Panel shows: the numbers don’t add up

“…Outnumbered. Just to be clear that’s a sitcom about a modern family not about a female comedian on a TV panel show…”

– Damian Lewis, Have I Got News for You, Series 48: Episode 5. Aired 31 October 2014

In February last year, BBC 2’s comedy panel show Mock The Week installed a quota for female comedians, stipulating that at least one woman must appear on the panel per week. Danny Cohen, the director of the BBC, put this quota in place following advice from the BBC trust to urgently address the problem of the underrepresentation of women on television. This was sparked by a report commissioned by the Cultural Diversity Network that put the spotlight on panel shows such as Mock The Week and QI for only rarely representing women.

It is not just the BBC that is guilty of this; across British broadcasting, comedy panel shows are heavily dominated by white heterosexual cis men. In an article on the blog for this site in 2011, Vicky Brewster posted research demonstrating the lack of women on British panel shows more widely, particularly focusing on Mock the Week and how the number of female guest panellists on the programme actually declined in number from the first series to the tenth. In that same year, Helen Lewis of The New Statesman expressed her frustration of all-male comedy shows:

Turn on the television and it’s a familiar sight. Five, or sometimes seven, men making jokes about Kerry Katona, mother-in-laws and breasts. Occasionally, a woman creeps on — but when did you last see more than two?

Not much has changed since then. When women manage to secure a seat, there never seems to be more than two and only rarely more than one. On the comedy review and listings site, Chortle, there are (by my own estimate) approximately 256 female comedians listed under their heading and many more working various circuits who aren’t listed. So why are they not filtering through to television? As Lewis says, “Unless you accept the premise that women aren’t funny, there must be something stopping them from being funny on TV.”

Mock The Week comedians have openly criticised Cohen’s decision to introduce a quota

Cohen did not only introduce the quota to satisfy the BBC Trust and to stop excluding women; it was also in response to female comedians, such as Victoria Wood, complaining about the male-dominated environment. It is not unreasonable to suggest these all-male panels could be alienating to women and, with resident Mock The Week comedians openly criticising Cohen’s decision to introduce a quota, it is understandable that female comedians might be put off by the task of breaking up the (usually) all-male panel; in an interview with the Radio Times, popular Mock The Week guest, Milton Jones, has called the quota “counterproductive”, while host of the comedy panel show Dara O’Briain has also been critical of the introduction of a quota, saying “legislating for token women isn’t much help.”

However, like Grayson Perry, I dismiss the idea that positions filled by quotas are regressive or unhelpful. As Perry points out, “The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having their privilege taken away.”

Last month, stand-up comedian Andrew Lawrence took to social media to criticise panel shows like Mock The Week for anti-UKIP jokes. What seems to have been lost in the swirl of media coverage, not to mention his derogatory use of the term ‘ethnics’ to describe male comics of colour or of minority ethnicity, is the way Lawrence describes women to be “posing-as-comedians”, connoting the conventional idea that women are not funny and not even deserving of the job title.

It is not unusual for women to be the centre of male comedians’ jokes, with these veering between outright sexism and misogyny, even when women are present. For example, Channel 4’s 8 Out of 10 Cats recently took over Countdown, to create a new combined comedy panel show with familiar faces, including resident Countdown intellectuals Susie Dent and Rachel Riley. Unfortunately, the resulting programme, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, has sometimes involved a display of grotesque derogatory sexism that can be difficult to endure. For example, in one episode, Jimmy Carr undermines Dent and Riley’s intelligence by commenting on their appearances (“In charge of the numbers Rachel Riley… with her short dresses [and] long legs…”) and makes jokes such as “Sorry Susie. Aw, you probably would have put out, and all.”

There is also a segment where Jimmy Carr goes behind a surgeon’s curtain and returns wearing a fake women’s chest, including breasts and a low-cut top, which he then begins to rub suggestively — some predictable objectification of women for a few laughs. It seems that, while we can move forward and include more women (some of whom are comedians and not presenters or actors) on the panel, sexism remains a cog in the comedy panel show machine nonetheless.

Broadcasters are doing a disservice to audiences by presenting panels of clones

It is apathetic to expect one female comedian per panel show to impact on a culture that is not only rampant in comedy but society as a whole. (The fact Dapper Laughs was actually screened on ITV2 last year indicates that misogyny and sexism in TV comedy lives on, regardless of an increase in women on the panels of shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats.)

There needs to be a shift in attitudes to challenge this acceptance of misogyny because if audiences continue to laugh at sexism, they could continue to excuse actual acts of sexism. We need men to help change this, especially the more privileged ones.

Censorship is not the answer when it comes to tackling this issue, as it could potentially brush sexism and misogyny under the carpet and out of sight, rather than treating the deep rooted attitudes it demonstrates and the consequences these have on society. It is diversity in comedy that could offer a solution: a greater variety of people, along with more styles of comedy, rather than the usual gang of white, cis, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle-aged men. Broadcasters are doing a disservice to audiences by presenting panels of clones, rather than people who genuinely represent the diverse society we live in.

Television comedy influences culture, so it makes sense to say that panels on TV comedy shows need to stop only representing 10% of society and invite more women to actually play a part that goes beyond simply being the straight-faced muse or passive butt of the joke. Because, until broadcasters redress the balance, we are all missing out.

Image description:

Some of the presenters and panellists from 8 Out of 10 Cats in various positions around a black sofa in front of a large white clock on a blue wall. Top, left to right: Rachel Riley (black dress, standing in front of the sofa), Jimmy Carr (grey suit, white shirt and blue tie, also standing in front of the sofa) and Susie Dent (black/white collarless shirt, leaning on the sofa from behind). Front, left to right (with a vacant middle space in front of Jimmy): Sean Lock (pink shirt, sitting in a black chair in front of the back row and sofa) and Jon Richardson (red T-shirt, possibly also in a chair). All are smiling.

Channel 4 publicity picture.

Critical feminist with a passionate love-hate relationship with her television and a reputation as a know-it-all who doesn’t hold back her opinions