One of my favourite TV moments was a monologue delivered by Ricky Gervais in the Extras Christmas special. This superbly-written, eerily accurate prediction of how celebrity culture will destroy us inspired me to write comedy.
Back then the UK was at the forefront of forward thinking comedies and much more of a trendsetter than the US. The mockumentary style of The Office paved the way for Parks And Recreation, Lenny Henry had his own show on the BBC almost 20 years before The Chapelle Show and post-9/11, when the US media was running scared of public opinion, Britain produced Four Lions - a comedy about hapless terrorists. This demonstrated that within the UK comedy scene, nothing was sacred, and as a result there were no limits - whereas American shows were about generally about people with unfeasibly white teeth and apartments that did not match their incomes.
Despite my long-held admiration for British comedy, I am living and working in the US as a comedy writer, performer and stand-up comedian. And here’s why.
While Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan may have been my inspiration a decade ago, the influx of American women comedy writer-performers and their female-led films such as Bridesmaids, Trainwreck and Lady Bird and TV shows like Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is the New Black have influenced what I want to write.
Inspired by Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, I initially went to LA to audition for The Groundlings comedy improv training program, from which both of those women, and most of the SNL stars, are graduates. The classes were evenly mixed throughout, as is the Groundlings Company, and so I encountered a lot of female talent. It’s not as though we don’t have female talent in the UK - throughout my career, I have been lucky enough to write alongside some truly talented women, on a Channel 4 sitcom alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and for Kerry Howard on her Objective sketch show. When I wrote an all-female 24-hour play at the Old Vic, it starred four exceptional comedy actresses. Nevertheless, these women do not dominate the industry in the UK the way men do.
In America, you only need to count the number of women who stood up during Frances McDormand’s Oscars speech for an indication that the opposite is occurring.
I’ve been told by American male comedy writers that their producers insist on them making half their lead characters female now. The balance has not only been redressed in the US, but tipped in our favour. So why are nearly all the UK household comedy names still men?
The fundamental problem is that the UK comedy scene has, for too long, been hijacked by the ‘old boy’s network’. If you look at the history of how British comedians have broken into the profession, Cambridge Footlights has consistently spawned our comedy elite – Peter Cook, Hugh Laurie, David Mitchell, Simon Bird and Richard Ayoade to name a few. But Footlights hasn’t produced the same ratio of female talent.
Here in the US, there are many opportunities for women to develop in comedy. I was invited to do a stand-up course in LA called Pretty, Funny Women (PFW). I initially read the title as ’they’re pretty funny, but you won’t be seeing their HBO special next year’ and then I saw the comma (ooh, very bolshy and American)!
The creator of PFW is comedian Lisa Stundstet (a successful stand-up and writer for Chelsea Handler). She encourages women to find the power in being funny and unapologetically female. This resulted in me headlining at the Comedy Store, Los Angeles within a year and made me realise that in America there is room for us women.
Amy Schumer, Whitney Cummings and Ali Wong released their comedy specials at the same time. Amy Schumer is known as a ‘sex comic’ because she talks candidly about her sexual experiences, Whitney Cummings’ I’m Your Girlfriend HBO special is basically a funny TED Talk about sex and sexuality and Ali Wong also speaks explicitly about her sex life in her Netflix special Baby Cobra, made all the funnier as she’s heavily pregnant. Yet it isn’t assumed that they will cover the universal theme of sex in exactly the same way just because they all have vaginas.
However, based on my own experience of comedy producers and bookers in the UK, they don’t want to put more than one woman on the bill or a channel, in case they all make the same jokes (about periods).
When I developed a show with a UK channel I was told that we’d have to wait to until they had made a decision about a second series of Drifters (written and starring the brilliant Jessica Knappett) before they could commission mine, because ‘we can’t have two female-led shows on the slate’. This pits us against each other for ‘the One Coveted Spot’. Well-known comedian Gina Yashere, who now lives and works in America as the ‘Brexpert’ on The Daily Show said in an interview: “I’ve sold three comedy specials in America... If I’d sat in England waiting for someone to give me a TV show, I’d still be there being the token black face on Mock The Week’.
Not so for men. Once at a London comedy club, I played a drinking game with some friends, whereby every time one of the (all male) line-up told a ‘wank joke’ we’d have a shot. Needless to say we were all ‘wankered’ by the end of the night. Pun intended.
The element of tokenism in the UK does not help either. I was a guest on LBC when they were talking about the BBC banning all-male panel shows. I wanted to point out that this might actually be detrimental, as audiences assume we are there because of our gender not talent. I was interrupted by the presenter saying: “well go on, name me a really funny woman, as funny as Sean ...whoever”. I can’t even remember the male comedian they mentioned, as an educated guess I’d say his name was probably Sean or Russell.
It would also seem that, in the UK, within such a male-dominated profession, it is deemed unappealing for women comedy writers to be assertive. I had a female producer advise me to ask my male co-writer to deliver my notes to the editors on our show, so I wasn’t seen as a ‘difficult woman.’ In addition to this when the press for said show came out, my name was barely mentioned - it was sold as a vehicle for the male comedian. And I wasn’t the only one to experience that kind of discrimination. I worked in a UK production company where the writers of a well-known, award-winning sitcom were working in the open plan office. Day after day I watched as the female writer sat diligently and typed non-stop, while her male counterpart pratted around having banter with everyone. On the back of that sitcom, he has become a globally successful multi-millionaire, she remains a talented jobbing writer-performer.
I am not by any means suggesting that male comedians are on the whole less talented - my all time favourite comedians are Chris Rock and Mickey Flanagan - it’s just that women in UK comedy have to work twice as hard for a quarter of the reward and if they object to this they are labeled ‘difficult’.
I recently signed a script option deal with ABC Studios, where it was stipulated that I will be an executive producer on my show. The head of the studio is a woman and the script is being developed by an all-female production company owned by Ellen Pompeo. I initially pitched the script in the UK where the male director of a successful production company objected with: ’it’s funny, but it’s yet another show about girls fucking up, like Girls.’ This was hugely patronising, because the show is nothing like Girls in tone and my characters weren’t ‘fucking up’ – they were just negotiating the bizarre, bewildering world of modern dating. Even if it was about that subject matter, how many shows have there been about men ‘fucking up’ (Josh, Scrotal Recall,Grandma’s House, Badults)?!
I’m so glad the script found its home in America. The whole process has been a joy from pitch to page to production, because it has involved a group of women, who laughed at my ideas and related to the storyline. I am also encouraged that, years after the BBC cancelled Pulling, a masterpiece co-created by Sharon Horgan, she is now getting the platform for her work that she deserves. And shows like Fleabag and Chewing Gum in recent years have been a beacon of light, and lead us to hope that the UK is finally starting to catch up to the US.
But will it take so long that all our best female talent decamps to the land of opportunity?
Eleanor Lawrence is a comedy writer and actor