We didn't have a gender agenda

Chortle editor Steve Bennett on the dearth of women on our awards shortlist

It’s a storm we never saw coming. Chortle is, according to the Guardian, at the centre of a maelstrom of controversy for having just two solo female acts in the awards shortlist.

Glossing over the fact the Guardian writer is so attuned to the comedy circuit that he called nominee Dana Alexander, Dana Hall (who is actually an American, male jazz-funk drummer), it doesn’t, admittedly, look great. But what should we have done about it? Put a few more women through just to balance the numbers a bit?

Although I can’t speak for all the panellists, I do know that the gender of any potential nominee never entered the discussion, and I don’t think the lack of women on the final list crossed any of our minds. We were looking for the funniest people, simple as. You wouldn’t expect me to say anything else, I know, but it happens to be true.

I don’t doubt for a moment that female comics face hurdles in this business that male ones don’t. There are still promoters who won’t book more than one woman on the bill, there is still an outdated misconception among some audiences that ‘women aren’t funny’, or some suggestion that the psychological make-up needed to be the attention-seeking alpha of the room, then endure the tough on-the-road lifestyle of a comic, is a predominantly male preserve. All these things are endlessly debated in the media, as if under-representation of women in other professions doesn’t happen. When was the last time you read a piece on, say, the dearth of women surgeons?

I’m not sure what those bemoaning the lack of women on out shortlist would do differently. There seems to be a suggestion that either we’ve overlooked certain female acts, or are inherently sexist.

We certainly didn’t overlook anyone. All the names touted as potential nominees – Sarah Millican, Josie Long and Cariad Lloyd seem to be the main front-runners –  were certainly discussed, as were many, many other talented women.

Our decision-making process starts with a team of comedy critics throwing as many names into the ring for each category as they think need discussion. For the record, there were nine panellists at this stage of the discussion – five women and four men. I mention that as the make-up of the panel seems to be important to some people.

This gave us maybe 40 or 50 names in each category. They are very long lists, covering everyone Twitter has consequently touted as being nomination-worthy, and a lot more besides, including a couple of dozen female comedians across all the categories. This is whittled down until a final meeting (now down to six panellists: three of each gender) settled on the published shortlist.

It’s one thing to say ‘what about comic X, why are they not on the list?’ But then look at the other nominees and consider which of those you would dump for the performer you are cheerleading for. Then consider whether you can convince five other independent, well-informed and opinionated people of the fact. That is what all of us on this panel did – what anyone on any panel does – until we reached a consensus.

There are great acts that I would have hoped to see on that list, male or female, and I was chairing the panel. Late Night Gimp Fight, say, was one of the best shows I saw last year, but couldn’t make the last four. It happens.

The second suggestion is that there’s an inherent anti-female bias among the panel. Again, I think that’s disingenuous when your consider how many hundreds of show every one of those critics see every year. It’s surely difficult to maintain any prejudice when you’re overwhelmed with such a tide of reality.

It sounds trite to say so, but when you see so much in a professional capacity, gender really doesn’t come into it: funny’s funny. Sure, a comic might make the sex, or race, or any other part of themselves part of the act, and you can’t then unpick that from the experience of watching them. But ultimately, you are looking to be surprised, amused, entertained – and the demographics of the person doing that is irrelevant.

The final possible reason for the lack of women on our shortlist is that they are fewer of them in the top echelons of comedy, compared to men. That is undeniably true.

The Guardian pointed out that Sarah Millican is not in our DVD category, despite selling 150,000 copies. A fantastic achievement, but five male comics outsold her, and none of them made our shortlist either.

There are also fewer women on every rung of the comedy ladder. Only about 20 per cent of applicants to Chortle’s current Student Comedy Award are female – and this is for newcomers with no barrier at all to entry. Women are clearly not being drawn to comedy in the first place in equal numbers as men.

What to do about it? Positive discrimination? We could insist on one female nominee in each category, but what would that achieve? The suspicion that every woman on the lists got there just because they possess a vagina? At least now every woman on our shortlist got there on merit alone. Even if ‘every woman’ ends up reading ‘both women’.

In the very first Chortle Awards, when the accolades themselves were Groucho glasses crudely nailed to a piece of wood, we had a ‘best female comic’ category – but that was quickly dumped. It seemed like it was treating women as inherently unable to compete on the same playing field as men.

Similarly, the paradox is that for organisations like Funny Women to thrive, they must tacitly acknowledge that being a female comic is different than being a male one. And we’ll ignore the fact that women are, uniquely, charged a £15 fee to enter that competition, other than to acknowledge the fact that Chortle did support the free Funny’s Funny competition for female comics last year. Despite reservations that such a contest was somehow ghettoising female acts, our reasoning was that they shouldn’t be charged for that ‘privilege’ too.

I think the Chortle Award nominations are strong this year, and it detracts from the achievements of those on it to make gender an issue. And amid all the fuss, no one’s picked up on the fact that black and Asian acts are massively under-represented, either. But there is a good reason for that – the Chortle judges are all massive racists.

Do I need to point out that’s a joke? Possibly…

Published: 24 Feb 2012

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