Rachel Walker | Tue, 13 Nov 2018
If you asked a comedian what the big thing in British TV comedy is right now you wouldn’t get far without mentioning panel shows. Series like Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats are amongst the most popular shows on modern TV. What is also true of most panel shows is that their regular line-ups are almost exclusively male. In fact, only 31 percent of panel show guests are women, and regular host and team captain roles are even more male-dominated. This leads to very homogenous panels. To rectify the situation, BBC TV’s head, Danny Cohen, imposed a ban on all-male panel shows. This move, while well-meaning, was met with widespread criticism. Those opposed to more female comedians on TV were unsurprisingly unhappy at the idea of more female comedians being on TV. Yet those supporting female comedians were also unhappy with the decision. One of those opposing the ban, Mock the Week host Dara Ó Briain, faced backlash but his argument was widely misconstrued. He believed there should be women on all panel shows but saw a publicly announced ban as unhelpful. He argued that this ban meant women on Mock the Week would be discredited for being there, instead being seen as a token by audiences. Danny Cohen’s actions ultimately led to little change but, as Ó Briain predicted, solidified the idea that any woman on a panel show is ‘the woman’ rather than an equal guest. However, this is not true in all panel shows.
Radio shows have been close to equally representative for years before BBC TV’s change. A prominent example is Dilemma, a Sue Perkins-led moral-maze game that has held a 52 percent female majority throughout its run while remaining popular.
This and other female-led panel shows have, for years, been both incredibly successful and consistently funny.
This gap of representation between radio and TV has never been more ludicrously pointed out than by the radio show Just a Minute. In its first series, at least 40% of guests were female. This was in 1967. 50 years later the show continues to be successful while consistently having a greater amount of equality than most TV panel shows. However, these shows are broadcast to far smaller audiences than TV.
Comedians are far more likely to attract people of similar demographics to themselves to their shows. This is because all comedy is to some extent observational. Whether absurdist, anecdotal or any other style under the sun, people will more likely relate to the comedy that reflects their own perspective. Further to this, the lack of female comedians on TV is recursive. The reasoning for this is obvious, following the ‘if she sees it, she can be it’ mantra. With the current levels of representation, female comedians are also dissuaded from appearing on panel shows, as they will often be a singular representative for their whole gender. When a conversation is so contrived as to have one person represent half of the UK population, it puts a pressure on them that makes their job more difficult than for all of those around them. This is less than conducive for comedy, feeding into the ‘women aren’t funny’ stereotype. As Deborah Frances-White, the host of The Guilty Feminist, observed:
“A lot of the time what people don’t realise they are watching is five men in their local pub – they are regulars, they look like everyone else and they are made to feel welcome – and one woman on a job interview.”
Currently, women aren’t represented on TV panel shows. There are far fewer female guests, regular panellists and hosts – and those that are present are too often seen as tokens rather than people who have earned a place there. It is clear from radio programming that equally representative panel shows can work, but there are still such major institutional issues that this equality still seems far off. This gulf lets down both the audiences and the comedians. The goal of any comedy programme should be to make the whole audience laugh, not to represent the demographics of the comedy industry.