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A Quota for Female Comedians Is No Way Forward

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There's a notion going around - I don't know if you've heard - that women aren't funny. Roughly 3.5billion and not one with a decent sense of humour. The idea is patently ludicrous. It could feasibly be argued that the cultural imperative to be amusing weighs more heavily on men, and London's stand-up circuit remains male dominated, but it's also the case that some of my favourite acts on the circuit are women. So too - at the risk of evoking an unflattering cliché - are many of my wittiest friends. As are the people behind several of the best Twitter accounts. Their gender is irrelevant.

This is rarely reflected by televised comedy. Somehow, in the process of turning working comics into stars, most of the funny women are lost, so there was widespread celebration when the BBC's Director of Television, Danny Cohen, revealed the corporation will no longer broadcast all-male episodes of its panel shows. I believe such a response misses the point. While there is a considerable amount of room for more female stand-ups on television, the real issue is the quality of those who are already there. Simply put, female panellists on these shows appear to be selected according to criteria other than the only one that should matter, i.e. their ability to make people laugh.

Watching episodes of QI or Have I Got News For You where women feature, I frequently struggle to avoid the conclusion that they were chosen less for their sense of humour and more for their ability to encapsulate the female experience. Jo Brand, for example, can and does say things men just can't; she reaches female viewers in a manner beyond any male comedian, thus broadening the show's appeal. Likewise Sarah Millican, Miranda Hart and others. Whether or not they are funny in doing so seems almost incidental.

At least they can add other qualities though. I mean, once you've accepted your female guests might not be funny, you can really play around with it - aim for all kinds of demographics. That's apparently what the producers of Mock the Week have done. Since the show's debut in 2005, all the male comics to have made four or more appearances - 24 in total - have been white. All of them. But there's no equivalent glass ceiling for women. In the same period, black comics (Gina Yashere, Andi Osho and Ava Vidal) have comprised almost half of the seven female stand-ups to have appeared as often. Ostensibly, that's a positive, but it raises the question of why there is such a discrepancy across the genders.

Maybe it could be interpreted as saying something about the nature of panel shows. Live at the Apollo, however, exhibits a similar pattern: two of its six female guests with multiple appearances (Shappi Khorsandi and Andi Osho, for 33%) have been from ethnic minorities compared to five of the 38 men (13%), and from that total of seven non-white comedians, only a woman has been on more than twice (Khorsandi has featured three times, putting her level with Jo Brand as the most frequent female guest). Are those ratios representative of the stand-up community's underlying composition? Not in my experience. Something else must be going on.

It could, I suppose, be a mere statistical quirk that Shappi Khorsandi and Andi Osho are two of the best female stand-ups in the country, but if you believe that, I can understand why you'd also believe women aren't funny. Add the fact both are physically attractive and it's ever more difficult to eschew cynicism. My take is, BBC comedy producers either don't want funny women on their programmes or don't believe enough exist to be worth looking for. Nor are they inclined to replace white, male comedians - mostly selected on merit - with any of the relatively few non-white ones and risk racial diversity being at the expense of humour. So when said producers come under pressure to book more women, they take it as a free pass to cram in hooks for new demographics. Female, non-white and attractive is a veritable triple threat.

Potentially, more television spots for female comics could lead to more genuinely funny women sneaking onto our screens, but there has been no guarantee from Danny Cohen that the spots will be allocated to different people. There is every chance the usual suspects will simply be rotated through them, perpetuating the myth that women aren't suited to comedy. For progress to be made, the BBC must fundamentally reassess the way it looks at female stand-ups. They are not a ratings tool but performers who can be just as hilarious as their male counterparts. Treating them as otherwise benefits neither the viewer nor the reputation of female comedians.