Should we ban all-male comedy panels?

BBC show <i>Would I Lie to You?</i>

BBC show Would I Lie to You?

If you’ve watched the BBC panel shows QI, Mock The Week or Would I Lie To You with any regularity, you will likely have noticed they have one thing in common: loads and loads of men.

You could be forgiven, watching QI most weeks, for thinking the busts at the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery had come to life and secured their own television show.

Yes, there’s the occasional appearance by Jo Brand - or even our very own Julia Zemiro - but for the most part, the BBC panel show seems to be the primary habitat of the male of the species. (“The species”, in this instance, being ‘the grandstanding British comedian’.)

<i>QI</i>, hosted by Stephen Fry.

QI, hosted by Stephen Fry.

Not for long, however, if the BBC’s head of television output has anything to do with it - and, as chief, he bloody well will. In a freewheeling interview with The Observer, Cohen announced (on the topic of things the broadcaster needs to do better), “We're not going to have panel shows on any more with no women on them. You can't do that. It's not acceptable."

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While panel shows (seen by some as filler programming) might seem like a measly beginning, in terms of gender equality revolutions, they are as The Guardian points out, relatively easy to address the gender balance of as they are filmed regularly and without huge lead times.

The lack of women on panel shows is likely a hangover from the “there just aren’t as many funny women” type mindsets; indeed, the “men are better at sparring” angle seems to come in to play here, too. 

As the Guardian’s coverage also notes, Victoria Wood had complained about the nature of the network’s nearly always all-male panel shows to Radio Times back in 2009, remarking, “A lot of programmes are very male-dominated, because they rely on men topping each other, which is not a very female thing."

(I pause here to allow anyone who has endured being at a dinner party with Clem “Insufferable Rapid Fire Jokes” Bastow to exclaim, “She must be a man, then”.)

While Wood’s comments might seem a little Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to the casual observer, she has a point. It is not selling the sisterhood short to agree that it is remarkably hard to get a word in edgeways when you are the sole female voice on a panel; in similar situations I have gone from reasonably quick-witted to monosyllabic when faced with the onslaught of one-upmanship that can come from dudes trying to outdo each other.

Those who think that women are underrepresented on panel shows because they’re not funny or talented enough to get on in the first place would do well to apply those parameters to some of the men who do make it onto panels.

It’s all very well to say things like (as I’m sure many will) “Gender quotas are just affirmative action all over again” or “Tokenism FTW” (that one’s an actual quote from Guardian comments section), but the simple fact is that left to their own devices, the producers of these shows are clearly failing massively when it comes to putting together line-ups that aren’t just endless parades of the same old white men.

Perhaps if Cohen & Co introduce some quotas when it comes to the gender split of panelists, the producers might actually have to uncover some new talent instead of falling back on their trusty speed dial.