Token woman? You must be joking says Colchester-bound comedian Zoe Lyons

Stand-up comedian Zoe Lyons, playing Colchester Arts Centre tonight. Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Stand-up comedian Zoe Lyons, playing Colchester Arts Centre tonight. Photo: Steve Ullathorne - Credit: Archant

Comedian Zoe Lyons is all for equal opportunities, but isn’t interested in being the token woman on TV panel shows. The Colchester-bound stand-up talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage.

One of Lyons' female comedy heroes Jo Brand

One of Lyons' female comedy heroes Jo Brand - Credit: PA

Lyons doesn’t agree with positive discrimination. The comedy panel show regular hopes she’s there because she’s Zoe Lyons, not because it’s a case of “stick a bird on”.

Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of TV, decreed last year that it was unacceptable for such shows to have all-male line-ups; with a BBC spokesman saying there would be at least one female participant.

It followed criticism from the likes of Victoria Wood, who hit out at “testosterone-fuelled” shows; while Jo Brand, a hero of Lyons, claimed she no longer considered appearing on Mock The Week. Writer Caitlin Moran has reportedly turned down requests to appear on big panel shows because she refused to be the token woman.

“I never dwell on it. I’m there because, I hope, I’m Zoe Lyons, not because I’m a female. My approach has always been head down, do a good job and silently break through,” says the comedian, who ends her critically-acclaimed Mustard Cutter tour at Colchester Arts Centre tonight.

Lyons will also be at Latitude this year

Lyons will also be at Latitude this year - Credit: Archant

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She thinks a lot of the problems are down to panel show makers not getting out and seeing live comedy.

“They’re like ‘oh we want new comedy, we want new comedians, fresh female talent’. Go watch some stuff; go do your research; because there are so many brilliant female comedians on the circuit at the moment that there’s no excuse. I think it’s partially laziness and it’s partially the way of the world and how these things work.” Comedy, like many industries, is male dominated, although female comedians were far more common when she started in the early Noughties. “It was harder in the clubs for women as well. When I first started, occasionally I’d come on stage and blokes would just fold their arms, walk away or turn around,” laughs Lyons, who was 30 when she began.

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She took her first steps on the comedy path after training as an actress at the Poor School in London. She went on to win the Funny Women competition in 2004 and her debut Edinburgh show was nominated for best newcomer at Edinburgh Comedy Awards. In 2008 she won Dave’s Funniest Joke of the Fringe award. “It was such a peculiar way to behave but it certainly improved in the 12-13 years I’ve been doing it. I think we’re getting there, but there are so many industries that are skewed.”

Talks turns to Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, who sparked an online backlash after telling a conference in South Korea about the “trouble with girls (in the lab)”.

“(Stand-up comedy), it’s a lot more visual... We’re less likely to be attending a science conference and to see the skew of the industry there, but when it’s your living room and it’s on Saturday night telly then it’s far more visible and far more obvious to people there is some sort of gender skew I suppose,” says Lyons, back in the region later this month when she performs at Latitude Festival, Henham. These things take time; comedy’s an evolving art form. Its origins lie in blokes in pubs telling jokes to other blokes. “We’re only going back 40 or 50 years. It was blokes in skinny bow ties in working men’s clubs telling jokes to other blokes. From that, the alternative scene came along and the last 10-15 years there’s been so much more of it (comedy) on television. It takes a little time to evolve. Hopefully in five years it (the male to female comedian ratio) won’t be mentioned upon...” Lyons, who has toured the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East as well as running her own popular monthly night, Bent Double, at the Komedia in Brighton, believes the dawn of the alternative scene has helped hasten change.

“Jo Brand is a big hero of mine. I remember seeing her on Saturday Night Live with Ben Elton and she’s done so much for stand-up. She’s fantastic; head down, get on with it, and she’s had a wonderful career and is a really lovely person.”

Mustard Cutter is an hour of observations delivered in Lyons’ usual confident, passionate, energetic, rapid-fire vinegar wit. A hit at Edinburgh last year, it’s loosely based on the theme of what it’s like to make yourself better or want to be better. “It’s a mix of anecdotes, jokes and stories that I embellish and animate on stage; but I kick off talking about moving house to a better area in an attempt to increase my status, and the pitfalls of that.

“I talk about the first and only funeral I’ve ever been to. I discovered at the ripe old age of 43 I’ve only ever been to one funeral, which is quite a weird statistic. So I talk about that and, I can’t give away what happened, but shall we just say it was an interesting funeral. There were some revelations during the ceremony that were quite interesting.”

The best comedy comes from a point of truth and she’s not shy about sharing stuff on stage. Playing mostly comedic roles at drama school and in some fringe plays, she fell into stand-up like so many before her. She’d always wanted to try it and, after watching lots of open mic nights, finally built up the courage to put together “five minutes of really crappy material” and get up on stage. “There’s no definite route in, no career guide to how to do it... There are times where you’re stood behind stage, going ‘what the hell am I doing’? I still find it a nerve-wracking experience at times. You’ve really got to want to do it...

“I do think there is something slightly askew with our (comedians’) minds; this is what we have to do to satisfy those needs. It is a peculiar thing. There is a certain twisted element to comedians, that need for constant gratification, and I don’t know whether it’s to be liked, but it’s certainly to be looked at, isn’t it? I mean, you have to be a show-off. There’s something not quite right there,” she laughs.

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