Laugher is a universally understood language. If something is funny, we all react the same way. What we find funny can be subjective – dark humour, slapstick, take your pick. But at the end of the day, comedy may be one of the truest forms of meritocracy we have. Regardless of your gender, race, beliefs or background, the question is clear cut: either you make people laugh, or you don’t.
Which brings into question ITV’s decision to ban all-male writing rooms, as part of its strategy to be more inclusive to female writers and comedians.
ITV is a private media company and is free to do what it pleases with its writing rooms – but that doesn’t make it a good decision, nor does it make it compatible with other initiatives within ITV.
The broadcaster’s head of comedy Saskia Schuster has launched Comedy 50:50, an ‘initiative to address gender imbalance in comedy.’ Laudably, it sets out clearly that this is ‘not about hitting quotas or targets as some form of box ticking exercise’ but instead about ‘implementing practical measures as a way to achieve equal representation.’
Yet Schuster’s decision to implement an outright ban on all-male writing teams would suggest the opposite. It does not matter how brilliant, funny, or ground-breaking your show is, if you haven’t ticked the ‘woman’ box on your team, you’re not airing it on ITV.
Even more extreme, if the writing team does have a female writer on board, they may face backlash under the new rules, as allegedly there can ‘all too often be a sense of tokenism towards the lone female’.
If male-dominated teams of writers weren’t given the green light over the years, viewers would never have known Cheers or The Inbetweeners. Some would say these shows could have been made even better by more women being involved in their writing teams. But who is to know, as it would totally depend on the person, the personality and the comedy preferences that were added to the team.
This is the crux: it’s not about male or female, it’s about extremely talented individuals who can do something most of us couldn’t do in our wildest dreams – make great comedy. It’s not that Cheers couldn’t be created by a woman; Cheers couldn’t be created by almost any man or woman under the sun.
When you look at the list of top comedy shows from the past – like Friends and Seinfeld – or at more recent breakthroughs – like 30 Rock or Girls – women can all be accounted for in the creative and writing process. And today, we live in an age of Phoebe Waller-Bridge who has, in less than eighteen months, gained international plaudits for not one, but two incredible darkly comic programmes. Fleabag and Killing Eve show us you don’t need quotas or restrictive rules to be successful, if you have talent and good storylines.
I’m not suggesting the world of comedy is some egalitarian paradise. I don’t doubt that it’s tough to be a woman in comedy, for many of the same reasons it’s tough to be a woman in politics or the media. Your looks matter more than your male colleague’s looks matter, the criticisms of you are often gender-focused, and not everyone has figured out how we treat women taking part in traditionally male-dominated roles (hot tip: the same way we treat men).
One of the reasons Schuster has given for the ban is the limited number of scripts she receives from female writers (reportedly one script for every five she receives from a man). If this kind of underrepresentation is the issue, this is what should be tackled, along with any problematic treatment of women in writing roles. This is where initiatives like Comedy 50:50 should be focusing.
But these are not reasons to start playing quota games with the creative process. Virtue-signalling of this kind – as baffling as it may be – is nothing to laugh about.
Kate Andrews is Associate Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs