I spend a lot of time talking about comedy panel shows. I’ll be giving a lecture on them in a few weeks time to my very lucky second year students. Part of my research has been to discuss this very topic (amongst other things) with stand-up comedians and comedy audiences to understand the role these programmes play in the wider U.K comedy industry.
There has been huge amount of media coverage about lack of diversity on panel shows in the wake of the BBC’s announcement in 2014 that it would include more women in its comedy programming (see here). This came about because the BBC Trust identified that the comedy output (especially panel shows) were overwhelmingly male. There are obvious failings on many levels of diversity in lots of aspects of public life, but in this instance the BBC were focused on lack of gender parity, and the (then) Director of Television Danny Cohen pledged publicly to put an end to all-male panel shows (in an interview with The Observer, see here). This announcement garnered a significant level of attention in the media with even Newsnight covering it (with Paxman patronisingly referring to the assembled panel of commentators on the subject as ‘testicle free’).
Often some of the sticking points in my conversations with interviewees is what exactly will be different if we include more women in these formats. Will the comedy change? (the idea that female comedians make jokes solely for women still casts its long shadow over any discussions of this nature) How will these formats accommodate women? Will any woman do, or does the fact they are a comedian make a difference? I feel very strongly about the latter as do many people I speak to – having female comics on the panel shows means that they have the SKILLS to be as funny as the male comedians who are team captains or recurring panellists – add in a female actor, newsreader, journalist etc. and it’s very unlikely they will be hilarious (because their talents are elsewhere), reinforcing the ‘men are funnier than women’ stereotype by default. This is also unnecessary as there are loads of female comics that would be awesome on panel shows (see the megalist of people I’ve seen recently).
But now in 2016 and we might actually be starting to see the outcome of this new policy introduced back in 2014. Insert Name Here, a new BBC2 panel show, has a female host, Sue Perkins (sans Mel) and is clearly making a concerted effort to be more inclusive (although as always these things take time). The show that aired on Monday 25th Jan (at 10pm on BBC2) contained within it something that had me punching the air… Aisling Bea please take a bow!
When marriage was flippantly referred to as the best day of a woman’s life (in this case the life of J.K Rowling) Bea swooped in immediately to call ‘Bullshit!’. (18mins in to the episode which will be found here for a little bit whilst it’s still on iPlayer). Her take down of this was not only funny but made the point that this is exactly the kind of old school patriarchal stuff we don’t even spot any more. Her comment, delivered with an incredulous tone – ‘can I just pick bones with ‘the greatest day for a woman, the day you can legally give yourself over to a man?’ – exposed the way that a lot of comedy plays in to and reinforces traditional norms, especially gendered expectations of people.
She then stuck her tongue out at THE MAN. I actually whooped out loud.
So this is it guys, this is what I mean when I say a diversified outlook on life. No the formats don’t have to change, women are more than capable of being just as aggressive or forthcoming as men on panel shows, and no it doesn’t mean it’ll be less funny – what it means is that alternative viewpoints about life will be considered and broadcast. It will impact positively because the humour will be diversified and more reflective of the diversity of our population (ideally longer term in all aspects of diversity – ethnicity, sexuality, ability, age also). Outdated ideas will be challenged – challenged through comedy, rather than reinforced through comedy – which is so often the default setting for panel shows.
If you ever get chance to see Aisling live, do it.