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Is Mad Men a Period Piece? Not If You Work in Comedy - Part Two

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When Mad Men first aired, I was completely gripped from the outset. My friends and I jokingly referred to the show as 'Things You Wouldn't See Today' because the writers seemed to be having so much fun with chain-smoking pregnant women, gin for breakfast and sexism, sexism, sexism. Today, the appetite for diversity and the assumption of sexual equality in the workplace means sexism, while still a subtle, lingering force, is no longer tolerated in its more blatant, clumsy forms. Outright sexism is such a rare sight in an office, it's fascinating to see it depicted as a recent historical curiosity in the fictional world of Sterling Cooper. But lately I've noticed that it parallels pretty well with attitudes that 21st Century women working in comedy, deal with all the time.

In Part One of this series, I discussed panel shows, their role in giving comedians exposure, their obvious reluctance to hire women, their expectation that women will fail and their consequent frat house environments. If you see a lone women looking anxious or bulldozed on a comedy panel show, you have to wonder if institutional marginalisation is a more likely explanation than gender. I proposed that one British panel show employ one talented female comedian, to be a regular team captain; that someone step up and play Don Draper in "giving a girl a shot"; that a permanent employee should be given the opportunity to relax, grow into the role and make the programme a more welcoming environment for other women.

It was quickly pointed out to me that there had been women employed permanently on British comedy panel shows. That is true. Celebrity Juice has two team captains - Holly Willoughby and Fearne Cotton. Shooting Stars had Ulrika Jonsson as long-standing team captain. Sky's sports quiz A League of Their Own employed Georgie Thompson as a regular panellist. If we extend our reach to topical comedy magazine shows, The 11 O'Clock Show (that ran from 1998-2000 and gave us a pretty significant legacy of comics including Ricky Gervais, Sasha Baron Cohen and Charile Brooker) was co-hosted by Daisy Donovan and Sarah Alexander. The current 10 O'Clock Live is partly fronted by Lauren Laverne.

Not as bad as we thought, except - not one of these women is a comedian. Not one. These women are mainly presenters. A couple are journalists or actresses. Some started as models. Look up the profiles of their male counterparts on these shows - co-hosts, team captains, regular panellists - and you'll find a litany of comics. I'm not saying these women don't do a great job. I'm not saying I don't like them. I do. I'm saying I can't think of one female comedian who has ever been offered a permanent job on this sort of British comedy show, to balance out this hefty list of presenters. I am saying that if you were a little girl watching TV, you'd imagine that to work in comedy your best strategy would be to make yourself as pretty as possible and learn to read an auto-cue - and that would be an accurate assessment of the situation.

When people say women aren't as funny as men on panel shows, is it possible they're sometimes comparing working comics with charming presenters? In Mad Men's archaic world of sexual politics, women are assumed to be incapable but decorative. "They won't really contribute much, but they do brighten the place up" is the pervading attitude. Laughably outdated? In a law firm, engineering company or hospital - yes. In comedy - not really. "Girls aren't funny - so get me a pretty one, who's comfortable with the camera" seems to be a perfectly acceptable attitude.

We'd all be surprised if Dermott O'Leary became team captain on QI, so why isn't it odd to see female presenters in this context? Again, I'm not saying that these women can't hold their own. I'm saying that, quite clearly, when casting women in comedy, pretty trumps funny. Perhaps there are other considerations too. Georgie Thompson is a sports journalist, which means she has relevant skills for a sports quiz, but she's been replaced by Jack Whitehall - so the network is clearly looking for different qualifications in a male job candidate. Lauren Laverne has a number of excellent strings to her bow but the three men who are employed alongside her to satirise the news, are well known for their comedy personas in one way or another.

I really enjoy watching Would I Lie to You? - a panel show that is produced by a terrific company of forward-thinking people and rewards funny storytelling and emotional intelligence, rather than being the comedy equivalent of a rugby scrum. I've never really pursued panel shows, so this isn't me touting for work, but I have to say, as a comedian who tours large venues, it is discouraging to tune in to a show, that is so obviously an excellent vehicle for women, and see six male comics (including the host) and one woman. It is even more discouraging when that woman is Deborah Meaden. I'm sure she's a great entrepreneur and having no cash to invest in small businesses, I'm unlikely to be up for her gig on Dragon's Den, but when it comes to ad libs, I think it's fair to say, I am the more qualified Deborah for the job.

Given that these shows favour female celebrities or presenters over comics, let's look at how those women are sometimes treated on the job. Think about those scenes in Mad Men when the guys are jeering at secretaries or junior copywriters, making lewd comments about their bodies and what they'd do to them if they got the chance. Awkward to watch? That's the point. Remember how offices used to be in our very recent history? Wow - that's something you'd never see today! Unless you're watching women that work in television, that is. This is an extract from Celebrity Juice's Wikipedia entry - "The show is also renowned for the mocking of it's (sic) team captains - with Lemon often referring to Willoughby as "Holly Willoughbooby" and mocking Cotton for her large nostrils and small breasts." But the girls find it funny, don't they? Sure. If they want the job they've got to expect a bit of playful teasing. Right? If they won't put up with it, someone else trying to carve out a career will. It's just light hearted fun. Isn't it? Why would that be uncomfortable dialogue to watch on Mad Men but a perfectly reasonable justification for Fearne Cotton's salacious working environment?

When Vic and Bob sang "Loving you is easy 'cause your boobs are new" to Ulrika she laughed it off - every time. She kind of had to, didn't she really? Otherwise she would have looked humourless, wouldn't she? And a girl with no sense of humour would have lost that job pretty quickly, wouldn't she? This is how things used to be for women in any workplace. Why don't we notice that this televised chauvinism is something that in any other context would be "so 1965"? It's like the wallpaper in your grandmother's hallway. It's old fashioned but you don't really see it, because it's always been there.

It is time to start pointing out that there are many funny working comedians taking their shows to The Edinburgh Festival every year, who happen to be women. Is there any chance that Josie Long, for example, a fiercely political comedian, who has been nominated for The Edinburgh Comedy Award three times (having won Best Newcomer) and has really done her time now, could replace Jimmy Carr on The 10 O'Clock Show? I'm sure he's a lovely guy but he's not a political comedian, is he? As his suitability for the job must have been called into question since he himself has become a news story, is there any possibility that we could have two women and two men on a show that is, at least in part, about making comedy capital out of social injustice?

Regardless of the tone of the show, let's make really funny jokes - that just happen to be about things other than employees' breasts. Sometimes jokes about people's breasts are funny because of the persona of the comedian, but that might not be a good enough reason to make them anymore. We have heard quite a lot of jokes about breasts. Any chance we could hear some new jokes that don't risk making the show a hostile environment for the women who work there? Maybe those jokes would be even funnier. As Don Draper says, "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation." When it comes to comedy, it's time to change the conversation.