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Deborah Frances-White

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Is 'Mad Men' a Period Piece? Not if You Work in Comedy...

Posted: 15/10/2012 00:00

I am a stand up comedian. I also deliver funny seminars for business women who wish to raise their status in male-dominated industries. Recently, I was talking to three women - a lawyer, a consultant and a banker (yes - we went into a bar) about how far women had come in their industries. They were joking about the way women are treated in Mad Men. "At least it's not like that anymore," they laughed, "with the constant references to women being incapable and the sexual harassment". Of course there's still sexism in their industries - but there is definitely an appetite to promote women in business that comes from the top.

I went home that night and Googled "women aren't good at banking" - and found a few articles about needing more women on the boards of banks; none that claimed women weren't good at their jobs. I tried "women aren't good at maths and science" and came up with a page of articles debunking this myth and recognising that women are dominating professions like medicine now. I tried every industry I could think of and all the negative stereotypes that used to prevail, seem to be subverted. Certainly women's career paths are still fraught with challenges and there is a long way to go, but it seems a little girl Googling her job options would feel she was up to almost anything. Except comedy. Try Googling "women aren't funny" - there's a full page of articles and blogs reinforcing this view. Try Googling "women are funny" and you'll get the same result. This point of view has been so often repeated in the media, it's now branded a boring cliché.

I am often asked by banks how they can champion women and give them confidence in an environment that has been designed and run by men for hundreds of years. They understand it's not a level playing-field and want to help women find their own model for success where the male model doesn't suit them. I am ashamed to say that I feel my industry, comedy, which is ostensibly about self-expression, pricking pomposity and holding a mirror up to society is, on this issue, less ethical than investment banking. If there's even a suggestion that your industry has less integrity than the organisations that brought you Libor, you might want to stop and make sure that's not true. I feel that large parts of the comedy establishment create a hostile working environment for women, by holding views and practices that are outdated in nearly all other industries.

Spurred on by this, and a spate of articles and Twitter-storms about the relative funniness of women, the propensity of rape jokes and other worrying trends, I am writing a series of blogs about why Mad Men doesn't seem like a period piece if you work in comedy.

Panel shows: most comics who have their own TV show or tour sizable venues, start out on panel shows. A friend of mine (who is not in comedy) wrote to Angst Productions to complain that she had tuned in to watch Mock the Week - and not one woman had been invited to share her satirical insights on the week's events. A representative from Angst wrote back to say that they have a number of regulars on the programme and that it is very difficult for any new person to do well on the show, male or female - so it's hard to book women who can compete. I think they have a great point. It is hard for any new person to do well on a panel show.

Mark Watson had a great joke in his Edinburgh show a few years ago that went something like - "I've been on Mock the Week three times now. I'm hoping to say something next time." Are you at your funniest with your best mates in your local pub or on a job interview? Same for nearly every human being. New young men almost always look less comfortable and make fewer jokes than the regulars, who treat the show like their local because they know the dressing-room, are used to the lights, the audience, the drill - and crucially know that if they have an indifferent show occasionally, they'll be re-booked regardless. But a young man's point of difference is that he is new. His agent will argue that if he is invited back, he'll be more relaxed and really get stuck in. So they take a chance on him again and again, until he's so comfortable, he's a regular.

Women are almost always new on panel shows. But their most obvious point of difference is that they are female and it's hard for their agents to argue that they will grow out of this failing. Networks, according to producers, usually discourage more than one woman on a panel show. This means, especially with a competitive format, that she is usually walking into a frat house environment, where she is expected to fail and then effectively told "screw it up and you won't be asked back." She never gets to work with other women (so women being funny together is a dynamic we never get to see) and she hardly gets any practice, because there are only occasional token spots available. If you think she looks uncomfortable, is gender really the most likely explanation? Women who are asked regularly on panel shows (by which I mean Jo Brand) have as high a hit-rate as any man. Maybe it's time for a network to offer one spot, as team captain, to a talented comedian who is also a woman. Let her get her feet under the table and assume she'll succeed. Otherwise we'll be watching five blokes in their local next to one woman on a televised job interview - forever.

Remember when Don Draper "took a chance on a girl" and gave Peggy the job? It's time for one full-time job to be given to a woman on a British comedy panel show.

 

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