Once upon a time comedy promoters had the odd idea that female comics were box office poison – so Laughing Cows was born.
Comedy fan Hazel O’Keefe thought the idea that women couldn’t put bums on seats was nonsense so, 15 years ago, she created her own night that only booked female comics. This is typical of her, according to long-serving compere Kerry Leigh.
“Hazel had the verbal gauntlet thrown down as she’d had a conversation with a male promoter. Bear in this was 15 years ago so a very different time but he said he wouldn’t book more than one female in a line up as it was too much of a risk,” recalls Leigh. “So being the passionate feminist she is, and lover of comedy, it that was like ‘right’ and that’s how Laughing Cows was born.”
It was an idea that quickly found an audience and 15 years later they are still packing them in at Manchester’s legendary Frog and Bucket for a birthday bash with another top quality bill of old hands and newcomers. Leigh came on board a decade ago and her easy-going repartee with the audience as she gently ribs them is one of the keys to the night’s longevity.
“They came to see me when they were starting Laughing Cows in Manchester after London was a success and I was in a competition at the Comedy Store. They liked what they saw and they said will you do our opening night? After that they said that was great so will you come and be our compere which was an absolute gift to me as I just starting out.
“Compering was an adjustment for me as there so much I didn’t know. I had to be told you can’t do the same jokes again after a couple of times because you get repeat people. Then I was flying because I realised I didn’t have to come with a plan because I can just talk to the audience, and my forte now is improvising with the audience.”
The disaster struck: management decided they needed a change.
“The funny story we like telling is I actually got fired, although it wasn’t acrimonious as I knew it might happen, and the person who replaced me was Sarah Millican,” smiles Leigh. “Sarah has, of course, has gone on to bigger things and they asked me back.”
The birthday bash bill is typical of a Laughing Cows night: women at very different stages of their careers stand up in front of an audience willing to give them a chance, and not just because they have breasts. Brummie Susan Murray kicks off proceedings, but badly misjudges the crowd with a tortuously unfunny gag about dwarf porn that fatally derails her flow.
Leigh uses her experience to rescue proceedings, pulling the crowd back on side for newcomer Ellen Pemberton who made the short trip from Middleton with a droll and energetic set centring on coming out to her mum. Then it’s time for another relative newcomer – the gloriously deadpan Penella Mellor, who was celebrating her 100th gig tonight. Her beautifully timed and considered riffs on child neglect were hilarious, eliciting lots of guilty laughter. You should see Mellor on the telly before very long.
Headliner Janey Godley is a Laughing Cow veteran, delivering a masterclass in timing and how to get away with in-your-face comedy. Mind you, being arrested for possession of weapons, having a husband with Asperger’s, marrying into the Glasgow mob and having OCD herself means she isn’t short of material. As she pointed out, being a 52-year-old woman with all that history and a husband who collects black pens means you reach a point where you don’t give a a shit what people think about you – much to the crowd’s delight.
Even a tough old bird like Godley felt moved to pay tribute to O’Keefe’s guts in starting her own night. But surely things have changed in the comedy world with the likes of Millican headlining big venues? It raises the obvious question, is there is still a need for Laughing Cows?
“Not in the same way as I think it was needed before as a safe space for women to feel empowered and comfortable. And not to have to win over the audience about their sex before doing the gig which you had to do at times,” says Leigh. “I don’t want it to go and it’s such a lovely gig. We still get comments saying how it is a warm, positive night where the acts don’t just find someone in the audience and shit on them, getting laughs at someone’s else expense.”
So, outside the Laughing Cows’ bubble, does Leigh think attitudes have changed on the circuit?
“I’ve felt the change because there are loads more women gigging, loads more. Hazel could at one time name all the different acts and count them on two hands when she started Laughing Cows and now she doesn’t as there is so many. It’s now not unusual to see women on stage and I think most people don’t flinch if there is a woman on the bill.
“Thinking that women aren’t funny is like racism or any of the -isms or phobias. If you’re funny you’re funny, whatever your gender. Some people are and some people aren’t and it has nothing to do with your genitalia.”
O’Keefe and Leigh are right – there is different vibe at their club. But it wouldn’t work if the women on stage weren’t funny. Tonight demonstrated the depth of real talent out there which means that a cleverly programmed night like Laughing Cows should have at least another 15 years left in it.
By Paul Clarke
What: Laughing Cows Comedy Club
Where: The Frog and Bucket, 102 Oldham Street, Manchester
Contact: http://www.laughingcowscomedy.co.uk/comedy/shows_pvt.html. Check the website for details of upcoming shows.