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How this conversation between Maeve Higgins and Des Bishop illustrates the obstacles facing women in comedy

“Who knows how many women were discouraged from pursuing comedy after experiencing sexism?”

LAST WEEKEND, COMEDIAN Maeve Higgins posted a curious tweet. “Hey @Desbishop where did the podcast ep we taped during the summer disappear to?” she asked. “Interesting to listen to at this point in time, no?”

Higgins was referring to an episode of The Des Bishop Podcast, which was released in September 2016 before being subsequently taken down. At the time, Bishop shared it and tweeted, “New #desbishoppodcast up on iTunes with @maevehiggins who accuses me of being sexist.”

In the episode, Maeve Higgins asserted that “shouty men” were responsible for keeping more niche comedians, including women, out of comedy. Bishop disagreed. While acknowledging that there were indeed misogynistic forces at play in comedy, he argued that the term “shouty men” was too narrow a descriptor.

“It’s dismissing the things I did to try to help everybody,” he argued, pointing to the fact that he had supported comedians like Higgins early in her career.

In an effort to illustrate what women have to contend with in comedy, Higgins recalled an incident in which Bishop had told her that he would have brought her on tour with him if she wasn’t a woman for fear people would think they were… a thing.

Bishop struggled to recall the incident Higgins was referring to. What ensued was a deeply uncomfortable and strangely compelling interaction as Bishop tried to wrap his head around what his friend and colleague was telling him.

Here’s how the interaction began:

Maeve: If you want to go examples…There was a time that you told me that you would have taken me on tour, but because I was a woman, you didn’t think you could because people would be talking about, like, “Oh you’re on tour. You two are on tour together. Is there something going on?”
Des: Did I say that? I must have been joking.
Maeve: No, you said that in a really serious way.
Des: Not a chance.
Maeve: You’re denying that you said that.
Des: Well I’m denying that I was very serious.
Maeve: It didn’t seem in any way like a joke to me at the time and you were saying it in kind of a conciliatory way like, ‘Oh it’s too bad, I did have you in mind for my support act, but, like, I just thought people would talk or it’d be too troublesome.”

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Bishop grows increasingly defensive. He tries to come up with excuse after excuse as to why he might have said it. Perhaps I was in an odd mood, he offers. Perhaps it was a joke and you misunderstood it.

Higgins remains firm and reminds him that, as a professional comedian, she can usually be relied upon to get jokes. At one point, she literally has to explain the term gaslighting to him as he continues to question her interpretation of what he said. “I think you may have received that information incorrectly,” he says, as though he were speaking to a dodgy box.

Over the course of the podcast, it becomes clear that Bishop perceives himself to be one of “the good guys” and can’t reckon with the idea that he may have said something dismissive or misogynistic in the past. Instead of owning it, he prefaces every statement with, “If I said that…” He uses the word “outlandish” repeatedly and tries to pin the blame on Higgins for misunderstanding his intent.

At no point does it seem to occur to Bishop that he’s embodying the “shouty man” archetype Higgins earlier referred to. Nor does it occur to him how insulting it is to insinuate that a professional comedian might not have gotten his “joke” about not bringing a woman on tour, a joke that doesn’t make any sense if you really think about it.

Finally, it doesn’t seem to really occur to him that women rarely misremember instances where men make them feel small or less than, and very often carry the memories around with them for weeks, months, years.

It’s a fascinating conversation that ties into a larger conversation we’re having about comedy in general, particularly with regards to how women A fortnight ago, the comedy world was rocked by the revelations that Louis CK had acted inappropriately with several female comedians, including instances where he masturbated in front of them.

Closer to home, the Irish comedy scene has been hit with several allegations of inappropriate misconduct leveled against Al Porter, who resigned from his show in Today FM. At least two Irish female comedians have posted Twitter threads outlining allegations of harassment and assault on the Irish comedy scene.

It’s no secret that women haven’t managed to thrive in Ireland’s comedy scene in quite the same way as their male peers. Sure, we have produced funny women like Aisling Bea, Maeve Higgins, Sharon Horgan, Katherine Lynch, Tara Flynn and Deirdre O’Kane, but many of those women either left Ireland to ply their trade abroad or were never active on the scene in Ireland to begin with.

There was once an assumption made that this was because women weren’t funny enough or simply weren’t interested in pursuing comedy. What’s clear from Higgins’ interaction with Bishop and some of the other stories that have circulated in recent weeks is that the absence of Irish women from the comedy scene can be attributed to the fact that it was a misogynistic business dominated by male gatekeepers.

Who knows how many women were discouraged from pursuing it after a thoughtless remark? Who knows how many were reluctant to try it after being exposed to sexist routines? Worse still, who knows how many packed it in after experiencing harassment or assault? All I know is that we are poorer for the lack of prominent female comedians here in Ireland.

Thankfully, the culture seems to be starting to shift somewhat. Alison Spittle is currently winning praise for her RTÉ 2 sitcom Nowhere Fast. Comedians like Joanne McNally, Ruth Hunter, Hannah Mamalis, Pauline Shanahan and Aoife Dooley, among many others, are regulars on the Irish comedy scene. Women like Enya Martin of Giz A Laugh have bypassed the traditional routes altogether and established followings on social media.

There is still more to be done, though, as Des Bishop acknowledged last week. After being called out by Higgins on Twitter, he shared an unedited version of the podcast and wrote, “My chat from last year with @maevehiggins unedited. I had taken it down but Maeve asked me today to put it back up. It was difficult conversation and worth listening to about what women deal with in comedy.”

Here’s to more difficult conversations, eh?

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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