Laughter is medicine, and we all know people who crack us up (and sometimes we are that friend). So when I sat down to have a chat to Laura Campbell and Maddy Weeks, who are members of ACT Like A Lady, the Canberra-based funny women collective, I could feel all my ailments in life disappearing like magic. ACT Like A Lady performed at both the Melbourne Comedy Festival and Canberra Comedy festival last year, and I was curious to know what it’s like to be a woman in the hilarious but also male-dominated field that is stand-up comedy.
When did you realise you were funny?
Laura: Growing up a fat kid in a small town with a limp, who’d been in hospital for most of my childhood, comedy was a coping- and defence-mechanism, and my survival instinct. It was something I knew I could do that made it easier to make friends, and it became like armour; it broke down social barriers for me.
At the start of 2016, Codie Bell — who I was living with — signed me up for the Women’s [Comedy] Gala [at ANU]. She was like, “I’ve just put you down for five minutes. I’m not taking you off the list, you have to do five minutes”, because she knew I’d always wanted to do it. So I just wrote a tight five, I don’t know, the night or day before, and got a really good response — from, admittedly, a really supportive crowd. Then I was picked up by Vanessa Conlin, a woman comedian on the circuit, who said that she wanted me to open for her with that set. And I think that was the first time I thought of myself as funny in an “oh, this is something that I can actually pursue artistically and creatively” way.
Maddy: I’ve always just been obsessed with comedy. I also did a lot of theatre, so I guess I always knew I wanted to perform. When I was in high school I didn’t ever pay attention to anything that was being said [in class] — I would just watch stand-up on my computer, and then stay up at night watching more comedy. I remember, there was one lesson where a teacher laughed so hard [at what I said], she fell in a corner and couldn’t stop laughing — and I was like “huh, maybe I can do this; maybe I can make people laugh for a living.” Turns out, I can make people laugh (not for a living, though). [laughs]
I didn’t start doing stand-up until the start of 2015 — and I was 17, so I was too young to go to most of the gigs. But a couple of room runners took me under their wing and taught me how to write jokes. At that point I was just saying what I thought was funny, but as a 17-year old, you know, it’s a bit off. (Like, listening back to my first sets, I don’t even know what I was talking about.) But I somehow lucked out to get just enough laughs for the Canberra Comedy [Festival] people to be like: “Oh yeah, she’ll be okay in a couple of years.” [laughs]
Tell me about women in comedy, and why that’s empowering.
L: The girl-gang thing going at the moment — where women band together as a collective — has been one of the best things for the comedy scene: it means having a support system in such a male-dominated field. Accessibility is also a big issue in the scene: there are like five, maybe six, venues at the Melbourne Comedy Festival that are actually accessible (as in, not having-to-go-around-to-the-back-door accessible). It makes such a difference to have other people who understand, or empathise, helping you not feel like such an outsider when you come up against those sorts of things. We’re lucky here in Canberra where there’s a really strong female presence, who all helped us really develop as artists in our first years. There’s so much support, collaboration and a desire to improve things — like challenging problematic behaviour — with these girl gangs.
M: Back when I started, it was me, maybe two other women and like 20–30 guys; it felt so intimidating. But two years ago, there was a shift: it was mainly you girls [gestures toward L] solving everything. Before that, I was trying to be like one of the boys, trying to hang out at gigs with all of these men — it’s such a boys’ club — but suddenly, all of these women came, and it became a nicer environment. I felt safer at gigs and started being more open with my material. The quality of everyone’s comedy — even some of the guys’ — has gone up, and you can tell! I think that’s bloody awesome.
What can be done to make the comedy scene better/safer/funnier?
L: More women!
First, get in more women talent, and make them feel cool and accepted. Encourage them to get up for more open mics — it’s really intimidating to begin with — or ask if they’d like to collaborate, write some jokes, or even just go to some gigs together. Even if it’s really rough, you can see talent the minute it gets up on stage. Yeah, so try to make women feel supported and comfortable. (And that’s a good thing about Canberra being a small scene: we can do that. We can recognise when people are interested and create that environment for that.)
Secondly, have more women gatekeepers, organising festivals, open mics or paid nights. Right now, the majority of these people are men. They decide who they want to be on and it is entirely up to their discretion. Having women in these roles would really help [the representation issue], because they’re just more aware of it in the first place! Beyond just gender, there would probably be more reflection on race and other representations too. These changes take time though.
The third thing is just calling out real problematic, shitty behaviour. There are a number of men we [ACT Like A Lady] have fought really hard to get banned for being physically aggressive toward women and telling really violent jokes; they use the “I’m a sad boy comedian” farce and mental illness to somehow justify their actions. Like no, there is a difference between being mentally ill and not respecting others. People forget that, as much as we are all friends, this is still a workplace and people’s careers we’re talking about. Beyond just calling this behaviour out, it’s also important to make it clear that there are consequences. If they want to be in comedy, they need to get with the fucking program. You can’t make people feel uncomfortable — no, unsafe — just because that’s what you think is funny.
What comes to your mind first when I mention this: PC culture?
L: [grimaces] Okay. Some comedians grow in their work and improve with time and change; they really rise to the challenge. And then there are others who stay with the same material for years, and their comedy doesn’t age well — they don’t realise that simple jokes and low-hanging fruit just don’t cut it anymore. There’s a lot of anger where some comedians complain about not being able to say what they want anymore — like no, just get smarter! I’ll admit that there are points where I do go up on stage feeling apprehensive about people taking offence to what I say, or that they will construe it in a certain way. But ultimately, this is a good thing because it makes us think about our jokes and humour, and eventually improve.
M: Even with myself, I wouldn’t stick by the jokes I told when I was first starting out. If you continue to explore your own views and opinions, you’ll find yourself writing jokes that are more in touch with societal issues, which makes for better content. I mean, sometimes I know I could easily write a joke that is bound to get laughs, but those very punchlines could be pretty problematic. So it’s about balancing expressing what I believe in with getting cheap laughs — it’s a fine line.
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
L: None, ‘cause they’re currently on strike. Because the working conditions are just terrible. I don’t know if you’ve seen wood chuckin’ conditions, but they have very little pay for long hours. And there’s like one smoke break.
M: There are no unions, they never get paid superannuation. The woodchucks, you know, they want to [chuck wood] — and they could — but should they? No one ever asks if they should.