We arrived at the Hammersmith Apollo for Sarah Millican’s ‘Control Enthusiast’ show with plenty of time to spare and enjoyed the warm-up act; a young pony-tailed comedienne called Hayley. I immediately warmed to her material that drew on years of teaching in a Pupil Referral Unit, which very much reminded me of my own experiences of working with troubled youngsters. Her description of the pupil who managed to test her to the limits of her tolerance and empathy highlighted the fact that there is always one kid who will find a teacher’s weak spot. In Hayley’s case it was a thirteen year-old with an uncanny ability to wind her up by likening her to a pigeon and added insult to injury by breaking up her sandwich and leaving a trail of crumbs from door to desk. In my case it was the lad who was struggling in my art class and expressed his ire through a venomous exposition on the state of my wardrobe. The limbic pathways in my brain this experience set up are still activated when I recall my embarrassment and incomprehension as I’d made a particular effort that day! It illustrates how important it is to relate personally in some way to the comic material and that is, I suspect, a large part of why Sarah Millican’s down-to-earth and honest style is such a huge draw.
Sarah came on and began her act, describing the minutiae of her daily life, off-the-wall observations and multiple connections in a way that captured the ordinary in canny witticisms. Her material rested very largely on bodily processes and conditions, female bits and of course her marriage and lifestyle choices. This in itself is nothing unusual in comedy terms and it is, on the surface and in the moment, a laugh. However, the more I think about it the more uncomfortable I feel because it seems to me that Sarah Millican’s style of self deprecation is a just another kind of mysogny, in her case, channeled through the female form. The problem is that it is funny and it works and it’s because she is being honest and real. Men and women alike do relate to and recognise it and in its own way, it is an accurate reporting of life as it is for many. However, I’d like to suggest that she might want to extend her range and dilute the intense focus on female discomfort and dysfunction by bringing in some new material that uses other incongruities. For example, why not use her great performance and comedy skills in the way that Australian comic Hannah Gadsby does and bring out the irony and humour that undeniably inhabits the life of a comic and the material they use. It’s time that female comics ditched the self deprecation and the public humiliation that Sarah Millican’s brand entails because all it does is perpetuate not challenge the stereotypes and a lot of men and women may laugh but it’s mainly from discomfort and embarrassment.
I know that de-constructing and analysing humour can often kill it outright but it is so significant a phenomenon in individual, group and societal psychology that I can’t help but be interested. Some theories of humour maintain that it is all about hierarchy, domination and power but then I’m sure that the theorists who came up with that are largely male as are most leading figures in the theory-making world.
Freud’s idea that humour is a way of releasing aggression and sexual energy also has a distinctly masculine twang. All the more reason for female comics to come up with something a little more affiliative and constructive and also for there to be more females writing and performing in this world. Of course, those theorists who take an evolutionary perspective and consider humour producing to be a mainly male pursuit and humour appreciating a female one are going to take issue with me here. I’d answer that one by saying it is where we are now and where we are going that we should be focusing upon and constructions of male and female are just that, constructions, not simply biological determinisms. Isn’t that sustainable in evolutionary terms and can’t we have a laugh about it?