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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

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Meet the ex-footballers launching a support network for victims of sexual abuse in the sport

The Offside Trust is set up after hundreds have come forward, and 55 football clubs have been linked to allegations of abuse.

In a sumptuous room inside a luxurious hotel in the centre of Manchester, the country’s media anxiously await the arrival of a man whose story has rocked English football to its very foundations.

Since Andy Woodward went public with allegations that he experienced sexual abuse as a young footballer in the 1980s, the nation’s favourite sport has been left in crisis and, in the process, forced to do some soul-searching.

Following Woodward’s story, a number of his peers have also come forward with tales of unimaginable suffering.

This week, some of those men have joined together to launch the Offside Trust, an independently-run body aiming to provide support to players and the families of those who have suffered sexual abuse in football and other sports.

According to Woodward and his colleagues, the Trust won’t just be a way to help those who have been abused while playing the sport they love, but also represents a direct response to institutions that, in their view, have failed to protect them.

“A number of people who have come forward have indicated that they don’t have trust in the establishment,” says Edward Smethurst from Prosperity Law LLP, a Manchester law firm in charge of administering the trust.

“We are not here to criticise any of the establishment bodies, but we do have to respect the sensibilities and the opinions of the victims.” 

Wearing a crisp blue suit, hair combed neatly into place, Woodward’s composed demeanour masks the tremendous emotional stress he has revealed to the world he had to endure for decades, in silence until now.

Hearing him retell his story time and again, it is evident that, although exhausting, this process of letting the world know the horrors he says he experienced as a boy is both cathartic and a way to help others.

“I’m totally overwhelmed, the emotions are just unreal,” he says. “I can’t believe how many [people] have come forward, but I just encourage more and more [people] to have that strength and have that belief to do it.”

Sitting beside Woodward is Steve Walters – a former football prodigy whose career was cut short due to a blood disorder – who says he fell prey to the same serial child molester as Woodard. The person in question can no longer be named for legal reasons.

Walters tells me how his story has affected every aspect of his life. “It has ruined marriages, the relationship with my children, flashbacks, lack of sleep, panic attacks,” he tells me.

Walters speaks of “injustices” done to him for the past 20 years by those in charge of the sport he once loved. But he also knows how he would like to start turning the page and move on with his life.

“An apology [from Crewe Football Club] would be a start,” he says. “For them to not even put out one small apology, it does hurt.”

Since Woodward’s allegations were first made public on 16 November, 18 police forces across the country are now investigating claims of historic sexual abuse in football.

Every player I speak to at the Offside Trust launch in Manchester describes this as an epidemic, and that, in modern Britain, some children are still at the mercy of paedophiles operating within the sport. 

“I do believe it’s happening,” says Jason Dunford, who also claims to have been abused at Crewe Alexandra. “I believe it’s happening on a lower scale than when we were children, but as a father of a young boy who is around the football industry at the moment, I still have worries.”

Woodward coming forward has had worldwide implications. Walters and Dunford tell me they have been contacted by players as far-flung as South America and Australia who say they have been through the same ordeal as young footballers. The men are adamant this is not a UK problem, but a football one – wherever the game is played.

Woodward is mentally drained. Prior to the interview, he repeatedly tells me how the whirlwind of the last few weeks has affected his health. But he knows that this is his chance, perhaps the only one he’ll get, to help those like him.

“The closure will be when I feel like I’m satisfied that I have done everything I can to help as many people out there as possible,” he says. “People with children in football need protecting.” 

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.