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That's (not) Enough Female Comedy Writers. Ed

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Are women as funny as men? Yes.

Now, let's move the debate on, shall we?

Ian Hislop's caused a bit of a stir this week, and not just for talking sense on Question Time. Interviewing Britain's 'satirist-in-chief' in The Guardian, journalist Stephen Moss wrote:

"Private Eye remains something of a boys' club. Hislop says he employs two women journalists, but admits there aren't many women making jokes on the magazine. For this he blames the women, not the Eye. 'Women either don't put themselves forward or they're not part of gangs of blokes showing off at school and university who then turn that into a living or a way of communicating. Maybe women don't have to do that.'"

Some people have taken offence at Hislop's remarks, but it strikes me that, in that quote at least, he doesn't actually blame women - he simply states the facts. And in my limited experience as a comedy writer, and extensive experience as a woman, it also strikes me that he's right.

There's no doubt that the world of comedy writing is male-dominated, and the world of joke-writing (as opposed to longer-form scripts) is very male-dominated - just take a look at these graphs showing the number of female comedy writers on late-night US comedy shows, for example. And it certainly seems that this latter gag-telling, antler-locking, bantering world is one which men are naturally drawn to, and women are not.

There are many nuanced, multilayered reasons for this. Women aren't as funny as men, for example. No, wait. That's not right. No: it's partly because straightforward joke-telling, as Lucy Greeves and Jimmy Carr point out in their book The Naked Jape, "requires very little emotional investment... telling jokes can be a good way of substituting thinking for feeling". And we all know that there's nothing more male than hiding how you're feeling.

Also, as Ian Hislop says, it's how men communicate. Greeves and Carr say that "the aggressive, point-scoring aspects of stand-up comedy certainly seem to come more naturally [to men]" and describe jokes as a "route to alpha-maleness, a verbal equivalent of territorial pissing or the peacock's display of plumage" . They cite Carr's mother as an example of a woman who was "funny all the time", but expressed it in more typically female way: "She was funny about many of the same subjects that Jimmy's jokes explore, she just used a different format."

It's this 'different format' - the more social one of storytelling and personal experience (often combined with self-deprecation) - that I'm sure explains the preponderance of wonderfully funny women on Twitter. Sure, you can display your peacock plumage through tweets (although I wouldn't recommend pissing on your keyboard), but as one is free to write what one likes, and there is genuine engagement between people on there, it's a platform on which many, many funny women shine like stars. As Warren St John notes in this fascinating New York Times article about 'the death of the joke', "scholars say in a social situation wit plays better than old-style joke telling. Witty remarks push the conversation along and enliven it, encouraging others to contribute. Jokes, on the other hand, cause conversation to screech to a halt and require everyone to focus on the joke teller, which can be awkward." (Thankfully, at the Twitter dinner party, no one can hear your awkwardness.)

As for Ian Hislop's point about women not putting themselves forward in the way that men do: again, I'd argue that whether it's for cultural, social or biological reasons (most likely all three), he's pretty much correct. Chaps like Hislop may have been honing their comedy skills since they were teenagers, but it's taken me the best part of my adult life to actually believe that I can do it - and as a result of starting to believe it, launch myself as a comedy writer. And I think my behaviour - up until the point of putting myself 'out there' - has been typically female. Women are raised to nurture others and put them first, to not be 'pushy', to often limit their horizons. I read an article recently in which a TV executive in the US said that the number of women 'making it' in TV comedy writing was in direct proportion to the number of women applying or pitching work in the first place. In short: it seems the comedic glass ceiling isn't inside the building, but over its entrance.

So how to smash it? Should it be up to Private Eye and other comedy institutions - whether they're magazines,shows, movies or websites - to open up their 'boys' clubs'? Well, it would be wonderful if the makers of male-dominated comedy actively sought out and recruited female comedians and comedy writers to redress the balance - and no doubt some of them do. But we women shouldn't just hold our pretty little breaths waiting for it to happen. As Gandhi said: we should be the change we want to see in the world. And I'm pretty sure he was talking about comedy writing.