray for the Edinburgh Bubble and Sam Freeman’s aggressive coffee shop table defending tactics!

 

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@SohoThatcher addresses the crowd before kick-off

So what did I see??

Mon 8thLolly Adefope – Lolly 2, David O’Doherty – Big Time, The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society (incl. Alison Spittle and Elf Lyons)

Tues 9thDaniel Kitson’s work in progress, Tez Ilyas – Made in Britain, Grainne Maguire – Great People Making Great Choices, Margaret Thatcher Queen of Gameshows (as embodied by the talented Matt Tedford) .

Wed 10thEllie Taylor – Infidelity, Viv Groskop – Be More Margo, Tessa Waters – Over Promises.

Thurs 11thBridget Christie – Mortal.

All in all a great trip and lots of things to think about going forward.

 

Really?

I’m not sure where to start with this one. It is something that I have seen a few times and always prickled at but I think I have finally worked out what my issue is and I am going to attempt to articulate it here…it is not really research related and it will 100% come across as a rant so this is your chance to get out now – you’ve been warned.

What the hell is this???!!??

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Only the best mums get promoted to grandma (?)

 

Statements such as this are prolific Facebook memes and go, in my opinion, far beyond faulty logic and venture into the somewhat offensive woodland beyond. *I am willing to accept that this may be particularly frustrating for me due to the context in which I encounter these messages (mostly amongst Facebook and Google’s ham-fisted brainwashing attempts to get me to get my head down and conform, that involves changing all online adverts to ones for Clear Blue Pregnancy tests – subtle). I see these images as just another extension of cultural reinforcement of outdated notions of women’s roles. It’s a good day to air this frustration thanks to the ongoing issues  the Tory leadership contest has thrown up.

The similarity between this and the ‘Facebook mothership challenge’ nonsense (more here) which has already been covered in detail, cannot be ignored. I’ve worked out my problem with this one specifically….

I take issue with the idea that giving your mother a grandchild is somehow a reflection of how good they are as a parent – err word up guys its not!

I’d counter the claim within the meme, by arguing that the best parents will love their children irrespective of their willingness (or ability) to procreate. Statements like the one contained in the meme not only shackles a woman’s decision to have kids to her own self-worth (which is a long standing issue – for our society to be a woman you simply must want children) but it also implies that it is a reflection on the parenting that a woman experienced herself. Again if we are getting into a debate about quality parenting I’m pretty sure making your daughter aware of her reproductive rights and ensuring she has the ability to make her own choices is pretty high up the list.

This link between an individual woman’s decision in relation to procreation and the idea that they must have had some terrible experience to make that decision is offensive and reinforced everywhere.

I feel like popping on a pair of sunglasses like the ones in John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live and revealing the truth.

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They Live (1988) the truth behind the ads

 

This meme screams YOU ARE LETTING YOUR MOTHERS DOWN BY NOT CHOOSING TO BECOME A MOTHER YOURSELF. and I. Don’t .Like .It.

It is part of what could be considered the ultimate guilt trip for women. I say women because there is not the same level of pressure placed upon males of a similar age and the male identity, under western capitalism, is not entwined with fatherhood in the same way.  Those deviating from the path of motherhood are often considered by society to be oddballs doomed to be repeatedly told what good mothers they would have been(see Kate Fox’s work on otherhood)

I’ll never forget the look of sheer confusion and bafflement on a male colleague’s face (years ago) when, upon enquiring if I wanted children, I told him I wasn’t going to answer that question because I didn’t think it had any bearing on me as a person. I believe my first response (before having to qualify it due to his inability to understand) was ‘nope don’t answer that, not relevant, next question’. He just couldn’t compute that I might not want to talk about this topic with someone I didn’t know and worked with. Worked with is the key thing here – we know that there continues to be discrimination in the workplace against women of a certain age who may become a liability to a company by going off on mat leave (see this here from The Guardian in 2015). So why, even if I had the sudden urge to discuss my reproductive abilities with a virtual stranger, would I make myself more vulnerable to workplace discrimination?

Yes some women are mothers, some women aren’t can we just get on board with that concept now. And can we stop pitting women with kids against those without them like this awful patronising piece of rubbish (here) from Kate Spicer in 2013 who uses the term ‘motherhood deniers’ and says she thinks that every woman who says she is happy without children must be lying! Wow for a writer she has a very small imagination, I don’t find it hard at all to think that within the 51% of people in the U.K that identify as women that there might be some that are happy without children. Just think if we freed up all the time we spend competing against other women, or beating ourselves up for our perceived failings, what we could achieve in terms of parity with men.

Today’s news only compounds this issue – why in 2016 are we not questioning why it is still ok for journalists to ask women ‘do you feel like a mum in politics?’ – this is just as problematic as Andrea Leadsom’s reply! (Again Kate Fox’s blog today is an excellent read)

I have plenty of friends with kids and I respect their decision to start families and vitally they respect my decisions too. They don’t see my current childlessness as a comment on their life choices and nor should they. So can we all just take a moment to consider what messages things like these memes sends out to women and respect everyone’s decisions – whether they match our own or not.

 

Processing

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Some Whitstable sunshine

This week I went along to the Comedy and Critical Thought: Laughter As Resistance? Conference. The event was a collaboration between the University of Kent’s Centre for Critical Thought, Centre for Comic and Popular Performance and the Aesthetics Research Centre. I also snuck a day off from marking on the Bank Holiday Monday and ambled about on a beach (see image above) – huge win for me.

One of the major draws of a conference like this is the chance to explore the diversity of approaches taken to humour and engage with people from such a wide range of disciplines. I expected many of the papers to be way out of my comfort zone but actually that was part of the fun. A reminder of just how much there is out there that you know nothing about is liberating – I am consciously incompetent of even more things than before.

Day one kicked off with James Williams discussing a Deleuzian critique of existing theories of humour (incl. Critchley and Freud). Although this felt a bit less like being thrown in at the deep end and more pushed into the shark tank at an aquarium, this presentation has enabled me to find a more definite articulation of one of the key aspects of my methodology. Although I am sure Williams’ presentation, which was discussing ‘Process Philosophy – How does critique operate when everything is connected?’ had much greater significance for others in attendance, I found what I did grasp illuminating and useful.

It reinforced for me why I have always been frustrated by a content analysis approach to comedy research. My decision to go beyond straightforward content analysis in my own methodology is precisely because by objectifying the humour (making it fixed and reducing it to words so it can be analysed) you remove the context, the before and after, and attempting to remove it from this context is unhelpful and naïve. As Williams put it (according to my hastily scribbled notes) we should be considering the multiplicity of these disruptive events of humour, getting beyond the binary found in the likes of Critchley and Freud (where only two different series are at play, the ‘norm’ and the ‘disruptive’, in terms of incongruity).

So basically the first keynote had me questioning my own existence. I can actually still feel my brain thinking. I’m not a fixed thing, I am a process and I am becoming. Mind blown.

 

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Other highlights included Dr Shaun May’s discussion of the neurodiveristy movement’s use of humour in highlighting the flaws in neurotypical pathologising of autism and Asperger’s, and Dr Rosie White’s paper on the work of Kathy Burke in queering understandings of femininity. Having been inspired by Rosie’s work on Lizzie and Sarah (a TV comedy created by Jessica Hynes and Julia Davis) and her arguments about the presentation of feminist messages within it, it was great to see her present in person. All attendees also got the chance to have a peek through the current exhibition of comic art as part of the Uni’s Stand-Up Comedy Archive. There were many excellent images from patriarchy-smashing comics including the one below.

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Image from the current exhibition at the Stand-Up Comedy Archive – University of Kent

Another key aspect of attending this event was the opportunity to meet with other comedy researchers. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time talking through things with Kate Fox (based at University of Leeds) whose own practice-based research is exploring a similar theme to my own (decidedly non-practice-based) research. The opportunity to talk to other comedy researchers is invaluable. The chance to be challenged and reassured is helpful when, as a PhD student, you spend so much time fighting the fight solo. Kate is also conducting qualitative interviews and so discussing the complexities of the ethical aspects of this, and how this will fit alongside the analysis we are both conducting, made me feel a million times more energised for what is left to achieve.

So, all in all, a really engaging and worthwhile event for me. One that I am still processing.

Write Place/Write Time

A few weeks ago I was invited to host a table discussion on stand-up comedy at York Literature Festival. It was at late notice but no-one had dropped out or been injured so I gladly accepted. I also ensured it was crystal clear that I was a comedy researcher, not a comedian, to make sure it didn’t turn into a stress dream I’ve had – where that mistake has been made and I’m instructed to do a ‘tight five’ rather than discuss my research.

One of the major draws was the fact that it was back at York St John University (the artist formerly known as York St John College), which I attended as an undergraduate. The chance to swan about the campus I’d left ten years earlier made it an easy decision. Three comedians (also with YSJ connections) performed their material and then post-interval I chaired the discussion about their work, and due to it being a literature festival, their writing.

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Left to Right: Richard Massara, Geneva Rust-Orta, Seb Bloomfield and me channeling Paxman.

On the night it was illuminating to see how different everyone’s writing approach was. A significant part of my research has been interviewing stand-up comics and promoters but most of the conversations have centred on the performative aspects of comedy rather than the writing side of things.  For the Q&A (or “table discussion” which sounds odd as there was clearly no table… see the above table-less image)  I had to make a conscious effort to bring it round to the writing side of things and ask questions that, even though I suspected the answers, might be of interest to the literary audience. In several instances I had to play devil’s advocate (an all round emphatic and predictable group “no” to the question “Can you tell from the page what will work in the performance?” provides an example here).

Overall it was a really enjoyable experience, a chance to see a diverse range of approaches and to discuss the process of page to stage. Talking to the comics Richard Massara, Geneva Rust-Orta and Seb Bloomfield about their work got me thinking about how I would respond if anyone ever asked me how I write (without simply shrugging or making the comment “solely by the grace of spellcheck go I”).

Their ability to talk eloquently about how they do what they do made me think about how I would cope if a poor-man’s Kirsty Walk was asking me the questions, rather than the other way round (not as well as they did I suspect). This event just happened to fall in the week when I was both giving tutorials to a group of students on writing their assignments and also marking the work of 35 other students (a loooong week).

I can pretty much boil my hintz and tipz (the z’s disguise the tedium of the following list) down to the following. These were the best tips people have given me over the years and thank the lord they did because they are gold.

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Beyonce Know(le)s how to write a good essay.

  1. Break it down: Often students flip out over the word count – ‘How will I write 1,000/2,000/4,000 words on X or Y?’. The answer here is really that you need to think about writing a smaller amount of words on sub points or chapters that answer the overall question. A blank piece of paper is terrifying so start with a good old fashioned list of things you’ll cover and go from there. When these smaller points are put together, they build up to the word count. This is the only way I can conceive of writing the 80,000-100,000 word thesis I’ll be cracking out for my Ph.D. When looking at the question think the following; How can I break this down? What are the points I need to cover to answer this question? Then make a list of the points you want to make and allocate a word count to each section – then kill them off one by one like a sniper.
  2. Read it out: I am a product of my time. Without technology and the advent of spellcheck there is just no way I would have any of my current qualifications. However spellcheck is both friend and foe. Autocorrect often swoops on in there to deal with a badly spelt word, replacing it with a completely different word. Not just the their/there/they’re conundrum but a whole host of other words are waiting out there to be messed with by spellcheck’s warped sense of humour  – my greatest ‘frienemy’ (it didn’t like that at all). The only way to catch these ‘wrong words’, to check it flows AND (crucially) that it makes sense is to READ IT OUT LOUD. Yes you will sound cray cray but it is worth it.

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    Referencing – an academic trail to your source texts

  3. Put down the breadcrumbs: One of the things that seems to stump people between A-Level and undergraduate level is referencing. They’ve not done it before and it seems super intimidating. Eventually we all get used to it and reference on autopilot but by far the best approach, even when you have cracked it, is to reference as you go along. Referencing not only ensures you aren’t plagiarising other people’s work, but it also means that your readers (and your marker) can follow the trail of academic breadcrumbs back to where these ideas originate – from the witch’s gingerbread house of your essay, back via the breadcrumbs to the woodcutters cottage where the original ideas live. (In this metaphor there are no birds following behind you eating said breadcrumbs – for the Hansle and Gretle purists out there). If you leave referencing until the end it is a huge pain and much harder to get right than if you do it incrementally whilst you go along.

I am not an expert on writing and I don’t find writing easy AT ALL but these tips are what I swear by and if they also help someone else out then great. Now I just need to follow them and crack on with writing my research up.

Pens down.

 

 

 

A Sorry State of Affairs

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I’ve been so busy but I have finally managed to find some time to draft a response to a comedy conference’s call for papers. I’ve decided that I’ll focus on self-deprecation, a topic I’m exploring as part of my research and something that really winds me up. (fingers crossed it gets accepted)

As a general rule I find it very difficult to listen to people being negative about themselves, not just in terms of comic performance but in my day to day interactions with people too. I think the amazing comedian Kristen Schaal sums this habit up best and funniest….

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Hearing people talk negatively about themselves, be it because of their weight, their appearance or some perceived flaw they think they have, makes me feel that I should be apologising for that fault as well, as I too deviate from the current idealised version of a woman. I don’t like being made to feel like I’m being invited to collude in that negative thinking and I certainly don’t want to reinforce how you feel about yourself, firstly because I don’t think it’s a true reflection of your worth as a human being (we are all our own harshest critics), and secondly because I don’t like the way it makes me feel like I should be ashamed of aspects of myself either. I like myself just fine thanks very much.

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My current phone screensaver – courtesy of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

Unfortunately self-deprecation in day to day life is a slippery thing to pin down. I do my absolute best not to put myself down or engage in negative chat about myself. However, women have historically used self-deprecation to appease those who struggle with the idea of women with power – power over their own bodies, power in the world of work or power over their own opinions. By lowering our own status in this way, we have been acquiescing to the needs of others (and others’ egos) and somehow softening the challenge to another’s sense of self. Why would we ever want to come across as less than our best selves? Unfortunately it’s so ingrained in our culture that we do it without thinking, as just a way we communicate about ourselves to others. This is obviously then reinforced and emphasised by the critique of women in the mainstream media and god-awful women’s magazines.

So having said all this I have noticed that it is a really really hard habit to break and is not at all straightforward. I’ll give an example  – my new year’s resolution this year was to apologise less. Sounds odd right, but my constant need to apologise was getting out of hand. The number of emails I send that start with the sentence ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘I know you must be busy but’ is OFF THE CHART.

I seem to fall into the ‘sorry’ trap in correspondence more so than in person and also when I am really busy and don’t have chance to check myself (I have sent at least 2 emails this week which I wish I could recall and delete the numerous apologies therein). I think in the real world I can hear myself about to say the words and pull myself back from the edge just in time. Plus in-person there’s more room for nuance and context than in stone cold black and white text. By apologising I’m not really self-deprecating in the same way, I’m not saying there is a flaw in me, but I am creating the idea that someone else’s time or feelings about something should take precedent over mine. Somehow I am in the wrong for asking for their help or requiring attention. I draw your attention to the interesting work of comedian, writer and director of the Bath Literature Festival  Viv Groksop in an article she penned for the Guardian last year about women and the word sorry (here).

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Last year I wrote the following in an email to my PhD supervisors. I sent them through my RF2 report (a major/ stressful part of the process of submitting my work) to get their feedback in advance of the assessment. When one mentioned she was printing it out, as not to read it from the screen, I responded with a textbook

“Yeah it is a bit of an epic, sorry”

ARRRGGHHHH. This was in regard to a piece of work I had worked my absolute hardest on – seriously why would I do that?

Luckily for me another one of my supervisors immediately shot back with

‘never apologise for hard work’

They called me out on it and rightly so. When I am finished there are going to be plenty of people that’ll want to tear that work down (haters gonna hate) and I should be proud of the good work I do – not apologise to people for having to read it. Be self-critical sure, reflect on what it is you are doing, but self-deprecation is not helpful to anyone. I am going to do my absolute best to not only stop ‘sorry-ing’ all over the shop but also to check others too. I have so far achieved this once this week when one of my students started an email with ‘Sorry it’s probably a dumb question’ to which I responded ‘Don’t apologise and don’t feel bad for asking questions – it’s how we all learn stuff’.

Elton got it wrong – annoyingly sorry seems to be the easiest word.

 

 

 

 

That’s what I’m talking about! (AKA Aisling Bea Take a Bow)

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Ladies and Gentlemen Aisling Bea

I spend a lot of time talking about comedy panel shows. I’ll be giving a lecture on them in a few weeks time to my very lucky second year students. Part of my research has been to discuss this very topic (amongst other things) with stand-up comedians and comedy audiences to understand the role these programmes play in the wider U.K comedy industry.

There has been huge amount of media coverage about lack of diversity on panel shows in the wake of the BBC’s announcement in 2014 that it would include more women in its comedy programming (see here). This came about because the BBC Trust identified that the comedy output (especially panel shows) were overwhelmingly male. There are obvious failings on many levels of diversity in lots of aspects of public life, but in this instance the BBC were focused on lack of gender parity, and the (then) Director of Television Danny Cohen pledged publicly to put an end to all-male panel shows (in an interview with The Observer, see here). This announcement garnered a significant level of attention in the media with even Newsnight covering it (with Paxman patronisingly referring to the assembled panel of commentators on the subject as ‘testicle free’).

Often some of the sticking points in my conversations with interviewees is what exactly will be different if we include more women in these formats. Will the comedy change? (the idea that female comedians make jokes solely for women still casts its long shadow over any discussions of this nature) How will these formats accommodate women? Will any woman do, or does the fact they are a comedian make a difference? I feel very strongly about the latter as do many people I speak to – having female comics on the panel shows means that they have the SKILLS to be as funny as the male comedians who are team captains or recurring panellists – add in a female actor, newsreader, journalist etc. and it’s very unlikely they will be hilarious (because their talents are elsewhere), reinforcing the ‘men are funnier than women’ stereotype by default. This is also unnecessary as there are loads of female comics that would be awesome on panel shows (see the megalist of people I’ve seen recently).

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Insert Name Here line up

But now in 2016 and we might actually be starting to see the outcome of this new policy introduced back in 2014. Insert Name Here, a new BBC2 panel show, has a female host, Sue Perkins (sans Mel) and is clearly making a concerted effort to be more inclusive (although as always these things take time). The show that aired on Monday 25th Jan (at 10pm on BBC2) contained within it something that had me punching the air… Aisling Bea please take a bow!

When marriage was flippantly referred to as the best day of a woman’s life (in this case the life of J.K Rowling) Bea swooped in immediately to call ‘Bullshit!’. (18mins in to the episode which will be found here for a little bit whilst it’s still on iPlayer). Her take down of this was not only funny but made the point that this is exactly the kind of old school patriarchal stuff we don’t even spot any more. Her comment, delivered with an incredulous tone – ‘can I just pick bones with ‘the greatest day for a woman, the day you can legally give yourself over to a man?’ – exposed the way that a lot of comedy plays in to and reinforces traditional norms, especially gendered expectations of people.

She then stuck her tongue out at THE MAN. I actually whooped out loud.

So this is it guys, this is what I mean when I say a diversified outlook on life. No the formats don’t have to change, women are more than capable of being just as aggressive or forthcoming as men on panel shows, and no it doesn’t mean it’ll be less funny – what it means is that alternative viewpoints about life will be considered and broadcast. It will impact positively because the humour will be diversified and more reflective of the diversity of our population (ideally longer term in all aspects of diversity – ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age also). Outdated ideas will be challenged – challenged through comedy, rather than reinforced through comedy – which is so often the default setting for panel shows.

If you ever get chance to see Aisling live, do it.