Helen Lederer on why female comedy writers are no joke

With her incredibly expressive face, wide eyes and knack for turning any problem into material, it’s no wonder Helen Lederer is one of Britain’s most famous female comedians.

Most people think of her as ditzy Catriona in Absolutely Fabulous, but for me, I go back to the 1980s and Naked Video, when I wanted to be her Girl At The Bar (having a perm and glasses that made me look like Rose West, I had major hair envy. Still do.)

It seems strange today, when we’re so used to female comics, but back in those days there were next to no women doing the rounds on the comedy circuit.

Now, in large part thanks to the work of women such as Helen, they’re presenting Radio 4 shows, appearing on Strictly Come Dancing and hosting The Great British Bake Off (although those of us who remember and loved Sandi Toksvig’s sandwich quiz on No 73 are not surprised).

One thing they’re not doing, however, is winning book awards, no matter how funny they are. But Helen is determined to put that right.

Attitudes towards women writers is one I’ve long ranted about. Nick Hornby writes extremely funny books about men and we’re told how they’re fascinating insights into the male psyche (and are turned into films). Marian Keyes writes about women and it’s “chick lit”, dismissed of being of no interest to anyone with a willy.

It was writing her own comic book Losing It that got Helen’s hackles going. As well as gaining rave reviews, her story of a middle-aged weight-loss campaigner who can’t lose the pounds was nominated for the prestigious Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize.

It didn’t win, but then, only three women have won in the award’s 18 years – and even then, one of them had to share it.

Disheartened by these statistics, Helen decided to take action and last year, after two years of meetings and discussions, launched the Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) prize.

It’s an amazing chance. One lucky unknown will win a publishing contract with HarperFiction and a £5,000 advance. There’s also a cash prize of £2,000 for women who have already been published.

With Jenny Eclair, Marian Keyes, Katy Brand and Susan Calman (best Strictly quickstep ever) among the judges, the winner will have to be very funny indeed. The prize will be announced on 10 July and you can bet I’ll be writing about it.

Meanwhile, Helen has also been showing that getting older doesn’t have to slow you down. Last year, aged 63, she returned to stand-up after a 14-year break, selling-out at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with her show I Might As Well Say It.

In addition, she also has another novel on the way. Plus she’s continuing to champion female comics through her support of the Bath Comedy Festival, which started yesterday and features the likes of Susan Murray, Croft & Pearce, Tracey Collins and Jess Robinson.

Thanks to the festival also wanting to promote funny females, an incredible 100 of the 300 acts are women this year. If you consider that Celebrating Women’s Dee Quemby was one of only two women who appeared on TV’s The Comedians, which ran on and off from the early 1970s until the 1990s, that warrants a round of applause – or huge guffaws.

Bath Comedy Festival

Grabbing a break from giggling over CWIP entries, Helen tells us more about the award, how comedy has changed for women and why we should bring back Bunty. (Warning: starts off with blatant blag.)

Why did you start the Comedy Women in Print award? (And can I come to the award ceremony!!)

Yes!

I looked around for a prize rather hopefully when I’d finished my comedy novel – and there wasn’t one.

I did get nominated for the PG Wodehouse comedy literary prize, which made me very happy indeed. The only other time I got a prize was aged 11, for standing up straight.

I was angry about the 1980s, when women were seen as alarming, so I used that to do something about it now.

Women are often dismissed as unfunny and only making jokes about cake and periods. Why do you think this preconception exists?

Humour is complex. By that I mean its deeply individual and personal – one’s person’s gag is another person’s turn-off so already it’s a varied and instinctive area of communication.

Add into the mix the fact that women have not been performing in public until relatively recently and we can see how the tendency has been to resist this lack of parity in the stand-up landscape rather than go with it.

It doesn’t help if women just talk about cake and periods but actually, to be honest, I haven’t met this woman!

I laugh at what I find funny – as do most people – but I know I am a bit “alarming” to some people. I’ve accepted this over the years.

How did it feel to return to stand-up?

It was scary, but not as scary as it was when I did a tour about 20 years ago. In those days, the roadie had to entice me with a bottle of wine and crisps in the car at the end as reward for getting through it. I put on two stone.

This time, I called it I Might As Well Say It to reflect my position of maturity as well as my interest in sharing unsayable stuff. I was authentic. I don’t know how else to do it.

You can’t please everyone so if people didn’t leave, I was happy. And if they did, I mentioned it to the audience. Benignly…

It’s brilliant that so many performers at the Bath Comedy Festival are female. Will it be 50:50 next year?

I hope it is the case. Even more, I hope they are funny and original

Finally, I read that you used to read Bunty when you were little. Me too. Should we start a campaign to bring it back?

The FOUR MARYS PLEASE. They worked as a group, were fun, strict, bossy and badly behaved. RESULT.

What female authors would you like to see nominated and who tickles your spare rib? Let me know in the comments below.

Helen is a patron of Bath Comedy Festival, which runs until 14 April, sponsored by Lovehoney. For more details and booking, visit Bath Comedy.  Main photo: Steve Ullathorne

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