Joanne Brookfield makes ‘no apologies’ about being a woman in comedy

It’s rare for a superhero blockbuster to inspire a near-spiritual experience, but that’s what Patty Jenkins’ 2017 film Wonder Woman did for author and comedian Joanne Brookfield. In the opening chapter of her new book No Apologies (Echo Publishing, $29.99) she describes, awe radiating off the page, how it felt to watch “a woman saving the world”:

“Imagine if that had always been my experience of cinema, right from the get-go, that I’d been exposed to images and narratives of women always triumphing, always invincible, rather than this anomaly so far into my adult life.”

It isn’t cinema Brookfield explores in the pages that follow, but stand-up: the brand of entertainment she’s worked in, with and around for two decades. The issue of women’s representation, however, is what ties the two. As the book’s tagline declares, No Apologies is all about “women in comedy claiming their space, finding their voices & telling their stories”.

“I remember having conversations years ago with a friend of mine and she was wanting to be an actor,” Brookfield tells me. “And we were like, why is it hard for us to say we want to be comedians and actors? If we said we wanted to be an accountant, everyone would say ‘that’s fine’.

“That’s why the book’s called No Apologies – why should you apologise for what you want to do?”

Though the prospect of standing onstage and trying to make strangers laugh can undoubtedly be anxiety-inducing for men, women are battling sexist notions about how much they speak, what they say, and how they aren’t funny in addition to their own nerves, says Brookfield.

“Men are socialised so differently. They’re used to having the floor and used to speaking and being heard… It’s harder for women because you’re starting on the back foot.”

“Men are socialised so differently. They’re used to having the floor and used to speaking and being heard… It’s harder for women because you’re starting on the back foot.”

Brookfield interviewed 60 women for her book, ranging from household names (Denise Scott, Judith Lucy, Wendy Harmer) to those starting out on the circuit. She spoke to women of colour, such as cabaret performers Hot Brown Honey, and LGBTQIA comedians, including trans woman Anna Piper Scott.

“Any time a woman mentioned another woman, I’ve made a conscious effort to include that quote. I wanted the book to be a record of how many women are in comedy… there’s more than 120 people mentioned in this book,” Brookfield says.

Their stories are woven in alongside recollections from her own history and shows, with a different theme working as a banner for each chapter. The book’s arc might mirror a comedian’s career trajectory: trailblazing and taking the plunge are early topics, before Brookfield explores bad gigs and the “lawless shitshows” that are open mic nights.

Despite working on the book around the same time that #MeToo was gaining momentum and Hannah Gadsby’s ground-breaking show Nanette was creating excitement, Brookfield was wary about focusing heavily on sexual abuse and harassment, “because then it becomes about men’s behaviour” rather than celebrating women’s accomplishments.

“Having said that, Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered on her way home from a gig and you can’t write a book about women in comedy and not acknowledge that a young aspiring female comedian will never get to realise her potential because the world we live in is fucked,” she says.

Dixon, to whom No Apologies is dedicated, is at the heart of chapter seven. Those who knew the emerging young comedian share memories of her, extolling her work as “refreshing”, “impactful” and “insightful”, and Brookfield paints a clear picture of the grief that struck Melbourne’s comedy scene upon her death.

The chapter (which is called “Really Bad Gigs”, further outlining what can be a gaping chasm between male and female experiences) explores the threats, fears and assaults women comedians sometimes face.

“It’s a really tricky thing because I don’t want to put off aspiring female comedians, I don’t want women to think the entire thing is misogynist,” Brookfield says. “The comedy festival is really progressive in what they’re trying to do and it is, more often than not, a really good environment to be in.

“But it’s hard because a lot of comedy takes place in pubs at night and it doesn’t feel like your 9-5 corporate office where there is HR and workshops on appropriate behaviour.”

Ultimately though, the book is, as Brookfield intended, a celebration. It’s full of triumphs and successes, both personal and on a broader social scale. By its end, interviewees are creating inclusive performance spaces, revelling in the good gigs and embracing their love of the art.

“There’s just something really powerful about the collective nature of all these women going, nevertheless, she persisted.”

“There’s just something really powerful about the collective nature of all these women going, nevertheless, she persisted,” notes Brookfield.

On Saturday April 13, Brookfield will host a Melbourne International Comedy Festival event, which she calls “a hybrid”: equal parts comedy show, book launch, and Q&A. Dubbed No Apologies: The Chat Show, she’ll be joined by several of her interviewees onstage.

“I wanted to have some kind of presence within the festival and I wanted to bring the book to life. There is genuinely a part of me that wants to keep this conversation going,” she says.

Nanette, Me Too, Time’s Up, all the rest of it … We need to keep this momentum going.”

No Apologies: the Chat Show is playing at the Coopers Malthouse on Saturday April 13.

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