Women on panel shows: crunching the numbers | Alan Varley looks at the stats

Women on panel shows: crunching the numbers

Alan Varley looks at the stats

Now that the situation in Israel and Gaza has calmed down I have decided to stop work on my peace plan for the region and turn my attention to another long-running conflict: women on comedy panel shows.

Andrew Lawrence’s recent comments stirred up the arguments again and turned into hashtag team wrestling involving Dara O'Briain, Nigel Farage and Frankie Boyle. But beyond all the entrenched opinions, what are the facts? Are women (who, according to the 2011 census, make up 50.9 per cent of the UK’s population) underrepresented on panel shows such as Mock The Week?

Mock The Week was first broadcast in 2005 and since then 114 episodes have been broadcast over 13 series. How many people have ever appeared on Mock The Week? If you want to guess stop scrolling.

Is it 200? You’re very cold. 300? You’re freezing. 150? You’re warmer. 100? Warmer still. 120? You’re getting colder again. Colder again?

Is it 80? Yes. If you could get all the people who have ever appeared on Mock The Week in its ten-year history together you could fit them all on a new London Routemaster bus, although some of them would have to stand up.

How many women have appeared on Mock The Week? 23 – that’s 28.8 per cent of the people who have appeared. Looking at the number of appearances (including the host’s) out of a total of 798 appearances those 23 women have made a total of 70 appearances (8.8 per cent). If you look at the number of episodes featuring women there have been 44 all-male episodes (38.6 per cent), 70 episodes featuring one woman (61.4 per cent) and no episodes featuring more than one woman.

By the end of the current series (L) of QI, 123 people will have appeared on the show and 37 of them (30.1 per cent) are women. Out of a total of 846 appearances those 37 women have made a total of 118 appearances (13.9 per cent). There will have been 64 all-male episodes (37.9 per cent), 94 episodes featuring one woman (55.6 per cent), nine episodes featuring two women (5.3 per cent) and two episodes featuring three women (1.2 per cent).

The current series of Have I Got News For You is the 48th. At the time of writing 463 people have appeared on HIGNFY and 124 of them (26.8 per cent) are women. Out of a total of 2075 appearances (not including The Rt. Hon. Tub of Lard MP and the equally silent ‘Sir Elton John’) those 124 women have made a total of 257 appearances (12.4 per cent).

There have been 183 all-male episodes (44.1 per cent), 208 episodes featuring one woman (50.1 per cent), 23 episodes featuring two women (5.5 per cent) and one episode featuring three women (0.2 per cent).

The 100th appearance by a woman on HIGNFY happened at the end of the 25th series (in the 213th episode). The 100th appearance by a woman on QI happened at the end of the 11th series (in the 153rd episode). The 100th appearance by a woman on Mock The Week hasn’t happened yet and at the current rate it may happen in the 16th series in 2017.

I have also counted are the number of appearances made by each guest. 50 people have made five or more appearances on HIGNFY and eight of them are women. However, when I looked at the people who have appeared most times I noticed something else.

Of the eight women who have made five or more appearances on HIGNFY only two of them (Jo Brand who has made 14 appearances and Linda Smith who made six) made their names as stand-up comedians. The other six (Kirsty Young with 13 appearances, Janet Street-Porter with 10, Germaine Greer with nine, Victoria Coren Mitchell with nine, Julia Hartley-Brewer with seven and Clare Balding with five) are TV and radio presenters or writers with little or no background in stand-up comedy.

Of the 42 men who have made five or more appearances on HIGNFY less than half of them made their names as stand-up comedians. More than half are TV and radio presenters, comic actors, writers or MPs with little or no background in stand-up comedy such as Jeremy Clarkson (12 appearances), Ken Livingstone (12), Danny Baker (9), Boris Johnson (7) and Lembit Öpik (6).

Out of the 463 people who have appeared on HIGNFY I would describe fewer than 80 of them as being primarily stand-up comedians, which is less than 20 per cent of the guests. Out of the 124 women who have appeared on the show, I would describe only 15 of them as being primarily stand-up comedians which is 12.1 per cent of the female guests. Almost 90 per cent of the female guests on Have I Got News For You are not primarily stand-up comedians.

I would describe the majority of the guests and the vast majority of the female guests on Mock The Week as stand-up comedians but on QI a large minority of guests and of female guests are stand-up comedians. If the pattern is repeated on other shows the majority of the fees being paid to women for appearing on comedy panel shows and the TV exposure which are vital to stand-up comedians are going to women who aren’t stand-up comedians - and the same can be said about men.

Andrew Lawrence referred to ‘women-posing-as-comedians’. I don’t like the term. ‘Non-stand-up-comedians appearing on a comedy show’ is less offensive, can be applied to both genders and is more accurate.

I’m sure this debate will go on. However, while looking through the figures I noticed something else.

Out of the 80 people who have appeared on Mock The Week 25 (31.3 per cent) have made only one appearance. Out of the 123 people who have appeared on QI 65 (52.8 per cent) have made only one appearance. Out of the 463 people who have appeared on Have I Got News For You 257 (55.5 per cent) have made only one appearance.

Some of those people may have made only one appearance because they became unavailable due to illness or death, declined invitations to appear again or were deemed not good enough to merit a second invitation.

However, if a shop sacked a third of its staff after their first day because they didn’t know anything about the products, if half of a university’s first-year students dropped out after their first week because they didn’t know enough about their course subjects or a football team sold half of its players after playing only one match because when they tried to kick the ball they kept missing it you might conclude that they had a problem with the way they recruited, trained and treated people. How many people would watch a version of Match Of The Day or Sky Sports showing matches from the Absolute Amateurs Football League?

Something has gone badly wrong. Female comedians have been saying panel shows are male-dominated. Andrew Lawrence has said female comedians with less ability and experience than many male comedians are getting on panel shows due to quotas.

Hundreds of people have appeared on panel shows once and never been seen on them again. Some comedians have appeared on panel shows over 100 times and never seem to be off them. Some of the best comedians don’t go on panel shows.

Meanwhile, in July a BBC Trust report found that many viewers don’t rate BBC comedy highly due to ‘the high volume of comedy panel shows, with some of them described as 'tired' in terms of the format, talent and style of humour, and even newer shows tending to often feel derivative.’

The BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen has introduced a minimum quota for women on panel shows. How about introducing a minimum quota of stand-up comedians on BBC comedy panel shows?

How about introducing a maximum quota of comedy panel shows in BBC comedy output? How about introducing a moratorium on new panel shows or only allowing a new panel show if an old one is axed? How about reducing the number of panel shows and increasing the number of sitcoms, sketch shows or stand-up comedy shows?

Live At The Apollo is returning to BBC One for its annual six-week run but how about creating stand-up comedy shows filmed in smaller venues for BBC’s Two, Three or Four? Do you like those ideas? That will be £100,000 a year please, which is less than half what Danny Cohen and head of comedy commissioning Shane Allen are paid.

I think that’s enough facts about women on panel shows for you to be going on with. Whilst you’re debating the issue I’ll find some facts about the revolution.

Published: 5 Nov 2014

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