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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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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