A Rare Bird: A Gender Comparison of Stand-ups in New Zealand – Land of Few Female Comics by Jane Mauret


The proposal title refers to the New Zealand Comedy Guild listing 108 stand-up comics, of which just 18 are female (November 2010). This trend is reflected overseas too, where, for example, the Perrier Award (now defunct) for new comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was won only twice by women in 25 years (Dobson, 2006). 

The field of stand-up remains a highly male dominated domain even though women have long featured in many facets of comedy for at least the last century.  Why the imbalance reigns in New Zealand, a country which prides itself on equality and where the recent pioneering history has generated an infant nation of males and females ‘dead keen’, ‘up for anything’, and ready to ‘have a go’, is of interest.

Humour appears to be as essential to human beings as breathing: “During the earlier half of (the 20th) century, it was widely believed that a sense of humor is a learned component of human life. It was considered that it would not be too much of a shock to discover groups, even entire cultures where humor had never been developed and where people are entirely devoid of a sense of humor. Such a group has never been discovered.” (Fry, 1994, p. 111). Concepts of humour often include the notion of incongruity, being “a specific type of communication that establishes an incongruent relationship or meaning and is presented in a way that causes laughter.” (Berger, 1976, p.113 ). More recently Martin (2007) said humour was “incongruous, surprising, peculiar, unusual, or different from what we normally expect.” (2007, p. 63).  Humour can be accidental or planned – “anything done or said purposefully or inadvertently, that is found to be comical or amusing.” (Long & Graesser, 1988, p.37).

These definitions deal with humour as it arises in daily life, however, people pay to see stand-up humour and it is a lonely occupation: “A … definition of stand-up comedy would describe an encounter between a single, standing performer behaving comically and/or saying funny things directly to an audience, unsupported by very much in the way of costume, prop, setting, or dramatic vehicle.” (Mintz, 1985, p.71). Stand-up comedy stands apart from other types of comedy, eg, impersonations, ventriloquists, improvisers, comic duos, in that the comic addresses the audience directly. (Sjöbohm, 2008).

This could be why the highly successful American comic, Jerry Seinfeld, described stand-up as a dialogue rather than a monologue (Malmberg in Crispin & Danielsson, 1992), echoed by Beeman describing “humour, of all forms of communicative acts, is one of the most heavily dependent on equal cooperative participation of actor and audience.” (1999, p.103). A very important aspect of stand-up comedy is that it must be original – and they have to keep coming up with new material, ie, it is perfectly acceptable for musical compositions to be interpreted over and over by different performers (Sjöbohm, 2008). Another feature is that it is not sufficient for the audience to applaud – they have to laugh, and the material has to be refreshed over time, so it is also a tough career.

Research Issue

The research issue proposes to begin to understand why there are so few female stand-ups in New Zealand ‘in this day and age’. The majority of the research to date has largely focused on spontaneous humour and its appreciation in the workplace and social settings, with little study accorded humour production (Graham, 2010) whilst stand-up comedy has hardly been considered (Sjobohm, 2008).  The proposed research aims to begin to fill the void in the literature by examining New Zealand stand-up comedians, male and female, via analysing their prepared material, attendant on-stage persona, personal humour style, and audience responses to individual comedians and their material.


McGhee’s (1971) study of humour research found that less than 10% dealt with humour creation, with a similar result unearthed by Robinson and Smith-Lovin in 2001. McGhee later found that humour research of children had not distinguished between boys and girls but was concerned with what children laughed at, how often and at what age. His studies of children aged from 3-11, however, showed that boys attempted humour more than girls and that boys appeared to be better because they got more practice at it although it was not clear why this should be – perhaps because “clowning around” was not considered ladylike (1974, 1976). Researchers since then have continued to study humour appreciation by gender and found, eg, that males preferred sexual over absurd humour while the reverse was true for females (Brodzinsky, Barnet, & Aiello, 1981; Johnson, 1992).

Cross-cultural Research

Much humour research has been cross-cultural, possibly because this might more clearly illustrate potential differences and this has been gauged using the Humour Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) which defines four types of humour: “Affiliative humor (tendency to amuse others and engage in humor in a way that promotes social cohesiveness); (2) self-enhancing humor (perspective-taking humor, humor as coping); (3) aggressive humor (sarcasm, use of humor to ridicule and manipulate others); and (4) self-defeating humor (excessively self-disparaging humor, humor as avoidance or denial)”. (Martin, 2003, p.15)

A persistent finding has been that aggressive humour was ‘preferred’ more in in the West/individualistic societies, eg, Americans, Canadians and Belgians – and by males than females; whilst self-deprecating humour was utilised more by Eastern/collectivistic populations such as Chinese, Egyptian, Lebanese, Armenian, Taiwanese – and females (Puhlick-Doris & Martin, 1999; Saroglou & Scariot, 2002; Kazarian & Martin, 2004; Kalliny, Cruthirds, & Minor, 2006; Liao & Chang, 2006; Chen & Martin, 2007; Taher, Kazarian, & Martin, 2008). Observational studies of humour between second language users and native speakers has shown how native and second language speakers modify their speech to accommodate differing levels of ‘getting the joke’, if the parties were mixed, and mores in terms of taboo subjects (Bell, 2007, 2007a; Norrick, 2007). Habib (2008) found that teasing humour between nationalities actually reinforced relationships and helped establish cultural identity. Humour in the intercultural business environment has been found to resolve conflict by “avoiding”, “compromising”, “smoothing”, etc (Smith, Harrington & Neck, 2000) and to diffuse tension, enable informality, to include/exclude, etc. (Rogerson-Revell, 2007).

Studies have also elicited that often women and men nominate a man as someone with an outstanding sense of humour, eg, the Singaporean student study by Nevo, Nevo and Yin. (2001).

New Zealand Humour Studies

Humour research has been carried out in New Zealand mainly in the workplace regarding function of humour and demonstrating that women produced just as much humour as men but in different ways or for differing purposes (Hay, 2000; Holmes, 2000; Holmes & Marra, 2002; Holmes 2006).  In 2001, Holmes, Marra and Burns concluded that the “New Zealand data … provides evidence to challenge the widely held stereotype that women lack a sense of humour, and the popular misconception that women produce less humour than men.” (p.103).


Even in quite recent years, researchers held that women were not funny, nor meant to be funny, for to do so meant they were acting contrary to cultural expectations by being aggressive, domineering, competitive and clowning around (Lakoff, 1975; McGhee, 1979; Apte, 1985).  It may be that the emergence of female comics was linked to feminism, in that female comics were issuing a challenge by entering an aggressive environment people found more acceptable from men and that female comics were less about entertainment. (Greenbaum, 1997; Russell, 2002).

Hay identified that New Zealand women’s humour was about: people, revealing personal information and laughing at oneself; whilst men’s humour was about ‘things’, eg, TV, alcohol, computers. (Hay, 1995, 2000).  This theme resonated in an interview with famous UK female stand-up, Jo Brand, when asked if she thought there were gender humour differences: “Women’s humour… tends to be far more personal and emotion centred. Whereas I think men distance themselves from their emotions … so women would tend to talk about themselves and their experiences and men would tend to talk about objects and occurrences.” (Sobbott-Mogwe & Cox, 1999, p.135).

Hay also found, surprisingly, men were more likely to use role-play and word play than women when it is generally held that females are more language-oriented than males. (1995, 2000). A number of writers have supported this view that female humour is more personal than male humour, that many studies have shown women are skilful at humour and that they use self-deprecating humour to a greater extent (Kotthoff, 2000; Bird, 2008).

One intriguing finding is that in Russia, comic routines performed by women are written by men (Mesropova, 2003) which might suggest that women in Russia are not thought capable of creating the humour but as female messengers, they may either inflame or calm the audience. On the basis that humour style has been found to vary across gender and culture, it is possible that humour topic/style of stand-up comedians might also show significant variance.




Humour measurement tools include scenario completion tests, self-report instruments, peer rating forms and captioning exercises, but they do not measure humour production directly; the HSQ has peer- and self-report versions – the danger of self-reporting tools is that of course, everyone wishes to believe they have a great sense of humour but often that is not true. What all the studies above have in common is that they looked at spontaneous, impromptu humour: this present study aims to look at planned humour that is delivered in live entertainment settings.

The difference with everyday humour is that others may laugh out of politeness. Stand-up comedy demands that the material is genuinely amusing and original. Since it is beyond the remit of the proposed research to deduce how many of each gender attempt to enter the profession to succeed or fail, this study will compare male and female stand-ups under the following regimen of enquiry:

RQ 1: To determine if there are significant differences in subject/delivery in current professional stand-up comic material utilised by male and female comedians in New Zealand.

RQ2: To determine if there are significant differences in personal humour style of professional male/female stand-up comedians in New Zealand.

RQ3: To determine if there are significant differences in audiences’ responses to male and female stand-up comics in New Zealand.


The research will be largely of qualitative in nature (with a smaller focus on quantitative results).  A recent study by Sjöbohm (2008) compared professional stand-up comedians’ topics and delivery method from three countries (America, Sweden and South America). The author found evidence of topic selection and that where there was subject overlap, the delivery style varied considerably – ranging from ‘mellow’ to ‘screaming’. “These approaches can even be compared with stereotypes of Swedes and Americans, where the Swedes are said to be reluctant to engage in harsh confrontation and tend to be calmer in this sense when compared to the more openly confrontational American.”(p.25). While not a gender study, this work provides a fitting framework for the current proposal.


It is proposed that 30 comedy sets will be assessed.


Subjects are 15 males and 15 females who have been engaged to appear in two comedy events. Fifteen women in total are taking part in the two events and the 15 males were chosen via random selection. They are all local comedians who qualify as professional stand-up comics, ie, they are able to set their own fee; they have released CDs and/or other items attracting revenue; they have agents; they have performed overseas, eg, Australia, UK, Canada. The comics are all New Zealand-born and aged 23-54 years of age, with the majority being of European descent; approximately 5% are of Maori or Pacific Island ethnicity.


Data will be obtained from two forthcoming high-profile comedy events: the Christchurch two-week Southern Comic Fest in March 2011 and the one-week Auckland Laugh Gala in April 2011. (NB: The advantage of executing the research during these events is that a large number of professional comics can be evaluated over three weeks rather than ‘waiting’ for 30 professional acts to make an appearance over a greater range of localities and timeframes.) The 30 comedians have agreed to allow full access to their pre-prepared material. Shorter ‘warm-up’ sets to be analysed run between 5-8 minutes whilst the ‘headline’ sets run for up to 20 minutes.  The sets will be videotaped to allow for multiple reviews of the performances. Each performer will also complete the HSQ which takes 10 minutes.

Budget and Resources

Finance is required for travel and associated expenses to attend shows; hire of video equipment and viewing rooms, and fees for data processing. Because this is new research into relatively unchartered territory, funds have been allocated based on the currently estimated budget in the region of $20,000. The video and HSQ analyses have been timetabled to be undertaken within the Department of Communication, Journalism and Marketing of Massey University with guidance and supervision provided by appropriate post-graduate staff. The Department also has the SPSS software required to process the data.


Contact has been made with the participants and the study proper is projected to begin in February 2011 for the Christchurch stage (administering HSQ/receiving hard copy material) and in March 2011 for the Auckland stage. It is envisaged the results will be available in May 2011.

Ethical Considerations

There are some permissions to be obtained: Obtaining permission from comedians to analyse their pre-prepared material and record their sets with the proviso that only excerpts of the material will appear in the final research document, and will not be published in any other form, in whole or in part. Obtaining permission from venue owners/event organisers/sponsors to tape live shows. The majority of performers/venues/sponsors already approached have at this stage agreed, in principle, to participate in the project because they were interested in the aims and the results that may be garnered.



The proposed study will be undertaken using largely qualitative methods which are not so concerned with the rates at which phenomena occur, but are “interpretative techniques which seeks to describe, decode, translate, and otherwise come to terms with (their) meaning.”(Van Maanen, 1983, p.9, cited in Frey, Botan & Kreps, 2000).

Qualitative Comparative Content Analysis

Data pertaining to RQ1 will be obtained using qualitative content analysis as this enables intrinsic themes in texts/styles to be elicited. One advantage of this method is that the material will be existing and also, the material can be examined unobtrusively (Frey, et al. 2000). Another advantage is that the material is wholly in context making it possible to detect what is important to the text generator and the effects of those themes on the audience (to an extent in the current proposal) (Hsia, 1988). Due to the nature of the material under scrutiny, it is also possible to obtain a large enough selection to represent the field in question (Kaid & Wadsworth, 1989, cited in Kreps et al. 2000).

The encoding of such data is made somewhat easier as even audiences can readily identify categories or themes employed throughout the performance, ie, comics often have a reputation for favouring particular themes, which are likely to be among the following (in alphabetical order): Advertising / Media / Television. Bodily Functions. Celebrities. Children/Parenting. Drugs/Smoking. Feminism. Government/Economy. Interpersonal Relationships. Lifestyles. Media/Television. Other Cultures. Personal Appearance. Religion. Sex. Social Life. Sports. War. Wordplay. Work.

The delivery style will also be recorded in terms of the apparent ‘mood’ of the performer around different topics – which might be, eg, ‘laid-back’, ‘whining, ‘angry’.

Quantitative Humour Styles Questionnaire

Statistics pertaining to RQ2 will be gathered via the HSQs completed by comics will provide further insight by measuring comic’s (qualitative) ‘internal’ humour production (and appreciation) whilst revealing frequency of occurrences according to specified groupings (quantitative). NB: Earlier in this proposal it was noted that the self-report HSQ could be open to “subjective abuse” but it is appropriate in this instance since it is being administered to proven, professional stand-up comedians.

Naturalistic Data

Material pertaining to RQ3 will be acquired from the videos via simple scales attempting to assess audience responses to topics/comics in terms of: number of laughs/heckles, length and intensity of clapping, length of silences, etc. This is known as naturalistic enquiry, or “research that focuses on how people behave when they are absorbed in genuine life experiences in natural settings.” (Kreps, et al., p.257).  This last set of data may be considered too variable since audiences are notoriously fickle, but it is felt it is worth including it in the data capture since the public’s opinion is an integral part of the live show and, ultimately, of the success or otherwise of stand-up comics.


The data gathered will be an interplay of topics, delivery style, personal humour style, and audience response.  There are a number of possible combinations that could arise, eg, there may well be an overlap in topics utilised by both genders but the delivery style may differ; the topics chosen could be vastly distinct; the personal humour style may be shown to be related to topic and/or delivery style.  The audience response data are not expected to be highly illuminating but if there are obvious differences (eg, less/shorter laughter) that would add impetus to the value of surveying audiences more thoroughly in future.

It is doubtful that the data will lead to the inference that female comics are just less talented than males and perhaps the male/female ratio will have balanced out in another 20 years. If no significant differences are found, then the reasons behind there being fewer female comics will remain even further cloaked in mystery and new hypotheses will have to be formulated.

Limitations and Future Research

This inaugural study will not include: surveying audience expectations/experience pre-, during, and post-show; amateur/up and coming comedians at, eg, ‘open-mic nights; comparison with comics from other countries; examination of performer/audience ethnicity or audience gender. It would be extremely useful in the future to identify: the ratio of males/females entering the profession; male and female comedians’ longevity in the business. It would also be preferable to canvass a larger numbers of New Zealand comics but current resources do not permit this.


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