The Tab chats to Cambridge’s first feminist comedy night
Chris Waugh and James Wilkinson tell all about the predominance of cis white males in comedy and how to fix it.
What inspired you to start the Newnham Smoker?
James: Partially how great the Wolfson Howler is as a dedicated stand-up night. I think we wanted to establish a regular event for ourselves with a focus on getting more alternative voices and newbies a friendly gig. Also free performers’ drinks.
Chris: Our group, No Fixed Abode, was founded in 2010 while I was still a student at Sidney Sussex. We ran a regular charity gig there for around three years, and also were involved in a number of other big comedy events of the time. We were always coming at comedy from a left field direction – we were political, idiosyncratic, feminist, something a bit different – and the older I got and the more I matured as a comic, the more I realised I wanted to run a night that was explicitly feminist.
James, myself and Callie Vandewiele (the other founder) were sitting around in the pub one day, talking about how few women were involved in comedy, how much sexist bollocks you encountered at comedy gigs and so on, and then thought, fuck it, let’s organise an explicitly feminist comedy night. Callie, who is at Newnham, booked out the bar, I booked Njambi McGrath (an excellent feminist Kenyan comedian) and then 150 people turned up the first night! After that, we decided to make it a regular thing.
What do you mean by feminist comedy?
James: For me one of the main things is that we always try to have a gender balance of male and female performers.
Chris: I agree – I think comedy in general is rather dominated by cis white men. One of the reasons I founded No Fixed Abode was to try to encourage people from marginalised groups to go on stage. So, “feminist comedy” is partially about equalising the playing field, encouraging women, non-binary folk and so on to get involved in comedy. A lot of comedy clubs (this is definitely the case outside Cambridge) are male dominated spaces, where non-males face huge hostility whether that’s misogynistic comedians or acts who get told to get their tits out by the crowd.
There’s an additional element to it as well. I remember Stewart Lee said somewhere that the difference between right wing and left wing stand up was that rightists tended to punch down, mock the people who were at the bottom of society. Leftists tended to bunch up, attack inequality and show us all its absurdity. The latter appeals to me a lot more – I wanted to create a space where people can do radical comedy which has a political edge, a feminist edge, comes from a queer perspective and so on. That’s not to say that all of our acts talk about feminism (we generally book an explicitly feminist headliner) but we ask them to avoid misogynistic, transphobic and homophobic material. We want our audience to feel comfortable as well.
Why did you all get into alternative comedy?
James: I wouldn’t really call myself an ‘alternative comic,’ but I got into comedy mainly because Cambridge is such a fantastic place to do it. Also free performers’ drinks.
Chris: The Cambridge comedy scene has a lot going for it. I wouldn’t have nearly 500 gigs under my belt if I hadn’t studied here. That said, I remember back in my first year in 2009 (it was great back then, we had this thing called the Lib Dems and everyone thought they were great) I remembered feeling that mainstream comedy wasn’t really for me. I went on stage and talked about socialism, death metal, polyamory, living with manic depression – things close to my life. It never went down well with Footlights at the time. So I got together some friends and we founded No Fixed Abode as an alternative comedy group with two aims – one, promote left field comedy, two, encourage newbies, especially those from minority backgrounds, to get on stage.
What do you think of the efforts of CUSU Women’s Campaign?
James: Top banana.
Chris: As a straight cis bloke, it’s not really my place to say how effective WomCam is (you’d have to ask the women it represents) but in the time I’ve been at Cambridge, which was before most of this years freshers hit puberty, I’d say that WomCam has provided a valuable space for women to organise autonomously, and organise activism around big things like Reclaim the Night, abortion rights, and more day to day issues like self care. I’ve worked with WomCam on a couple of allies events, and I’d be happy to work with them in the future. They are valuable part of Cambridge’s rich history of activism.
What do you hope to achieve through the Newnham Smoker?
Chris: Full queer communism? Quommunism? The workers have nothing to lose but their patriarchal heteronormativity? I think we want to create a space of “alternative comedy” – by that, we mean the kind of thing which is, say, radically left wing, feminist, queer or more stylistically different from conventional stand up – things that are semi improvised, musical, or whatever. Cambridge does have an excellent comedy scene but it can be a bit hegemonic at times. We’d like to position the night as a nice balance to the established gigs in town. Wolfson Howler, Clare Comedy, Footlights Smokers – these are the big nights. We’d like Newnham Smoker to become part of the fabric of the comedy scene – the left, feminist night.
James: Get more people into performing comedy, and also just carry on producing consistently great nights of stand-up.
Why should people attend the Newnham Smoker?
Chris: Because we are warm, friendly, our shows last year were fantastic, and we have some truly amazing headliners booked in, including acts who sold out big venues up at Edinburgh this year. But also, come along if you want to try stand up! We run beginners classes, support new acts in writing their sets, and give them their first five in front of a very friendly crowd.
If you want to know more about Newnham Smoker, come check out their first gig of term on 23rd October, 8pm, Newnham Bar or find them on Facebook.