Sometimes something comes together out of nowhere. One minute I’m listening to a podcast from Sofie Hagen featuring Bisha K Ali, where the subject of women in comedy and women of colour in comedy pops up. The next my Twitter feed is full of a discussion about men not reading books by female authors. Some even saying they don’t now and never will.
And then into my inbox slides a press release from Next Up Comedy, where on their site women comedians are outperforming men.
Now. I have questions.
Why aren’t men reading women’s writing? Is it because we might *gasp* talk about periods and stuff? I mean we might not, but we might, if it’s relevant.
Is it because the perspective is just ‘different’?
Is it because men and women struggle to identify with each other? I mean I read a pretty much even split of men versus women. I love Terry Pratchett, but I also love Jacqueline Winspear – does this make me odd? Am I alone in this?
Why is comedy different then? Where has this information come from?
Only one thing to do. Interview Sarah Henley, one of the trio behind Next Up Comedy, an on demand service, meaning that if like me you never make it up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, or get out to watch comedy as much as you’d like, you can instead indulge from your sofa in your pyjamas – a bonus as the latter may be somewhat frowned upon in public.
Think of it as Netflix for comedy – and I rather love it.
I began with asking Sarah where the whole idea for Next Up Comedy came from.
“I ran a comedy YouTube channel and live night in London called ComComedy with two guys who are my friends, Kenny and Dan. We did that for a while, for most of our twenties, and it got to a point where we were making a bit of money, but we all had jobs on the side. And basically the ad revenue fell out of the bottom of YouTube. It became quite a lot of effort for not a lot of reward. I was getting married, having a baby and stuff. We decided we’d either got to do something properly or stop.
The reason we set it up was that we’d been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every year for the past ten years, and we couldn’t believe how much good comedy was out there. We wanted to give it a bit more exposure. We talked to a lot of comedians and the feedback was that they all put a lot of work into the full hour of their shows up at Edinburgh – invariably after that they might tour it, but even if it’s won awards, some of them don’t get tours. And so after Edinburgh that’s it, it will just die a death. It’s not like a play which will go on to be published, or a piece of music that will be recorded. It’s just gone. That’s it.
It’s an incredible amount of work, so we decided lets record those shows for people, and comics understandably were really keen for that to be behind a paywall, they don’t want to put stuff out there for free, which is fair enough, and we obviously needed to sustain the business and create a revenue stream for the comedians, so that was where the model came from.”
The idea is simple. Much like Netflix (other subscription services are available) you sign up, and after your free trial (so you can definitely confirm you like it) it cost £3.50 a month. For that you have access to hours and hours of comedy. Alongside some names you’ll easily recognise – Norman Lovett, Sean Hughes (<3), Ed Byrne, Bec Hill – there are lots of new faces for you to try out. And if you don’t know where to start, you have categories to choose from too. Observational, Sketch, or even mood, if fancy something thoughtful, or energetic or angry.
Onto my questions. I asked Sarah, is it true that women are outperforming men?
“That’s based on our stats from the website for the past few months (though it dates back further than that). We always track our top ten performing videos, and that’s based on minutes watched. And despite that only 25% of our shows are from female acts at the moment, the top ten is dominated by women – 6:4.”
I took it a little further. What about performers of colour?
“The stats are terrible for the industry as a whole. I mean for women – I did a survey of all the top agencies, and there are 25% of comedians are women, and non-white acts make up 7%. It’s really bad. We’ve got just over that on the platform, and three of those are female, so it’s half and half. But they perform equally well, so there’s no divide as far as our audience is concerned, but as far as what’s out there for us to pick up, it’s dire.
We’re actively trying to combat that. We’ve been scouting for non-white performers, as well as women, we’re doing our best to level the playing field, but I think there’s a problem earlier on. We’re coming in at the stage where people have an hour of comedy, and are generally being paid to do comedy, but as that’s only 7%, there’s a real problem at the entry level. I really don’t know what’s happening there, but it’s not good.”
Going back to the twitter conversation about men reading female writers, I was curious. Is it just a case of more female subscribers. Are women watching women and men watching men?
“No, we’ve definitely got a male skew, it’s roughly 60:40 male to female subscribers overall. So I wouldn’t say women tend to watch women, or men tend to watch men, they just like good shows. I think it’s much more about the style of comedy rather than the sex of the performer.
There’s definitely still an attitude towards female comedians, Fern Brady has a bit in her set where she talks about the response when she’s on a bill, audible groans when she walks out and the male audience or stag dos realise that she’s a female comedian. There are also places on the circuit where they’ll only put one female on a whole bill of men, then another woman will apply for the slot and they’ll be ‘no thanks, we’ve already got our female for the event’. There’s definitely still some weirdness in the industry, but when you get up to the level of having a full hour, and the comedy fans who will sit and watch a full hour, people don’t care. But if you’re a stag do, they may have issue with it.
Maybe part of the reason why women don’t get into comedy, because the industry is full of those sorts of audiences and it’s not as diverse as it could be. Chicken and egg.”
I can’t help but wish I had an answer. It’s pretty clear we’ve still got a long way to go – for equality of sexes (and gender non-binary), colour and race, in well, just about everything.
For now, I’m just going to keep asking questions.