Diane Parkes joins the fun at Laughing Cows, a new comedy club in Birmingham which features only female performers.
It is a muggy summer evening and we are seated in the Kitchen Garden Café in Kings Heath hoping the woman in front of us is not going to pick on us.
The usually-ordered tables and chairs have all been moved around to create a mini auditorium and at the focal point is comedian Maureen Younger who is warming up the crowd.
Microphone in hand, she pinpoints individuals and groups of friends, firing questions at them. She asks a group of students to move places and then quizzes them.
“Who are you then darling?” she asks. “What do you do for a living?”
When one replies he has a part-time job working in retail, Maureen is quick-fire with a response.
“You work in retail? You told me you were a student when you were paying, you owe me £2 mate.”
She turns her attention to a couple.
“What are your names? What do you do?”
When she hears one is a social worker Maureen grabs the comic potential with both hands.
“A social worker? It is so nice of you to bring your work with you,” as she nods towards the students. “I see you brought them for a night out.”
This process is part of the comedy but it is also an attempt to include the audience in the evening and introduce us to each other.
Maureen’s warm-up kicks off the monthly Laughing Cows Comedy Nite, which goes on to feature a host of comediennes. And behind the jokes there is a serious side to Laughing Cows, which was founded in London in 1998 and opened its Birmingham branch last year.
Aiming to put comediennes in the spotlight, it gives them an opportunity to perform in front of supportive audiences – made up of both men and women.
This is extended to the occasional new talent evenings known as Laughing Calves when local women can apply to do a short stand-up piece.
And Maureen says these designated women’s evenings are imperative in providing opportunities for comediennes.
“Women generally find it harder to make it in comedy,” she says.
“If you see a bill for a usual comedy evening you are unlikely to see more than one woman on it.
‘‘And as you go higher up the ranks to well-known comics, less and less of them are women.
“The comedy circuit tends to be male-dominated. Promoters are less willing to give women a chance and, among some people, there is a perception that women are not as funny as men.
‘‘I have been in the business for five or six years and you would be amazed at how often people have said to me that they liked my act but don’t usually like women comics.
‘‘Or they say that ‘you are funny despite being a woman’.”
The shortage of women on the comedy circuit can put additional expectations on those who are prepared to put their head above water.
“There is a lot of pressure on women comics and people tend to judge them more harshly,” says Maureen. “If you go to a show and there is only one woman on the bill and three of the acts die, including the woman, then everyone remembers that the woman was rubbish.”
And that is without the problems shared by so many working women in trying to juggle the responsibilities of employment and family.
“Being a comic is a very hard job and you have to be prepared to do a lot of travelling and work a lot of nights and that isn’t easy if you have got children.”
Laughing Cows is a not-for-profit organisation, which also has clubs in London, Manchester, Berlin and Edinburgh, where it is staged on a daily basis during the Festival.
Maureen was keen to bring the phenomenon to Birmingham, launching the club last autumn and rapidly establishing it on a monthly basis. She believes she found the perfect venue in the Kitchen Garden Café in York Road.
“I came here with a friend and really liked it,” she says.
“It has a really good atmosphere and it is a bit different. It isn’t the kind of place you would necessarily expect to have a comedy club but it has worked really well.
‘‘And one of the other big advantages of Birmingham is that it is close enough to London for the London-based comics to be prepared to travel this far.”
The club has already pulled in some high-profile comedians.
“It was launched by Janice Connolly as Barbara Nice, which was brilliant, and we have also had Hattie Hayridge here,” says Maureen.
“Hattie is known from Red Dwarf and you could tell the Red Dwarf fans in the audience. And in October we have Shelagh Martin and Jo Enright.”
But it is also about giving new voices an outlet.
“We aim to be supportive of the comics and we like to hold the occasional Laughing Calves evenings as it gives up-and-comng talent a chance to try out their stuff,” Maureen says.
“There is always a really supportive atmosphere for the women who are doing the show. The club is very friendly and we now have a lot of regulars in the audience.”
Which is soon borne out as Maureen steps aside for the up-and-coming women comedians who are taking part in the Laughing Calves event.
Each is only given a few minutes and each has a totally individual voice, showing the diversity of women’s humour.
Those performing are Sharon Race, Anthea Neagle, Hannah Silvester, Ishi Khan-Jackson and Audriana.
The audience is more than ready to give them support, not just laughing at all the groan-worthy puns but also cheering along, clapping and even joining in a mock fitness class.
Sutton Coldfield comic Silvester admits to a few pre-show nerves but says that, once in front of the audience, she had soon forgotten them.
“It was fun,” she says. “I really enjoyed it and this is a great atmosphere.”
* The next Laughing Cows events on September 8 and October 6. Tickets cost £8 (£6 concessions) by emailing hazel@laughingcowscomedy.