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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 9 July, 2020
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Maeve Higgins: Irish women in comedy - I see you, I hear you and here's how we can change things

Irish comedian Maeve Higgins offers support to Irish women in the industry on the back of revelations about the behaviour of some male comedians.

Maeve Higgins

In the past week, Irish Twitter has been lighting up with debates and revelations around the abusive behaviour of some men in the comedy scene. As US comedy came to terms with its #MeToo moment, Irish women told their own personal stories about male privilege in the industry here and their experiences with some men who they said had abused their power.

The stream of conversations, where women offered support to each other in the wake of shared stories, fell in under the hashtags, #Ibelieveher & #BelieveSurvivors. This prompted the head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Noeline Blackwell, to tweet her support to all survivors of abuse, reminding them that the services of the DRCC are always there.

Maeve Higgins, an Irish comedian now based in the US, knows the Irish comedy scene and came up through its ranks over several years. Here, she shares her thoughts on the latest and offers support to fellow women in the industry:

HERE ARE SOME things I’d rather be doing than writing this piece about how to survive Irish comedy as a woman. 

1. Talking nonsense in the park with my friend Jeff and cracking each other up.
2. Working on my next book, the manuscript is due in September and my plan for today was to write about the role of imagination in migration.
3. Watching the ‘Insecure’ season four finale, I love that show.

I left Ireland over seven years ago and am not part of the live comedy scene there any longer. Since leaving I have starred in Extra Ordinary, a comedy feature that premiered at SXSW and won myself and the team who made it a number of awards. I’ve written a book for Penguin US that is in development as a TV show with Minnie Driver’s production company and I have been a contributing writer for The New York Times for over two years.

I co-host a climate justice podcast with the former Irish President, Mary Robinson. I also co-host a live comedy show called Butterboy in Brooklyn every week (it’s virtual now) with my friends Aparna Nancherla and Jo Firestone. 

Why am I telling you this? Well, stupidly, it is vital to put my credentials upfront because as a woman they provide both a shield for me and a bank of evidence for you that I am a person worth listening to. 

Still, I don’t expect that many men will listen or ‘get it’ and that’s fine; this piece is not for men. I’m fine with male allies reading, learning and sharing, but this is for women and non-binary people who are part of or trying to be part of, the live Irish comedy scene.

This is advice I have either learned myself, learned from other women comedians, or wish I had known when I was starting out in 2005. I am 39 now and I live thousands of miles away from Ireland; perhaps from this time and distance away my perspective will be helpful.

Of course, the ideal situation would be that men changed their behaviour and treated women as human beings and colleagues. In a just world, rapists would be prosecuted and the comedy scene would be safe for us to have fun and be free. I mean physically safe but also creatively and psychologically safe.

It would be wonderful not to be beaten down by micro-aggressions and constantly tripped up by the power structure you’re attempting to navigate. That is unlikely to happen any time soon, so here is what you can do to survive and even thrive in Irish comedy!

1. Vet all venues, hosts, and comedy nights before you gig there

There are sexual predators on both the business and performance sides of Irish comedy. Pay attention to the whisper networks online and in real life, these exist for a reason. If there are no other women in your town or city to meet up with, do your research online. Start your own shows and support nights run by women and non-binary people.

Even then, pay attention to the line-up and refuse to perform if there is anyone unsafe there.

I am so very sorry if you have already been sexually assaulted in this industry. Women are 100% not to blame for the brutality of men and I am beyond grateful those of you over the years who spoke up and warned the others.

2. Do not date or sleep with male comedians

This can be tricky because some male comedians are cool/hot. Weirdly, the ones that seem the nicest/most aware/feminist are often quite damaging to women! It’s insanely backwards but the way the industry (and much of Irish society) is, means you will lose standing and possibly worse.

I briefly dated one male comedian when I was starting out and he went on to stalk me in a variety of horrifying ways that jeopardised my career until he was arrested. Other male comedians I’ve dated undermined me in ways I only realised years later.

3. Circumvent traditional routes to a comedy career

I came up through the gruelling open mic scene where only men decided if I got stage time. Better to try social media, theatre writing and acting, film-making, collaborating with other artists, and look for funding opportunities outside of comedy.

I see young Irish women doing this already on Instagram, TikTok, podcasts, etc.

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You will arrive at your goal less traumatised and more intact as a person and an artist, and probably more interesting too. Creatively, many men in Irish comedy limit their expectations and chase the same small set of prizes in a way that is depressing to me.

4. Understand and accept your value and that of other women and non-binary people

This takes two forms. Refuse to accept your male peers’ ‘banter’ tinged with cruelty and misogyny. Calling out a guy in front of other male comedians backstage or on stage makes them all quite shockingly angry, believe me, but doing so has bolstered my own self-respect. Be stand-offish, it’s fine.

The second, related part is to ally yourself with your female peers and those directly in front of and behind you – then protect and lift each other. You need your community and they need you. Even if your style and aspirations don’t match theirs, make sure you are there for each other. When you’re ambitious and carry an inevitable amount of learned patriarchal nonsense like me, that can take time.

But I have learned it’s best to be collaborative and community-minded rather than expecting myself to make it on my own. I can testify that one of us gaining power means we all do.

Good luck my darling funny sisters! I’m going to get back to my work and my life now. Things will get better. They certainly couldn’t get any worse and as Octavia Butler says,  “The only lasting truth is change”.

Maeve Higgins is a writer and comedian and co-host of the climate justice podcast Mothers Of Invention with Mary Robinson.

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