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Has the comedy panel show had its day?

The beloved British institution suffers from a boy’s club dynamic.

One of the prevailing memories of my childhood is consuming a bowl of soup at the kitchen table to the ever-so-slightly fuzzy sound of the whistle and cheering crowd of Just A Minute, the Radio 4 show that began in 1967 and continues today. My parent’s raucous laughter would frequently obscure the next joke. 

The comedy panel show is an indisputably British institution. Though panel shows actually originated in the US (the first known TV version was Play the Game, based on charades, in 1946), single-host chat shows have overtaken them in popularity (The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon enjoy widespread cultural influence across the Atlantic). Just as the patter of Radio 4 is a common reference point for middle-class childhoods across the UK, so, too, is the comedy panel show, which prevails in numerous iterations across radio and television.

The panel show can be home to slapstick or absurdist comedy – see Shooting Stars, or, more recently, CelebAbility – but the most culturally significant panel shows are political. Have I Got News For You, which has run since 1990, is the epitome of this form. Its televised teams consist of two people; among the guest contestants are prominent political figures who not only play the game but are often grilled by Private Eye editor-in-chief and permanent team captain Ian Hislop (on the other side of the host sits comedian Paul Merton and guest).

The current affairs quiz is a useful springboard for pugnacious interrogation and pointed digs. “By definition, the news keeps changing”, Hislop says over the phone – a key reason for the show’s longevity. “In much the same way as the News Quiz, there’s a sense you get instant refreshment from the news.”

A rotating cast of high-profile hosts, which has been the formula since former host Angus Deayton left in 2002, also keeps HIGNFY fresh; past appearances have included Bruce Forsyth, Carol Vorderman, John Humphrys and Benedict Cumberbatch. The guest presenter is both at the helm and a newbie, lending the show an interesting power dynamic. Hislop and Merton remain the established figures driving from the backseat. “Having [Jeremy] Paxman on was marvellous because he kept saying “shut up, we’re moving on now”, and we were saying “no, we’re not, we’re not moving on at all”,” says Hislop.

In the same way Private Eye is known for insistently driving home political scandals and keeping news items on the agenda, this dynamic has proved politically significant. “I think my favourite [host] was Alastair Campbell,” says Hislop. “It meant I could bring up weapons of mass destruction in every single round. In every answer he would say “this is quite boring, we’ve done this now”, and I would say “yeah, but we’re going to do it again!””

Courting controversy

Though its political tone is usually one of commendable scepticism, the election of Boris Johnson, who hosted the programme four times, has put HIGNFY under increased scrutiny. Plenty of Twitter users – and journalists – hold the programme partly responsible for his success, arguing the platform propelled Johnson’s buffoonish charade; as HIGNFY host, Johnson was at once among the TV comics and in charge of them.

Hislop maintains that he “put the boot in whenever [he] could”, and rebukes the notion that Johnson was given a platform because “we all thought he was marvellous”. In fact, Hislop contends, things played out differently.

“The first time he came on I brought up the Guppy tape where [Johnson] threatens to beat up a journalist, and he immediately wrote a piece in the Telegraph saying the show was shit, that he’d been strung up like a kipper and ambushed and that it was incredibly unprofessional,” he says.

The idea that Johnson’s HIGNFY appearances had an influence on his election as mayor doesn’t convince Hislop. “The largest electorate in Europe probably elected Boris at the time because he was pretending to be a centrist Tory and he promised amnesty for asylum seekers,” he says. “As we know now, he’ll say absolutely anything.”

It might be a stretch to say that HIGNFY has tangible political influence. “One has to be careful not to be too pompous,” warns Hislop. But the show clearly holds some significance – why continue inviting political figures onto the programme otherwise?  In May, in the run-up to the European elections, an episode of the programme was banned from airing because Heidi Allen, who had after filming become the acting leader of Change UK, was the host. The BBC released a statement saying that due to editorial guidelines surrounding election periods, “it would be inappropriate to feature political party leaders on entertainment programmes…which does not allow for equal representation to be achieved”.

Equality on screen

Have I Got News For You has enjoyed success off the back of the Hislop/Merton double act . “We’re not very interested in sex in this country – really what we do is talk about class,” Hislop tells me. Merton is from a working-class background; “he still denies he got GCSE Metalwork, he says he failed, which always ruins my joke that it was his only qualification,” says Hislop – whereas Hislop himself, in his own words, is more of “a sort of stuffed shirt Oxbridge public school twit”.

Depsite their diversity of outlook, Have I Got News For You is hardly a symbol for equality. Merton and Hislop are both white, male and middle aged, and just 14.4 per cent of all HIGNFY appearances have been by women. The show is a microcosm for a more general sticking point: there’s a notable lack of diversity across most popular panel shows and the comedy world more generally. Sandi Toksvig, comedian and founder of the Women’s Equality Party, has hosted the general knowledge panel show QI since 2016 – but the show’s all-time appearances have still been 80.2 percent male. Of all the people who have appeared on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue in 47 years, 3.6 per cent have been women. Aside from gender, the vast majority of TV comedians are white.

Part of what makes the comedy panel show funny is competing interests and opposing points of view. This makes a lack of diversity all the more surprising – and disappointing. In 2015, the BBC axed long-standing music-based panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Though the show was mourned by many, its cancellation was due to falling ratings, and there was speculation that society had outgrown it: Claire Cohen at the Telegraph dubbed it “boorish, sexist, puerile”.

Conjecture aside, TV channels have taken steps to help with the gender problem in recent years: in 2014, the BBC stopped making panel shows that did not feature any women; in June this year, ITV announced a ban on all-male writers’ rooms. But a female TV comedy writer, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me that while there is an effort to get in a more diverse crowd, including people of colour, “the boys’ club dynamic is still there”.

A man’s world

Perhaps because comedy has historically been dominated by white men, there is something inherently white and male about panel shows: the dynamic favours those who are accustomed to making their voices heard. To be successful requires cutting in, calling out and competing. In Shooting Stars, the absurdist BBC production hosted by Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Ulrika Jonsson was a team captain opposite Jack Dee. She always held her own, but a running joke involved Reeves pursuing Jonsson. In effect, Jonsson played a woman empowered by her own objectification and latent sexuality.

According to Helen Lewis, the former New Statesman deputy editor who has appeared on both radio and TV panel shows multiple times, the pervasiveness of the male atmosphere depends on the show in question – Mock the Week’s humour is particularly “competitive and blokey” – but she implies there is something inherently difficult about the format. “Panel shows work best when people spark off one another, and there’s a genuine sense of interplay and spontaneity,” she tells me. “That can be hard to participate in if you are in a minority – whether as a woman, as a black comedian, or a right-wing one.”

The basis of these shows is in quick-fire witticisms, which at their most successful – as Lewis points out – relate to in-jokes. “You get a laugh and a sense of community,” she says. “You get to see the camaraderie between people who’ve known each other for donkey’s years.”

Swiftly deployed one-liners with in-jokes? There’s an app for that. Twitter is rife with comedy takes, responding to events in real time. Hislop is sceptical of its ability to satiate people’s desire for laughs and overtake the professionals: “Most people aren’t on [Twitter] all day; most people aren’t reading memes of each other. Most people are doing something else, and then they think, well, these people are meant to be funny, aren’t they? So they watch a comedy show.”

Yet the internet – theoretically, at least – offers a more equal platform for humour. Online spaces “give a voice to those who perhaps wouldn’t have it otherwise,” says the anonymous comedy writer. “[Twitter] gives a chance for more marginalised voices to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of comedy and find their own audiences online.”

The prevalence of the panel show means it is in some way representative of our culture. Despite efforts to diversify, there is clearly still a market for the competitive, laddy humour of Mock The Week. It seems that even if someone is a charlatan, we don’t mind them being Prime Minister provided they can hold their own on TV.

Is the panel show – a symbol of my childhood and beloved by a nation – a British institution? “God, it sounds like I should be put in one,” says Hislop. Maybe not. Perhaps their enduring popularity simply says that the worse things get, the more we all need a laugh.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.