Is Australian Comedy Sexist?

Short answer: yes. Or no. Maybe? Dammit, we’re going to have to think about this one for a moment.

Let’s back up for a second. Last weeks episode of The Hamster Wheel had a segment on sexism in the Australian media. Yay Chaser! Or perhaps not, as a few people have expressed some doubts about the suitability of a team made up of five white guys when it comes to talking about sexism. Remember when The Chaser first arrived on our screens with CNNNN and they had a female member of the team? First person to make a Charles Firth joke gets slapped.

The Chaser have been doing a pretty good job with their swipes at the Australian media with this series of The Hamster Wheel, and their take on the media’s rampant sexism was, to our eyes at least, more good work from them. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a wider problem with sexism in Australian comedy, but because we’re the type of people who think anyone should be able to make jokes about anything so long as those jokes are funny, we’re not going to start going on about how only some kinds of people should be able to make some kinds of jokes. Well, unless you mean idiots shouldn’t make offensive jokes purely for shock value, but, you know, duh.

Instead, lets focus on an aspect of the problem we can actually measure: is Australian television comedy dominated by men? To be fair, comedy isn’t like calling the football, where even the idea of giving a woman airtime still causes furrowed brows and dark mutterings down the pub and Sam Newman frothing at the mouth. While there are certainly greater obstacles in their path, there are female comedians on our televisions and female comedians have their own shows. Judith Lucy has another solo ABC series coming up. Marieke Hardy’s Laid went to two series. Robyn Butler was the lead in The Librarians and runs Gristmill with her husband Wayne Hope. Cal Wilson, Julia Zemrio, Felicity Ward, Celia Pacquola, Kitty Flanagan – they’re all funny. There was a Kath & Kim movie. Kate Langbroek is someone you may have heard of. Rebel Wilson exists.

And yet there’s little denying that men get all the good gigs. After starting out with a rotating guest roster, Gruen is now based around three men. The “all blokes” Chaser have been ABC fixtures for a decade*. The “27 episodes locked in before even one went to air” Randling features seven women and thirteen men. The “okay, this one’s a bit less of a sure thing” Unspeakable Truth has four guests – three men and one woman – on every week. Adam “everywhere” Zwar has created and starred in 24 half-hour episodes of television on the ABC in 2012, including hosting a show entirely about women giving out relationship advice. Think about that for a second: they needed to have a man hosting a show about women talking about relationships. So obviously Zwar got a woman to host the male version? Ah ha ha ha get out of here. Seriously, go.

The more hit-and-miss slots seem to be more evenly divided. Laid, Outland, Mad as Hell, Twentysomething, The Bazura Project, The Strange Calls, Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, In Gordon Street Tonight, Woodley, Myf Warhurst’s Nice;  it’s not a 50/50 split across the board, but there’s enough variety there to at least suggest that the imbalance often comes down to individuals rather than automatic bias. Obviously more men are getting shows up (and getting panel show gigs), but it’s not a total lock-out like it currently seems to be with the more permanent, higher profile gigs. And any similarities between this situation and legends of a so-called “glass ceiling” are, no doubt, completely coincidental.

The problem with any sweeping generalisations is that Australian television comedy is such a small field at the top that a handful of people can make a big difference. If Wendy Harmer wanted to do a solo ABC television show, it at least seems likely that she could. If she and Judith Lucy and Myf Warhurst and Robyn Butler and Marieke Hardy all did shows on the ABC in one year and Kath & Kim came back to Seven, that’d look like a very good year. Especially if Chris Lilley came along and did another show where he showed the kind of insights into women we got with Ja’ime and Gran and Jen Okazaki and… oh right. Sorry.

So, with the problem somewhat clumsily identified, now for the fun part: laying blame. And the guilty party may surprise you: Andrew Denton. “Not ABC production stalwart and loveable host Denton,” you may or may not cry, “he’s so lefty and right-on and cuddly and everything we adore about the ABC – he can’t possibly be anti-woman! Look, he even married Jennifer Byrne! Nice of him to give her a job as a panelist on Randling, wasn’t it?”

And yet the facts speak for themselves: who gave the all-bloke Chaser their first shot on the ABC? Denton. Who allowed the Gruen franchise to basically become a male locker room dominated by Wil Anderson, Todd Sampson and Russel Howcroft (in contrast, the non-Denton Spicks and Specks had Warhurst as one of the three regulars; The Glasshouse had Corrine Grant as one of the three regulars; GNW had Claire Hooper and previously Julie McCrossin as one of the three regulars)? Denton. Who hosts and produces Randling, a game show that features two thirds male contestants? Denton.

[that last example might seem a little harsh, considering we cut the ABC some serious slack earlier for only getting near enough with their gender balance. But Randling features enough non-comedian guests to make it clear Denton and company weren’t just drawing from the already male-skewed comedian pool. If it was a show that only featured top-notch comedy talent then perhaps you could argue the gender imbalance comes down to who was available at the time. But it doesn’t, and once you start drafting in internet celebrities and the like, why not have fifty percent women?]

What else has he produced? :30 Seconds? Ground breaking salute to a white man’s mid-life crisis there. The Joy of Sets? No women (though to be fair, it was built around an established comedy double act). David Tench Tonight? That didn’t even have a human host! As for Hungry Beast, of the 19 original presenters, only six were women. And that was a show supposedly out there looking for new talent. You can’t see us but rest assured, the head shake we’re currently doing is a very sad one indeed**.

As always, what do we know? Maybe Denton has no say in how the shows he produces are actually run. Maybe various faceless ABC types are telling him who audiences want to see. Maybe he just thinks he’s putting the best possible talent on air. Maybe he just can’t find enough female comedians to put on his shows. Maybe despite having two of the three shows currently showing  in the ABC’s Wednesday night comedy timeslots (with Denton prodigies The Chaser in the third), Denton and his production company Zapruder’s Other Films doesn’t really have any influence on the amount of women in comedy on the ABC. Let’s just keep moving that buck along folks, nothing to see here…




* Something else worth considering: perhaps part of the problem – if you consider The Chaser to be part of the problem – is that the ABC have kept The Chaser on board as their resident satirists for the last decade. Shaun Micallef aside, they’ve had the field to themselves pretty much since 2002 – an extremely long run for a comedy team on the national broadcaster. As this run seems set to continue and it’s unlikely any of them are going to spontaneously change gender any time soon, those unhappy with this situation may continue to be so for a while yet.


** But what about Zapruder’s Q&A knock-off for Channel Ten, Can of Worms? Isn’t that now hosted by a woman? Sure – but as Chrissie Swan is a pre-established Channel Ten personality (after her work on The Circle and Big Brother) and is replacing the show’s original (male) host, we’re going to suggest her appearance has less to do with Zapruder’s original vision for the show and more about Ten wanting changes before giving it a second series.


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1 Comment

  • simbo says:

    Gruen should, logically, have a re-cast of the panel next year should they come back, given Russell Howcroft is going onto the board of Channel 10 (it would be very odd for a senior executive of another network to have a regular gig on the ABC).

    As for the Chaser – yes, they’ve been one of the two key satirists on the ABC for 12 years (although Clarke and Dawe have been at it longer on the ABC, kicking off on the ABC around 1998 after 8 years on A Current Affair), but they have taken some gaps (no major shows in 2005 or 2008, and only shorter election shows in 2001, 2004 and 2010 – in fact, they haven’t done a series longer than 8 episodes since 2007).