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It's great to have one woman on a TV panel show, but you need more than that

The head of BBC TV output has promised that there will be no more all-male panels on TV comedy shows. Ed Morrish, radio comedy producer, explains why he always tries to book more than one woman – it makes his show better.

So here’s a thing: “Danny Cohen, head of the BBC's television output, has promised viewers that the corporation will not make any more all-male comedy panel shows.”

If there are any TV producers reading (there aren’t). here’s some recommendations for funny women you could have on your panel shows: Rebecca Front, Danielle Ward, Susan Calman, Shappi Khorsandi, Zoe Lyons, Bridget Christie, Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Josie Long, Jenny Eclair, Roisin Conaty, Sara Pascoe, Sarah Kendall, Kerry Godliman, Isy Suttie, Lucy Beaumont and Angela Barnes. I can recommend them all from personal experience, because they’ve all been guests on a panel show I produce called Dilemma. In addition to those women we’ve had female journalists (Grace Dent, Ann Leslie, Anita Anand, Samira Ahmed, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Anne McElvoy), musicians (Louise Wener, Cerys Mathews), presenters (Fi Glover, Janet Ellis, Cerrie Burnell), actors (Clare Grogan, Cush Jumbo), DJs (Annie Nightingale, Gemma Cairney), and a cricketer (Isa Guha), all of whom were funny and clever and interesting. 

Now, before you elect me King of Feminists*, I should point out that we’ve had more male guests than female – 40/36 is the split over three series and an Edinburgh special, although if you add the presenter Sue Perkins into that, it shifts to 40/55. 

Personally, I always thought the point of panel shows is to generate spontaneous discussion. I produced The News Quiz for two years (where, it’s fair to say, I achieved nothing like the figures above) and it struck me then that in terms of “jokes about the news”, there were only so many actual gags to be done – the value of the show was when Andy said something, Sandi queried it, Jeremy came back with something else, Sue took it further and Fred topped it. That’s what you can’t do at home – it’s four different minds working together in ways that can’t be predicted.

So when we started making Dilemma, a show where moral and/or ethical dilemmas are played for laughs – the idea of a diverse panel was central to the show working. If all four guests are the same age/ethnicity/gender/occupation, their moral choices are more likely to be similar, surely? Because morality and ethics are informed by our background and experiences. If you put a moral dilemma in front of four male comics in their 30s, you’re more likely to get an agreement than if you put in front of (say), one male English comic in his 30s, a female Australian comic in her 30s, a DJ in her 70s and a cricketer in her 20s**. And it’s that disagreement that make the show worth listening to.

We’re lucky of course to have a comedy format that bears non-comics. If the question is right – as, for example, in last week's show – then almost any answer can be funny; the comedy comes from thinking it through, and ending up somewhere unexpected. Some formats however seem to be more designed as a one-liner delivery system. That’s not a value judgement, these shows can be very popular and very funny, but if you’re just going for punchlines then you’ve limited yourself to a particular sort of comedian. And let’s not forget that broadcast comedy is not representative of the population of a whole, it’s representative of comedians, the people who chose to go into comedy. There are more men doing comedy than women so you’d expect there to be more good men than good women (although proportionally they’d be the same I imagine). There are also way more white people doing stand-up than non-white. As more women/ethnic minorities start doing comedy, the broadcast numbers will even up; but Chris Rock says it takes ten years to get good as a stand-up, and there wasn’t an even split ten years ago. (You could argue that more women would go into comedy if they saw women doing good comedy, and I think you’d be right.) And then there’s the fame issue – people are more likely to tune into a show where they’ve heard of the guests then where they’ve not, so producers book people you’ve heard of. You’ve heard of more male comedians than female comedians, so that’s who they book. It’s not particularly fair, but I can understand the impulse on the part of the producer.  

The last thing to bear in mind on this point is that one woman on a panel show can be quite isolated; she can be seen as “the woman”, a representative of ALL women. So we try to have two on each show as that immediately puts an adjective in front of each one. The young woman and the middle-aged woman; the Southern woman and the Northern woman. It’s harder to generalise when youve got two different people on. (We have on three occasions only had one woman as a guest, but a) we have a woman presenting the show so they’d never be the only female voice on the episode and b) we had one episode where there were three women guests, so that cancels one of those out.) Basically, I book two comics (one male, one female) and two non-comics (one male and one female) and try to get a variety of backgrounds from within that formation. And all for the selfish reason that it makes my show better.

The dilemmas for Dilemma are devised, by the way, through a series of brainstorms, which the show’s devisor Danielle Ward then takes away and writes up. We try to get a mix of people involved in these, because if white, black, gay, straight, male and female people in a room can agree that something really is a dilemma, then it will work on the show no matter who we book. A room full of only people like me might create dilemmas that only people like me think are dilemmas, and that’s not just a problem for anyone on the panel who’s not like me, but also for anyone in the audience who’s not like me. Our audience is about a million people. As sexy a thought a million versions of me might be, we have to accept it’s not likely, and some of the audience might be different. So rather than have 999,999 people shout “HOW IS THAT A PROBLEM?” while I nod sagely, I invite a few women to the brainstorm. I say a few; we had more women than men involved in this series. The guinea pig question I linked to above? Sue Elliot-Nicholls came up with that.

Anyway, to any TV producers reading (none of you), get in touch if you want the contact details of any of those women. They’re all really good.

This post first appeared on Ed's blog at edmorrish.tumblr.com and is crossposted with his permission. Dilemma is on Radio 4 at 6.30pm on Tuesdays.

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*Also, you don’t elect Kings.

**Series two, episode six

 

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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