In his 2007 essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” Christopher Hitchens opined that the fairer sex lacks the chops to make us laugh unless they’re “hefty or dyke-y or Jewish.” The article ignited a small firestorm, with everyone from Tina Fey to Joan Rivers calling him out, no doubt giving the Johnny Walker–guzzling controversy fetishist several years worth of wet dreams.
But when I ask Toronto funny lady Martha O’Neill for her thoughts on the Hitch’s musings, she just shrugs.
“Female comics have to be pretty thick-skinned if they’re going to make it,” she says. “I’ve heard muttered, more than once, as I’ve taken the stage, ‘Oh great, it’s a woman.’ I’ve also been told many times by audience members that they don’t usually like female comics but thought I was funny, as if that’s a compliment.”
O’Neill and her team are set to show up Hitchens with the SheDot Festival of Funny Women. The idea germinated not in a comedy club as might be expected, but at O’Neill’s family cottage. Last summer, she hosted Festi-Vag there, an open invitation event for women comics to drink, relax and trade war stories.
“When you’re performing, there are usually only one or two women in the show,” she says. “You get used to working in a male-dominated world. But those few days really opened my eyes to the breadth of talent out there, and I thought, ‘Hell, I’ll just put my own festival together.’”
The event features more than 60 performers from across the US and Canada and includes standup, improv and sketch comedy. Programs range from kid-friendly (ShePG) to filth-ridden (SheUnleashed) and everything in between. There’s also SheLBT, featuring local favourites Martha Chaves, Catherine McCormick and Dawn Whitwell.
While hilarity will undoubtedly fill the stage, O’Neill is not sure who, exactly, will fill the house. Will an all-female comedy festival attract an all-female audience, or will the boys turn out, too?
“Since it’s the first year, we just don’t know who we’re going to get,” she says. “But I truly hope it’s a mix of people from all walks of life who love to laugh.”