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Comedy about the bigger picture

Thursday 16th April 2015

Actor Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations last year in support of the He for She campaign sparked a ferocious debate about whether feminism needed to be packaged to appeal specifically to men, so that they’d feel welcome in the movement, and want a bigger stake in it.

While some commentators thought it was progress that a widely-admired young celebrity was telling men how much the patriarchy hurt them and how badly they were needed in the fight for gender equality, many others were scornful of the suggestion that men needed an engraved invitation to care about the way half the world’s population is being oppressed. They rejected the idea that men needed to have an issue made about them, in order for them to care about it.

That debate comes to mind when you hear English comedian Andrew Watts talk about giving his two cents on the issue (or perhaps tuppence, considering there might not be a more English gentleman on the planet than Andrew Watts), in the form of his acclaimed stand-up show, Feminism for Chaps.

“I’ve had judges say to me, ‘That’s not your best point, Mr. Watts, move on.’ You never get a heckler that polite.” - Andrew Watts


The title, along with the publicity material’s pronouncements that “Andrew Watts didn’t know he was a feminist – until now” and the comedian’s own admissions that before his epiphany on the matter he genuinely didn’t know how badly women had it, sounds on a surface level woefully naïve.

Add to that the fact that he’s a Christian, a conservative, and sounds like one of the upstairs lot off Downton Abbey, and you find yourself squinting and tilting your head at the poster, trying to figure out what on earth’s going on. Is he on a suicide mission? Is he taking the piss?

But listen to Andrew Watts talk about it, and you realise that here is simply a man who woke up to the facts, isn’t afraid to say he was wrong, and now wants to introduce other men to what he’s learned, with the help of jokes and cricket metaphors. It’s less naiveté, more honesty.

And it’s a bold move for a man who, until a year ago, was too embarrassed to refer to himself as a stand-up comedian.

“I don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand, but it seems that in London, everyone of a certain age tries stand-up at some point,” Andrew says. “And there are some people who immediately start calling themselves a comedian, put pictures up on Facebook of them at gigs, and have their own websites and things.” He sounds somewhere between aghast and genuinely distressed.

I was much too diffident; didn’t like saying in public, ‘Oh yes, I’m a stand-up’. Because it’s an embarrassing thing

“It’s just a bit embarrassing. But I probably went to the other extreme.  I was much too diffident; didn’t like saying in public, ‘Oh yes, I’m a stand-up’. Because it’s an embarrassing thing.”

He finds quite a lot of things embarrassing. It’s amazing he got into stand-up comedy at all. And yet here he is, a man who’s done now jokes about working out how many kisses to put on the end of an email (he literally pulls out and unfolds a spreadsheet). He doesn’t seem to think it’s anything too shocking that a mild-mannered, slightly fussy lawyer ended up becoming a comedian “as a bet.”

Andrew had been to the Edinburgh Festival with a now-ex girlfriend, and on the way home on the train, he’d commented that he thought he could do a better job than some of the acts they’d seen. She said, “Prove it.”

“I went on a stand-up course for my 30th birthday, so it was probably an early mid-life crisis, but I got hooked very quickly indeed,” he says.

Until five or six years ago he still worked as a solicitor as well, a job to which he seems eminently well-suited. Even now, he still wears a suit and tie to his comedy gigs; a brief flirtation with a “casual” look early in his career didn’t work out. He looks like a lawyer; he says “yah” instead of “yeah”, and he knows what to do with a pipe. But ask him about construction law (his former speciality), and he sounds a bit dejected.

“Ask me anything about concrete, and I know all about concrete. Oh, yah.”

I’m not inspired to ask him about concrete. But doesn’t he miss the cut and thrust of the law?

“Not really,” he says. “My job was mainly sitting in court watching barristers show off, which I was finding really frustrating, and I think was one of the things that pushed me into showing off on my own account.”

He misses the fight of it and getting to help his friends when they’re sacked. He doesn’t miss several hundred page reports about concrete. But he has had to learn to deal with hecklers.

It’s just that in this show, it comes from a place of anger in one particular area. Previously it’d been about being single, or being fat, or whatever else I was talking about

“I always find hecklers a bit harsher than judges,” he says. “I’ve had judges say to me, ‘That’s not your best point, Mr. Watts, move on.’ You never get a heckler that polite.”

And he’d know. While his comedy career initially comprised essentially of the usual sorts of jokes about having trouble getting girlfriends, he’d occasionally bring out some jokes in defence of faith at his gigs, which would reliably result in walk-outs. And now, of course, he’s out to sell chaps on feminism, after his own feminist awakening.

“18 months ago, my wife and I had a baby, and up until that point, I hadn’t really been interested in feminism. I sort of thought it wasn’t terribly important,” he says.

But when their son was born, Andrew noticed that all of a sudden, he and his wife were getting treated like a couple straight out of the 1950s; all the important business of child-rearing was directed at ‘mummy’; ‘daddy’ was expected to head off to the pub and avoid all responsibility, and people thought it was bizarre that Andrew had taken on the bulk of the childcare (his job as a comedian was much more flexible than his wife’s journalism career).

When Andrew expressed his shock at the starkly gendered expectations of parenting, his wife, a lifelong feminist said (and here he adopts a slightly sarcastic tone), “Yah, yah, well done, [you’ve] caught up.”

He promptly went away and read everything written by prominent feminist and activist Bell Hooks, who advocates for an inclusive and intersectional feminism, and a stand-up comedy show was born out of the anger he was starting to feel about the situation.

“All the jokes I’ve ever written come from a place of anger, I think,” he says. “It’s just that in this show, it comes from a place of anger in one particular area. Previously it’d been about being single, or being fat, or whatever else I was talking about.”

But Andrew was very conscious of not pretending he’d ‘discovered’ feminism, had all the answers, or was explaining - also known as ‘mansplaining’ - the patriarchy to women. It was a process of trial and error.

“The first few previews, I did make a few mistakes, in that I was not humble enough I think,” says Andrew.

“Rather than saying ‘this is how it appears to me; maybe I’m wrong,’ I was saying, ‘This is what feminists’ viewpoint is.’ And I was basically saying that to women. Which didn’t work, obviously. And that caused a bit of anger, tweeting at me, bit of heckling actually.”

He’s taken the criticism on board, and the show now doesn’t push his own views to the forefront. But he completely accepts that for some it won’t be feminist enough; it’s directed at those who – like him just a couple of years ago – don’t realise gender equality hasn’t been reached yet. His favourite audiences include couples where the man obviously there is under duress; making that guy laugh by the end is the bit Andrew most loves. He doesn’t see the point in only talking about social justice in a liberal echo chamber.

Perhaps the most refreshing and enjoyable thing about hearing Andrew Watts speak about the process he’s gone through is his open-mindedness to adapting his beliefs and seeming lack of vanity about having his ideas criticised. He’s self-reflective enough to recognise that some jokes from earlier in his comedy career, before feminism, wouldn’t make the set-list now. 

“Some jokes, I now look back on and I think… ooh, that’s not very nice,” he says. “They weren’t jokes at the time that anyone had ever said anything about. Like body-shaming women, which, you know, a lot of comics do.

“I think once you start thinking about feminism, you start filling in the gaps; that lots of things you think are a one-off thing and not really very serious, you suddenly see has been part of this much bigger picture, and you take it much more seriously.”


Andrew Watts is performing Feminism for Chaps at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival.

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Charlotte Graham-McLay is a journalist who lives in Wellington. Her writing appears in the New York Times, New Zealand Geographic, and on Vice, The Spinoff, and, and she can sometimes be heard on RNZ.
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