Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A Rock Between: Top Ten Comedians Now and Then

This image, the only one I could find that sort of fit Time magazine's ranking of the "10 best comedy specials" of 2018, is a little misleading. Hannah Gadsby's special was ranked top and Ali Wong's special was ranked third top. Chris Rock's special came in sixth. Yet this image puts him front and centre, like he's the main event.

The gender ratio is about right, the top ten included six women and four men, but the image doesn't really reflect the gender ranking, which had women in the top five spots. As this ranking is an unprecedented event in the ranking of male and female comedians anywhere it is surely the biggest news in this story, yet the article (which pictures Gadsby alone), as with this image used to advertise the list elsewhere, downplays if not distorts this part of the story.

If you compare Time's top ten with Rolling Stone's 2017 Top 50 stand-up comedians of all time, the gender ranking and ratio of Time's top ten is historically very big news indeed, because in RS's top 50 only one woman made it to the top ten (Joan Rivers), and only one of the women in Time's top ten this year (Tig Notaro) made it onto RS's top 50 last year, albeit RS's list was of dead as well as living comedians which is going to bias the list in favour of males, even if a significant percentage of the women included in that list are also dead.

Overall there were eleven women in the RS top 50, so a little over a fifth (22%), most of them in the bottom half, and just 1% in the top ten, whereas the Time top ten list has 60% women and all but one of these women ranked in the top half. Rock is ranked 5th best stand-up comedian of all time in the 2017 RS list, and none of the women comedians who outranked him on the Time list rank anywhere on the RS list.

Time and Rolling Stone are different magazines no doubt, and their lists were for slightly different purposes, too. But still the comparison and contrast of these two lists tells I think of a significant cultural shift in the industry driven by increasing numbers of women standing up, more of these women being given the platform to stretch their comedic legs on their own terms, not as one of the blokes - thanks mostly to Netflix - and then these women being recognised for these talents. The first move has been occurring for some years now but the second and third shifts have happened largely since early last year when RS presumed to tell us who the funniest stand-ups of all time are, and included five times as many men as women.

Since that time less than two years ago systemic sexism in the comedy and wider entertainment industry has been exposed and the cost of that sexism through women speaking out about sexist men, not least comedians like Cosby and C.K. (who both ranked in RS's top 10) - and Rock too, who made fun of sexism, indeed of rape, after the RS ranking had been published, and didn't get away with it as much as he had expected to - has been brought to light and taken seriously in a way that has not happened before in any industry.

So one way or another 2017 and 2018 have been watershed years for women in comedy, which means for men in comedy too, and for women and men everywhere else as well, because changed perceptions about who and what is funny changes everything, at least it has the potential to. Flying on our local Air New Zealand carrier earlier this year I tuned in to listen to 'The Comedy Hour: Various Artists', drawn by the 'various' as much as by the 'comedy'. Alas 'various' was not so various in this 2018 comedy line-up, recorded in this order (I didn't listen to all):

Louis C.K.
Joe Rogan
Bill Burr
Bill Hicks
George Carlin
Patrice O'neal
Artie Lange
Jimmy Carr
Eddie Izzard

The all-male comedy line-up suggests we have some way to go before lists of 'various' comedians include, for the sake of accuracy if not fairness, at least one representative from the other half of the human race, preferably more than one. Time's line-up makes a good start towards this much needed change.

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