The comedy gold of gender balance

Colchester councillor Nick Barlow has written an interesting, number laden post on gender balance and Have I Got New For You (HIGNFY). If you’re a consumer of TV comedy shows you may well be aware that women struggle to get invited to guest on these shows and female hosts are few and far between – off hand I can only think of Hurricane Sandy on Radio Four’s News Quiz.

QI, 8 out of 10 cats, Would I lie to You? Mock the Week, et al not only have all male hosts and regular presenters (creating a built in bias towards male comics) but they also have a poor record when it comes to inviting women on their shows as guests. We’ll take a quick look at why that might be in a moment, but first let’s look at Nick’s data.

Here we have all 44 seasons of the show represented as the proportion of male and female guests invited on the show. These figures exclude regular presenters Paul Merton, Ian Hislop and Angus Deaton (and so mask the fact that the gender balance is actually worse than it looks). I’ve included a rolling average (in blue) which helps smooth the curve and make tendencies clearer to the eye. If you’re interested this figure is calculated by adding the numbers from the current season, the one before and the one after and then dividing by three.

What that helps us see is that not only are the best seasons those where men “only” outnumber women by two to one but that there has been no over all improvement over time – indeed the nineties saw a distinct dive in women’s representation.

Neil highlights the following;

  • On average, 23.27% of guests are women (219 out of a total of 941).
  • Similarly, 23.16% of guest hosts are women (41 out of a total of 177).
  • The highest percentage of female guests in a series was 37.5% – in series 1. The next highest was series 42 with 36.67%.
  • Series 42 was the first ever (and, to date, only) to feature a female guest in every episode.
  • The first ever episode featured two female guests. There have only been six other episodes with entirely female guests, with the last one in 1997 (season 13). There have been a total of 177 entirely male episodes, with the last one yesterday.
  • The lowest percentage of female guests was 8.33% in series 11.

The top five women friendly seasons were 1, 6, 7, 28 and 42. The worst seasons (for gender balance) were 9, 10, 11, 16 and 35. I have no figures for which were the funniest seasons I’m afraid. What ever happened to progress?


So why is this?

Well, as it happens in 2010 I wrote to QI with just this question and they were good enough to respond. My letter;


I hope this is the right address to send this to, anyway;

I just saw the “Girls and Boys” edition of QI on iplayer and was struck by the question ‘why don’t we have more female guests on QI’.

First of all it made me realise that this might be the only time I’ve seen two women on the show simultaneously, so inevitably it had to be a show ‘about’ women. But also as Ronni Ancona said there actually are loads of great female comedians (and women who do other things and are also funny) but they just don’t seem to get the same exposure.

I love David Mitchell and Jack Dee and all of those people but not to the complete exclusion of women performers.

I could argue that programmes like QI have a responsibility to help change that culture, but actually I think it’s more important to say that I think QI would be a better show if it drew on a fresher pool of talent. I can’t be the only person who finds a diet of five slightly over exposed men talking to each other a little uninspiring sometimes, even when they are great wits.

This is particularly relevant the longer the show goes on as you need new voices to freshen the format and keep your audience broad.

Thinking off the top of my head people like Kate Smurthwaite, Josie Long, Anna Chen, Gina Yashere and Emma Thompson would all make brilliant guests – although I’m sure you should be in a much better position to judge than I am who the rising female stars are these days.

Anyway, I just felt motivated to write because I think QI is a lovely show but, it seems to me, it can feel a bit too much like an exclusive club sometimes which doesn’t really fit the egalitarian ethic of the age. The addition of more women (or even three women guests occasionally) would help stir things up a bit to my mind, anyway, I hope you don’t mind me sending this quick email.

Jim Jepps

So what did they say?

Hi Jim,

Thanks for your thoughtful email.

As Sarah says, if you watch this current series you’ll see we have far more women on than ever before, though, in fact, this is the second time we’ve had two women on the panel (Jo Brand appeared alongside Jessica Stevenson in the D series).

As someone who trained with the BBC back in the good old days, I absolutely agree that programmes should have (in now outmoded Reithian practice) a responsibility to try to change the culture. However, when we came up with the idea of QI and made the pilot in 2002 our most urgent responsibility (as we saw it) was to stem the tide of relentless dumbing-down, by making a popular programme that was also intelligent and unpatronising.

That in itself was hard enough to get right and we couldn’t do everything at once – you might argue that QI could use a little more ethnic diversity as well, for example.

In series 1 & 2, our early experiments with positive gender casting weren’t very successful. At a time when we were all struggling to get the format right, the male comedians found themselves falling back on competitive (and relatively aggressive) banter as the classic stalwart of panel games – and this isn’t something that suits women in general, nearly all female stand-ups and comedians included.

Many funny women who thrive in other contexts felt excluded or out of their comfort zone and fell silent and it doesn’t do the cause of feminism any favours to keep casting women and then not have them come across well.

So, from Series C onwards, we set out to make the show as funny as possible so that it would survive in the precarious climate of a ratings-driven (rather than quality-driven) broadcasting system. Having achieved (especially with the successful move to BBC1 in the F series) what we judged to be not only a secure position with our commissioners, but a much gentler, friendlier and easy-going format, we set out to restore the sex balance.

In the new climate, we think this has worked brilliantly and I am sure will become standard on QI.

With very best wishes,

John Lloyd

Series Producer, QI

It was very nice of John Lloyd to reply properly, even if he does use the words “restore the sex balance” which I believe is in chapter eight of the Kama Sutra and not recommended as a beginner’s technique.

Sadly, where I think John’s argument falls down is that he’s basically saying that women aren’t very funny or intelligent and so including them in the show will make them and the show look bad. I’m not sure everyone would agree with that.

He claims that the format of the show is not suited to women who, delicate flowers that they are, wither in the toxic testosterone rich environment that man’s man Alan Davies creates. I’m not sure I agree with that, but have certainly heard women comics claim that some shows (like Mock the Week) are very difficult environments for women.

What’s curious about this argument is that the format is actually within the control of the producer not some fundamental law of nature. Faced with a choice of tinkering with the format or accepting a show that’s hostile to women he accepts that women will just have to sit this one out.

I don’t actually accept that this format is unsuited to women. There are male and female comics whose comedy probably requires a little more space and doesn’t work as well when forced to elbow for room (and hey, let’s create that more genteel space, it sounds very civilised!). This surely doesn’t preclude inviting less aggressive guests on does it? That might create a space for more thoughtful or subtle comedy than firing off a series of one-line zingers… but perhaps shows like that don’t get commissioned so we’ll never know how popular they might be.

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