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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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle