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With the Birmingham Comedy Festival returning in October, we caught up with Maureen Younger - leading female comic on the city circuit - to chat about the award-winning event, women in comedy, and the challenges facing the live entertainment industry as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic...
How long have you been involved in comedy in Birmingham, Maureen?
I started MY Comedy Birmingham in Kings Heath in 2009, originally as a one-off, but it sold out so I kept on going! Dave, who runs Birmingham Comedy Festival, then asked me to be on the selection committee for the Breaking Talent Award in 2014, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I think shows and awards like this are so important to highlight what’s going on in the Midlands. I’ll always back Birmingham Comedy Festival as a whole because I think they’re so supportive to us comics and really affordable too. I love gigging in Birmingham, and there’s a really good comedy scene here. I have to say that Midlands audiences are some of my favourites, some of the nicest in Britain. Every comic I know loves gigging in the Midlands.
Where can we catch you at Birmingham Comedy Festival this year?
It’s all still very uncertain on the live comedy front. I’m going to be a guest on Objectivity with James Sandy, which is a series on Switch FM as part of the festival. It was really interesting. We discussed these objects that mean something to me for different reasons, and he’d really done his research! It definitely makes you think about what objects mean to you, whether that be The Family Object, The Dark Object or The Random Object. My random object was actually from my time studying in the old Soviet Union - although I still pretend to be 38, so don’t work out the maths on that one…
Next year’s edition of the Birmingham Comedy Festival marks its 20th anniversary. How do you think the comedy circuit has changed over that time?
I think 20 years ago the TV comic was only just starting to come out on top. But now, you have the issue as a promoter that you can put on a gig with a load of really great comics and it won’t sell too well. Having a TV name definitely makes it easier, but I think it’s a shame because people are missing out on so much great comedy just because they haven’t seen the act on TV. I was in Band Of Brothers as an angry German housewife, but I don’t think that’s quite what they’re looking for! It’s a bit disappointing. There are certainly more opportunities for women than when I started. At that time, you’d only ever get one woman on the bill if you were lucky, but now you might even get two!
Getting more women on the bill was the idea behind your MY Comedy gigs, then?
The motivation behind it when we first started was exactly that - that you could never get more than one woman on a bill. You wouldn’t even get a woman alongside a black comic; only one ‘speciality act’ is what one promoter called it. There was this idea too that having more than one woman on the bill meant that people wouldn’t come. MY Comedy was to prove that it was possible; you can have an all-female bill and people will come!
It’s a safe environment, not only for the performers but for the audience too. The situation has changed somewhat because now you will get more than one woman on the bill for standard gigs, but I think my audience in particular likes the fact it’s a different atmosphere. Some comedy gigs - not all, though - can be quite lairy and feature misogynistic or other derogatory material. I think at MY Comedy we really promote a friendly, inclusive environment. Maybe the reasons we set the gig up in the first place have become less valid, but it still feels like a very nurturing space. It’s the same as when you go to an urban gig - it just has that different kind of vibe that you don’t get at a mainstream gig.
What obstacles do you think women in comedy face?
The assumption is that women aren’t funny. There’s no female comic on this earth that hasn’t had someone come up to them - usually also a woman - and say, ‘I usually don’t like female comics, but you’re really good!’. They mean it as a compliment, but if you ask them about other female comics, they can’t even name one. The standard for comedy is that a straight white man goes out on stage and talks about himself - and he’ll be judged on how funny he is. That’s stand-up. That’s the ‘norm’. If a woman goes on stage, or if a black person goes on stage, and we talk about ourselves, we’re no longer talking about the norm. The assumption is that women will only appeal to women, a few gay men and maybe the odd vegan. Whereas the assumption when a straight white man talks about himself is that everyone will be interested - but as we well know, that’s really not the case!
Every female comic will be judged for always talking about themselves, or for talking about being a woman too much. No one would go up to a male comic and say, ‘hey, that was too blokey, and stop talking about your girlfriend or wife so much. We know you’re straight and male, but you don’t have to shove it down our throats all the time!’. Nobody would do that! But if a gay person ‘banged on’ about their love life, the reaction would be entirely different. Women are really pleased to hear their own voice reflected back at them from a female comic because they don’t get that too often in live comedy, TV and films. Particularly if you’re a middle-aged or older woman, you don’t hear your own voice anywhere.
You present podcasts, such as Women Talking B*llocks, with other female comics, as well as MC’ing your online comedy gigs. Do you think that podcasts and other online or radio content could ever replace live comedy?
It’s a whole different kettle of fish. Nothing can ever compete with live comedy. The energy you get from being in the same room as the audience for live comedy, and even theatre, can't be replicated elsewhere. It’s like a tennis match: back and forth, back and forth, between audience and performer. In fact, the interaction between the act and the audience can actually make the comic funnier. It’s all about rhythm and timing. Whereas when I do Zoom gigs, it’s more of a comedy monologue, and podcasts become just funny exchanges between you and a friend - the audience is silent. But in the absence of live comedy, it’s been the best available to us.
How are you feeling about the changes live comedy is facing right now?
It’s scary because as soon as lockdown started, all our gigs disappeared - and I live off performing live. For comedy, you want the exact opposite of lockdown: a small room with everybody crowded together. It was weird to try and think of ways that I could keep performing. So I’ve been running MY Comedy Chats every Thursday over Zoom, which is a comedy chat show essentially. I’m starting up MY Comedy Birmingham at Kitchen Garden Cafe again now, but with a lot less people. Work opportunities are few and far between, but even when we’re getting gigs, we’re getting paid a lot less.
What do you hope for the future of comedy in the UK?
I would love it if people went to comedy nights without caring if there was a TV credit or not... like it used to be, where people knew that it was a good local club and the promoter knew how to pick quality acts. Without small clubs for comics to learn and develop in, we wouldn’t have the Michael McIntyres and Frankie Boyles. Great little venues with a fantastic performance space that were run really well are closing down right now. On the reduced audience capacity right now, they just won’t be able to pay their staff and the acts. They’re a huge loss to local communities, and I think they desperately need to be preserved.
It’s the same with other entertainment industries. No band starts off playing the O2! People reckon The Beatles were so good because they spent so many hours doing live gigs in bars and other venues that nobody had ever heard of. Then The Beatles blew up and now The Cavern in Liverpool is famous. In order to be a good comic, you have to put in those same hours gigging - and without the small venues, that won’t happen. It’s hard to know when we will get back to ‘normal’, or if we ever will. Coming out the other side of coronavirus, there will probably be far fewer venues and, consequently, far fewer comics. It will be a massive shame. I hope we can find some positives coming out the other side.
Birmingham Comedy Festival runs from Friday 2 to Sunday 11 October. To find out more, visit bhamcomfest.co.uk
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