Letters To A Young Comedian

Friday 12 November 2004, The Stage

As I write, I am sporting a taffeta cocktail dress with a furry fringe. I am not doing this because I enjoy it (although I do) but because it is putting me in the right frame of mind to pontificate airily on the subject of men, comedy and frocks.

Men have been dressing up as women to get laughs for a long time. You will be familiar with the ancient Egyptians, who are always pictured in skirts and a smirk. In Shakespeare’s day the female characters were played by young males, as every schoolboy knows. It was a tradition maintained at my own all boys school, where my flamboyant portrayal of Lady Macbeth is still talked about with sniggers.

There is a long line of male comics in skirts dating back to Dan Leno and beyond. Since then I can think of Dick Emery, Stanley Baxter, Les Dawson, Barry Humphreys, Edwina Currie… It seems the activity has never really gone out of fashion since. In more recent years we have been entertained by the feminine delights of Lily Savage, Steve Coogan (Pauline Calf), The League of Gentlemen and the latest hot young duo that are Little Britain. Eddie Izzard, meanwhile, has introduced to the concept complexity and PR.

So I have managed to name a load of male comedians who wear skirts but I now arrive at the question, why? It must be funny or they wouldn’t do it but personally I have always found it more irritating than? If someone had actually changed sex since you last saw them, surely it would be a source of horror rather than mirth. But a fat rugby player checked out in a tutu always engenders a chuckle and not a scream of terror.

The humour must lie somewhere in the area between what is said and what is hidden; in the post-freudian era we must assume that laughing at a man dressed as a woman is something to do with the fact that we all want to sleep with our mothers, or fathers, or both.

Women dress like men much less often and if they do men are frightened and pressure the lady to be a cigar-chomping dyke. The tradition of male impersonators is in abeyance. French and Saunders used to strap on big arses for comic effect but to my mind, there is definitely an opening for a female act in a suit, who impersonates a tough little bastard men. We have something a bit like that in the shape of the dummy the vibrant Nina Conti uses in her ventriloquist act. My belief is that the female comic who who did that would open up a whole load of potential material that a standard issue male comic could not touch.

When men make sexist jokes, audiences wince but if it is a bloke played by a woman, we have arrived at satire or parody. So to any funny young women out there looking to make it big, tie your hair back, learn to belch extremely loudly, get some men’s clothes and start practising the strut that comes naturally to all of us alpha males. Then think of all the things you hate about men and apply to them to your character. You will soon find the comedy flowing like oil and you will be rich and famous by the end of next year. Then you can share your wealth with me. Meanwhile, the men in tights are coming - it’s panto time.

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