Women FTW?

Our recent guest post by an anonymous female former comedy writer got us thinking…how well are women doing in comedy in 2013? Because if you look at some of the shows that have been on over the past year there’s a much more even gender mix in Australia comedy than, say, a decade or two decades ago…sort of.

Twenty years ago the second series of The Late Show had just finished, and it had starred and was written by eight people – six men, two women. Behind the scenes were male producers and directors (Joe Murray, Mark Gibson, Michael Hirsh) but a small number of significant production staff were female (Annie Maver). Over on commercial TV was the sketch show Full Frontal, which had a male-dominated cast, production team and writers. In sitcom land Hey Dad..! had an even mix cast-wise but its writers and production team were male-dominated. All Together Now was pretty much the same gender-wise, although with a male-heavy cast. Nine’s biggest contribution to comedy at this time was Hey! Hey! It’s Saturday, which was even less equal with the main cast being about 10 men to one women, and again with men in most of the high-level production roles. The Panel, which started up towards the end of the ‘90s was also male-dominated on and off screen. And notorious for only having a certain type of woman on it (Kate Langbroek!).

What’s a bit odd about all this (particularly with The Panel, whose team should have known better) is that the live circuit in the ‘80s and ‘90s included lots of women – Mary-Anne Fahey, Rachel Berger, Lynda Gibson, Gretel Killen, Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Madga Szbanski, Marg Downey, Wendy Harmer, Jean Kittson, Judith Lucy, Sue-Ann Post, Tracey Bartram, Mary Coustas, Miss Itchy and Libbi Gorr amongst others. Interestingly (and possibly debatably) many of them seem to have had less high-profile work over a sustained period than many of the men who came up in the same era. You can largely blame this on sexism – commercial radio for instance has always been dominated by male hosts – but also possibly on the fact that quite a few of these women had kids (we don’t wish to cast a slur on their male partners, but we’re going to assume that, like most women, these comedians did the bulk of the childcare!).

What’s also interesting – and here we paint a very broad brushstroke – is that many of these women were less about the kind of straight-up-and-down, fast-paced stand-up that most easily translates to commercial radio or panel show appearances, and more about character and storytelling. And in a country where sketch comedy kinda died in the early 2000s, and has only since been revived by the pre-existing team that are The Chaser and the odd new talent-type initiative (i.e. The Gentleman’s Guide To Knife Fighting), comedians had to adapt to the growing trend of panel-shows.

There grew up a sense (rightly or wrongly) that women “couldn’t do panel shows”, or at least a lesser percentage of women could do them. And it’s only very recently that you see the likes of Dirty Laundry Live and Tractor Monkeys having an almost equal gender mix in their panels. Perhaps women who started doing stand-up in the 2000’s were either more naturally included towards, or started honing their craft towards, the sort of act that would lead to panel show appearances? Either way, quite a few of them are pretty good (Hannah Gadsby, for example).

It’s also interesting that women are taking on high-profile leadership and productions roles in increasing numbers (Courtney Gibson, Laura Waters, Daina Reid), and that sitcom/sketch writers and stars are increasingly female: Jess Harris and TwentySomething, Marieke Hardy & Kirsty Fisher and Laid, Upper Middle Bogan, which had a female lead and a female-heavy cast and Robyn Butler as one of its driving creative forces, and Audrey’s Kitchen which stars Heidi Arena (although the show is made mostly by men). Even Ja’mie: Private School is female-dominated. Sort of.

What’s possibly key to this, though – and this came across very clearly in our guest blogger’s post – is that where women have a certain level of power they do well, and where they have little power they don’t. There’s no doing your time and working your way up; if women are outnumbered in the writer’s room or on a panel (or The Panel) those places become places for men, but where there’s a more even mix in the writer’s room or on a panel those places become places for everyone.

The same sort of thing happens in all sorts of workplaces, and this is well documented by websites such as The New Girls Network. If you don’t believe it take a look around the place where you work. 1) What gender are most of the managers? 2) Which employees are best at playing the political games? 3) Which employees are consistently doing good work but becoming increasingly frustrated that no one’s recognising this? If you answered 1) Men, 2) Men and 3) Women then we’re not surprised*. We also suspect the lady in 3) is actively job hunting. Good luck to her.

Anyway, if you think this doesn’t apply to the world of comedy think about this: French & Saunders famously withdrew from club work relatively early in their careers because the male-dominated and consequently blokey environment wore them down, but when they were given their own TV show they blossomed. And before those of you with long memories say “Kittson/Fahey” there is, happily, one great leveler – whether you’re funny or not. French & Saunders were, Kittson and Fahey were not. The end.

* If you didn’t then maybe you should enter your workplace for some kind of gender diversity award?

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  • Ontos says:

    I still hear people say the old “women aren’t funny”/”Women are generally less funny then men”/”Women can’t do stand up comedy”. Did that attitude ever exist in the industry, and if so does it still? Or was/is it just a general sexism that was holding women back?

  • urinal cake says:

    The other part of the equation is making comedy for women (if such a clear difference exists). I’d say something like PLM (yeah I know) -going by Internet reaction- seemed more identifiable with women than men.

    I think we’re better than the UK but worse than the US (if we take into account talk shows etc).

  • Rutegar says:

    Personally, I’ve found women often seem to appreciate a different kind of funny than blokes. Make of that what you will.