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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide