“The default is white male. That’s the issue. Anything else in comedy is still considered other,” said Josie Long at Amy Anette’s What Women Want panel during 2017’s Edinburgh Fringe. “But it’s 2018”, we all cry; can this really still be the case? The facts would imply, unequivocally, yes. It took Mock the Week 162 episodes before they featured two female comedians in the same show, a sight which is still somewhat of a rarity in television panel shows. In 2014 the BBC announced that panel programmes which didn’t include women were “not acceptable”, and since then, television producers have followed this advice doggedly.
This can sometimes be seen as a somewhat cursory measure, though. Yes, the female comic is there, but flying solo, giving the impression that she has been put there to tick an inclusion box rather than to signal any positive change for gender imbalance in comedy. There seems to be a vague general assumption that the comedy scene for females has been blown wide open in recent years, that they’re swamping the stand-up bills. But when it comes down to it, we’re seeing the same handful of faces (Aisling Bea, Roisin Conaty, Katharine Ryan, to name a very few) who have managed to gain acceptance in the male-dominated industry and are now being shunted round the major panel shows as a token.
There are the old stalwarts of course, like Jo Brand and Sarah Millican, who have made vital progress for female comics in the last decade or so, but the scene for women is pretty conservative. There doesn’t seem to be room for any experimentation or wackiness: when was the last time we saw the female equivalent of Joe Wilkinson or Sam Simmons, someone who threw caution to the wind and created a persona that was completely bizarre? Never, because it’s too much of a risk. If a stand-up comedy line-up often includes only one female act (who is never the headliner), how many of those women are really going to take a chance with an audience who have some well-established expectations of the humour that they are going to see? It goes without saying that, when the line up lacks diversity, so does the content. The comedians who are not white males often typecast themselves, with their routines revolving around their minority status.
Particularly with non-white male comedians, their jokes (even if it’s just the opening line) will make reference to their race. In April 2017, at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, as he took to the stage following a Chinese comic, Aaron Chen quipped, “I know what you’re thinking. Two in a row.” Romesh Ranganathan wrote for The Guardian: “I need an angle. If I wasn’t Asian I would just be an overweight father of three… Being Asian is the main point of difference with the majority of the audience, so why not talk about that difference?” It’s a fairly depressing thought that a non-white comedian knows his routine will be successful if he draws upon race, and it certainly doesn’t say much for Britain as a society.
Is it the fault of the audience or the industry? Or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? The audience will keep laughing as long as these are the comedians they are being provided with, and so the industry keeps providing them. The bottom line is that what we’re receiving is the unchallenged experience of the white male and we’re enjoying it, leaving no room for diversification.