Change is afoot at the British Broadcasting Corporation. Rapidly responding to a problem that has been prevalent for nearly a decade, it was announced recently that all-male line-ups would no longer be allowed on its comedy panel shows. It is true that the issue is rife. Indeed, this conspicuous absence of women from panel shows means our perceptions have been radically altered; it is now much more surprising when a female comedian appears on Mock the Week, when it should surely be the absence that is shocking.
The problem is much more endemic than a lack of female comedians, however. All the panel shows have resident guests or team captains: David Mitchell and Lee Mack on Would I Lie to You?, Sean Lock and the other one on 8 out of 10 Cats, the gentleman’s club that is Mock the Week. No show has any female resident guests. No show has a female presenter either. That’s deplorable, entirely because it’s fantastically unrepresentative of the extensive female comedic talent that exists. I utterly doubt that Josie Long could be any less humorous than Andy Parsons.
Whilst the BBC’s equivalent of comedic affirmative action is far from the meritocratic system that plainly should be in place, at the very least it highlights that what panel shows have done is prevent any variety in the depiction of comedians, even down to gender. You can call this the ‘Michael McIntyre thesis’ – he is male, popular and made a lot of money, so what he did, (emphasis on the ‘he’ here), is now considered the only way to become a succesful comedian. It is an idea as insulting to the viewing audience as it is to stand-up comedians. But the real impact of TV comedy is much more nefarious than that.
The immense popularity of panel shows has led to stand-up comedians being characterised by one persona: young men who churn out observational material. You only need to watch the above-mentioned shows to provide innumerable examples. It’s a viral pandemic of mass-produced comedy cannon fodder, totally indistinguishable in style and delivery, approaching topics so repetitively banal that ‘naff ’ does not even begin to describe it. My eventful (or uneventful) sex life? Riffs on the ridiculous antics of my pets? My child/nephew/ sibling who just says the funniest things? That hilarious thing that happened on the train home the other day? My side-splitting daily routine? That time I fell over? All check; material so uninspiring and derivative that it would be more amusing to feed your own face into a wood-chipper.
To give TV some credit, it has done a fantastic job at suppressing the attention due to all the satirists, surrealists, character, alternative, physical, musical and, most of all, female comedians who are out there. Instead of offering the truly diverse smorgasbord of the British comedy scene, we are relentlessly force-fed the thoughtless regurgitations of McIntyre doppelgangers.
In fact, it seems completely logical that if TV insists on promoting conformist comedians, then it would surely be possible to fi ll the deck of clones with more women. If they’re all saying the same thing in the same way, why does it matter if it’s a man or woman undeservedly occupying that spotlight?
That is the state of contemporary comedy that television disseminates, the comedy we are being forced to consume. A nebulously amorphous blob of observational pseudocomics, who talk a lot but say nothing, either in the vain hope of being given a chat show or in absolute fear of being jettisoned back into the galling chasm of perpetual anonymity. The BBC’s new policy isn’t perfect, but it goes a long way in recognising the problems that modern comedy is presented with. If you want to see the real face of stand-up, go to a comedy club, the Edinburgh Fringe or the top floor of a pub. Don’t, whatever you do, reach for the remote.