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Why aren't women funny on TV?

All-male panel show line-ups are making me lose my sense of humour.

Turn on the television and it's a familiar sight. Five, or sometimes seven men, making jokes about Kerry Katona, mothers-in-law and breasts. Occasionally, a woman creeps on -- but when did you last see more than two?

I've had it with comedy panel shows. The permanent fixtures on BBC2's Mock the Week are all men: the host, Dara Ó Briain, with Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons; on Have I Got News for You, it's Ian Hislop and Paul Merton; while Channel 4's 8 Out of 10 Cats has Jimmy Carr, Sean Lock and Jon Richardson. There was a time, a couple of years ago, when I would swear David Mitchell's appearances outnumbered those of all the women put together. (And I point that out as someone who would happily see Mitchell on every TV programme going, even Grand Designs and Ross Kemp on Gangs.)

Things are slightly better on radio, where Sandi Toksvig presents The News Quiz, often alongside Sue Perkins or Susan Calman. But the other names regularly invoked in the debate are Josie Lawrence on Whose Line Is It Anyway? (cancelled in 1998) and Ulrika Jonsson on Shooting Stars (first screened in 1993).

For several reasons, Mock the Week has become a lightning rod in the debate. The jokes are usually what you could diplomatically call "old-fashioned" and it's well known among stand-ups for being gladiatorial. Jo Brand, no shrinking violet, explained in an article for the Guardian in 2009 why she and other comics no longer wanted to appear on it: "We just didn't like the prospect of having to bite someone's foot off before they let us say something."

Victoria Wood, one of the most successful female comedians, called panel shows "testosterone-fuelled" and Bill Matthews, co-creator of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, said that they were "bear pits" that were "too competitive".

Although comedy producers admit as much in private, the standard cop-out is that there isn't a big enough pool of female talent in the stand-up world to draw on.

However, research by the F-Word blog has found that 19 per cent of stand-ups listed by the UK comedy guide Chortle are female, yet few shows reflect that ratio. A former researcher on Mock the Week told me there's another difficulty: panel shows just don't do the kind of discursive humour that many female comedians excel at; Josie Long doesn't get booked for the same reason that Daniel Kitson or Stewart Lee don't.

“That's the major problem with panel shows and -- perhaps more importantly -- the world of comedy writing," the researcher said. "It's led to a dumbing down in the comedic process. The production side of things is roughly 50-50 male/female. The joke-writing side for a panel show? All men. Tell us a joke. Bang. Tell us another joke. Bang. So nurses want longer visiting hours? Make a joke about sexy uniforms. So Ed Miliband's at the Labour conference? Make a joke about him being boring. And that is, largely, a particular type of male humour."

What's most frustrating is that everyone -- including those in comedy -- knows there's a problem. Unless you accept the premise that women aren't funny, there must be something stopping them from being funny on TV.

Does it matter? It matters to me, obviously -- I get an uneasy, excluded feeling watching a group of men making jokes about women "letting themselves go" or having a pop at female celebrities such as Heather Mills (her missing leg still a source of much hilarity, apparently). Even the stately old QI, presented by Stephen Fry, had John Bishop telling the all-male panel in the current series how he tells his sons to "look at the knockers on that".

But it matters more because it's a symptom of something deeper that's wrong with television commissioning. Panel shows are the Findus Crispy Pancake of humour: once you hit on a winning formula, they can be banged out in large quantities and regular dollops, pleasing channel bosses who want guaranteed ratings hits on Friday and Saturday nights. Sitcoms and sketch shows are far more expensive to produce and far riskier. For every Miranda that finds a loyal audience, there's a Pulling or a 15 Storeys High that fails to break through.

There's nothing wrong with having a panel show entirely made up of white men but that shouldn't be the default option and it certainly shouldn't be the only option. The decades-long experiment of what happens when you show a group of men a picture of a politician making a stupid face has been repeated enough: they'll make a joke about him having just done a fart.

When I interviewed Frank Skinner for this magazine, he said he decided to try out a more collaborative format on his recent BBC show Opinionated partly in order to get more women involved. "Panel shows can be a bit like the January sales -- the biggest, strongest, most violent people get the best bargains," he said. "And I was keen to have proper women comics on. I thought: there's a whole area of comedy that has been slightly squandered on telly."

I remembered those words when I decided, after weeks of agonising, to give up on Mock the Week. Don't worry, I'm sure it'll muddle on without me, making jokes about fat wives and one-legged models, but I'm going to do something really subversive -- find some funny women to watch.

You can find Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis

PS. Several other bloggers have tackled this subject recently. I'd particularly recommend this one by @MadamJMo on why the Times's Caitlin Moran and the Guardian's Grace Dent don't go on panel shows; and for a counter-argument from a female stand-up, here's Bethany Black.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.