"Sometimes I do get the sense [that], if you don't hit them in the eye straight away as a woman on stage, maybe you'll have your work cut out for you."
In 2015 female comedians seemingly rule the world. Tina Fey is invincible. Then there are the two Amys, Poehler and Schumer - the latter in Time's 100 Most Influential People list. Britain produced Miranda Hart. And Australia has household names like Rebel Wilson, Judith Lucy and Celia Pacquola.
Pacquola has parlayed a comic career into dramatic roles. She appears in the ABC's much-hyped The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary retelling of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Meanwhile, the comedian is bringing her acclaimed psychics-inspired stand-up show, Let Me Know How It All Works Out..., to Just For Laughs (JFL) Sydney. Other 'it' Australian female comedians - among them Gen Fricker, Mel Buttle and Anne Edmonds - are participating in the third Stand Up Series program, hosted by Dave Thornton, at the Sydney Opera House. It's being filmed for Foxtel's Comedy Channel.
"Comedy is such a self-proving thing - you're either funny or you're not funny. It works beyond prejudice."
Nevertheless, comedy remains male-dominated. Even this year the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Australia's largest, attracted heat for having less than 20% of its solo shows staged by women, as reported in the Herald Sun. So what do JFL's rebel hearts make of the situation?
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Surprisingly, Sydney's offbeat comedian - and self-proclaimed feminist - Fricker plays down talk of inequality. "Honestly, the only time I'm ever aware of it is when people outside of comedy bring it up," she says. "Comedy is such a self-proving thing - you're either funny or you're not funny. It works beyond prejudice and stuff like that, which is what I love about it. So I'm only really aware of that stuff when people ask what it's like to be a woman in comedy. I think it's just more about having an awareness of comedy as a genre now. I don't actually think that people don't think that women are funny. I just think that they don't watch comedy [from] a very talented female comedian."
Certainly, Fricker, speaking from Venice Beach, California, is on a roll. "I've been working on a campaign for Microsoft, so I was over here shooting at New York Comic Con with Ronny Chieng, just making some online content with him." Originally Fricker attended the Sydney Conservatorium Of Music as a double bass pupil, but rejected what she remembers as "just a very intense, pressure cookery environment". Enrolled in an arts degree, she became interested in sketch comedy. Today Fricker, a musical comedian, plays guitar and sings in shows. She befriended fellow wildcard comedian - and one-man-band - Reggie Watts during 2011's Sydney Comedy Festival. The American invited her to open 2014's Australian tour. Fricker has since performed her caustic MonsterPu$$y, saying of the title, "I really wanted to do something that was unnecessarily aggressive!" Fricker, who's presented on triple j and written widely, is pursuing television opps - and could yet become an Aussie Lena Dunham. "I'm kind of working on a development thing for a TV show at the moment, which is very exciting."
JFL's other comedians are uneasier about the gender divide. Brisbane's award-winning Mel Buttle is an all-rounder in Australian comedy: she's done radio, TV, newspaper and magazine columns, blogs and podcasts. Buttle - who early on wrote for Josh Thomas' sitcom Please Like Me - has lately been co-hosting The Great Australian Bake Off alongside Claire Hooper. Then, in the lead-up to Christmas, she has lucrative corporate stand-up gigs, which can mean entertaining "a room full of engineers". Yet Buttle rarely has problems with a (chauvinist) heckle culture. "Sometimes it's women on hens' night," she laughs. "They don't heckle, but they just wanna be involved." Regardless, Buttle's motto with audiences is to keep calm and carry on - with jokes. "If you just come out strong, and do a really strong opening joke, you'll be fine," she notes. "But sometimes I do get the sense [that], if you don't hit them in the eye straight away as a woman on stage, maybe you'll have your work cut out for you."
"If you point that out to producers, you're an angry feminist and therefore you're causing a bit of a scene."
However, Buttle maintains that female comedians are "blocked out" in specific scenarios. "Two women can't host breakfast radio - there's this unwritten rule that it's two men and a woman. So you get this sense that, if you're a female, you're kind of fighting for only one spot." The imbalance reoccurs on TV panels. Male comedians' careers are more likely to be fast-tracked in such arenas. But, says Buttle, "No one ever discusses it." "You're sort of trapped - if you point that out to producers, you're an angry feminist and therefore you're causing a bit of a scene."
Melbourne's Anne Edmonds, who this year toured behind You Know What I'm Like!, is perceived as a 'newcomer' - although she broke through in 2010 as a national finalist in the RAW Comedy competition and has performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. "I think 'newcomer' is appropriate, still," Edmonds demurs, "because comedy just takes so long to get good at (laughs) - like Louis CK, for example, has been doing it for 20 years in America. It can take a long time." Edmonds, a former country muso, came into comedy in her late 20s. While living in Darwin, she threw herself into sketches with the ABC's online Tough At The Top - Edmonds' 2008 mockumentary video Raylene The Racist "went viral". On returning to Melbourne, she began stand-up. These days Edmonds features characters in her shows, but also plucks her trademark banjo. Edmonds may have an affinity with the outback, but she deems remote audiences "tough". "In the comedy scene, the comics at my level who started out with me, I don't find any division between me and them. I don't find that [sexist] attitude coming from them - which is a good sign. It hopefully means that this next generation isn't thinking that way. But I still find when you go out on regional tours, [the audiences are] tougher - you're often the only female act. It still can be quite tough out there for them to accept you." Like Buttle, Edmonds has acted in It's A Date. "I'm developing something at the moment for TV - so I'm working flat out on that!"