Cover Bitches in Stitches (Photo: courtesy of Mike Pickles for Tatler Hong Kong)

The stand-up comedy scene has long been dominated by men. But Bitches in Stitches, Hong Kong’s first and only all-femme comedian group, is shaking up the industry with jokes that challenge gender biases

Jenna Hudson remembers her early days of doing open-mic stand-up comedy in Hong Kong. When one of her sets didn’t go well, rather than being bothered by the audience’s silence, she was frustrated at how much unsolicited advice she was offered by the other comedians, who were mostly men. On one occasion, one of them took out his phone as the next comic began his set and told Hudson to time how often someone from the audience laughed. He said she needed to make people laugh every couple of seconds.

“It was just crushing,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously. If I was one of the guys, they’d be like, ‘Ah, you know, you had a bad show.’ But because I was femme-presenting, they were like, ‘I’m gonna help you present [your set], you poor girl who needs my help.”

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Hudson isn’t the only one who feels she has to fight to be taken seriously in the industry. Fellow comedian Francesca Ayala says there has been little room for female, transgender and queer comics. They all had to compete with each other for a spot at a paid gigs against cisgender men, who make up the majority of the performers, bookers and audience. “We were an afterthought,” says Ayala.

At a queer comedy night in 2018, Ayala finally found herself on the line-up with femme comics: Rose Rage, Dannie Aildasani and Morrigan Anthony. In March 2021, they decided to work together on a single, “all-femme” show: in this case meaning women, those who identify as cis, femme-presenting or transgender individuals. It meant they could put on a show that would appeal to their community, and that didn’t require validation from people who might not understand the type of humour they were presenting. It also meant being surrounded by comics who had had similar life experiences. Because, while the unasked-for advice from male comics was always kindly meant, as Aildasani put it, “they don’t realise how condescending it feels”.

The initial six-member Bitches in Stitches, including Hudson and Bianca Lau, debuted in April last year at a sold-out gig at Central pub Bobby’s Rabble. In the roughly 18 months since that first performance, the group has put on 21 sold-out shows and now has 13 members. When the group spoke with Tatler in July, it was busy with another sold-out show at Terrible Baby, the music lounge and bar at Kowloon hotel Eaton HK, and preparing for another show in August. “It went from one show to a movement,” Ayala says.

Ayala says she is surprised by the group’s success. People who attend Bitches in Stitches’s shows are many and varied: as well as reflecting the femme nature of the troupe, the audience commonly includes other members of the LGBTQ+ community as well as straight men on a date—they are often picked on the most during the shows. “But they end up laughing,” says Ayala.

The group is proud to have brought laughter and created a sense of belonging to the community. Hudson, who joined Bitches in Stitches last September, thinks what sets it apart is how tight-knit and supportive it is, especially in terms of her teammates’ constructive criticism and encouraging, appreciative attitude. “We’re not just a collection of people,” Hudson says. “It feels like we’re a troupe with the sole purpose of putting on amazing shows and making people laugh and feel included.”

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The group now organises stand-up comedy workshops once a month, in which the team offers a safe space and advice to new comics who want to practise, fine-tune their sets and, when ready, perform professionally with the team.

The group’s other mission is to open dialogue on diversity and, having increased representation on stage, expand their audience base. Lau, a full-time actor and comedian who started stand-up comedy as a hobby in New York and was one of the first members of Bitches in Stitches, says that men historically used humour to woo women, who weren’t meant traditionally to be funny or powerful. “Now we’re no longer staying in the kitchen cooking and cleaning. We have jobs, multiple jobs even,” she says. “The dynamic has changed.”

When Lau moved to Hong Kong in 2020, she not only faced the challenge of adapting her material for the local audience—jokes about catcalling or driving no longer worked, for instance—she was also shocked by the lack of women or female-identifying audience members in the local comedy scene compared to New York.

“If you want more people to love comedy, they need to see themselves represented,” Ayala says. She refers to the longstanding debate in Hollywood as to whether women can be funny, and whether women are a different kind of funny. But at a time when the world is recognising more than a binary gender norm, and a range of sexualities in the world, she believes that it’s time to change the way comedy has traditionally been done and have a rotating line-up of comics of different backgrounds and identities. “There’s a time and place for turning a person’s identity into a punchline, which can be funny, I get it,” she says. “But inclusivity means that there’s not one authority to say who’s funny and who isn’t [when] that’s not your identity or area of expertise.”

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Aildasani says she has heard a lot of men complain that female comics make too many relationship jokes. “But it’s not our fault that guys do so much crazy s*** that we can all do an hour-long stand-up special based off our dating lives,” she jokes. Besides, male comics deliver their fair share of relationship jokes too, so it’s only fair to “get two different sides of the coin”.

The diversity extends from the identities of the members of the troupe to the content of their jokes. Rage draws on her personal experience as a trans woman; Aildasani deadpans about being an expat in Hong Kong and ridiculous work relationships; Ayala confronts her audience with uncomfortable topics such as period sex, and the racial microaggressions she and other Filipinas endure; Lau turns trauma and unconventional life experiences into jokes; and Hudson finds inspiration in depression, alcoholism and the banter she has with her family back in England.

As well as being a tool for trumpeting diversity, comedy brings this group of performers personal solace. Hudson, a primary school teacher, uses it as a way to process struggles in her life: it protected her mental health during her mid-twenties when she was struggling with alcoholism, and helped her cope with feeling inferior to a more popular sibling, and hopes next to talk about eating disorders and body image. “I took all that had happened to me and turned it on its head. If I’m laughing at myself, you can’t laugh at me first,” she says. “My humour and comedy are a suit of armour.” Aildasani, a production editor, says her aggressively people-pleasing personality led her to do stand-up comedy. Ayala, who works in marketing and public relations, says what they’re doing is to make people look at the world through their eyes, and to make people empathise with them because they’re different.

The name Bitches in Stitches may suggest a loud, feisty and provocative group, but Hudson has a different explanation of their intentions: “If what I talk about is big and personal to me, then it’s very big and personal to other people [too]. At the end of the day, what better way to connect with people than to trauma-bond through laughter?”

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