Last week on Woman’s Hour, Hadley Freeman discussed what she refers to as ‘deprecating tourettes’: a tendency to point out one’s own shortcomings over and over again, as if some kind of compulsion. According to Freeman, this is a quality particular to women and is indicative of an apologetic stance in the world.
While the radio show debated women more generally, we may ask: in the sphere of comedy, what is the role of self-deprecation?
For this is of course a well-rehearsed comedic device used by both male and female stand-ups. Yet, when trying to list comedians who commonly feature self-deprecation, women by far outweigh the men. A self-deprecating Ricky Gervais? Or Stewart Lee? Or Louis CK? Doesn’t seem likely. Whereas to think of a supremely confident female comedian is considerably more difficult.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen a female stand-up belittle their own success by pointing out their (supposed) failures as an unhappy singleton who still lives at home. In a sense, it’s a clever, or at least a natural, thing to do – endearing yourself to the audience by showing your human, flawed side. Indeed, self-deprecation is often celebrated as a form of wry wit, a particularly British quality one should be proud of.
Yet, the problem lies when a female comedian feels that they must behave in this way. Self-deprecation becomes a compulsory act that stifles and limits comedy performances. This is why Claudia O’Doherty is so refreshing. An Australian stand-up with a somewhat oddball, left-of-field persona, O’Doherty has recently appeared at London Kings Cross’ Invisible Dot with her variety show featuring various performers. She is, however, most well-known in the UK for ‘The Telescope’. The posters for this surrealist performance came with the warning, ‘this show will not be funny’. Indeed, the premise was that O’Doherty had been commissioned to do a piece, yet a loophole in her contract meant that no jokes must be made.
Described as ‘difficult theatre’, this act took the notion of an unlikely and ill-equipped performer and turned this into an absurdist parody. The play blended a range of surrealist characters, all coming from different historical times, and formed some kind of bizarre murder-mystery. Rather than appeasing the audience with self-deprecation, O’Doherty sought to unsettle the stand-up genre. Part of the way in, she feigns the performance going off-the-rails, leaving her left stood looking startled in front of a bemused audience.
In turn, O’Doherty plays with the idea of the performer as a flawed and precarious creator of comedy, expanding the limits of what might be termed ‘self-deprecation’. As ever, diversity and imagination is what keeps comedy exciting and I believe O’Doherty has this in spades.