“Too often the writing room is not sensitively run, it can be aggressive and slightly bullying.”
If you’ve ever caught a comedy panel show on television, you’ll probably have noticed that there’s a bit of an imbalance in the make up of the guests. Long-running programmes like Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week are dominated by (white) men; on a good day the shows will include two women in the same episode *gasp*, but, especially in the case of Have I Got News For You, there’s usually just one token woman on screen.
This lack of gender equality is not just a problem on screen; many comedy writing rooms are also male-dominated, and that’s something ITV’s head of comedy, Saskia Schuster, is no longer willing to entertain.
Speaking at Channel 4’s Diverse Festival, she revealed that she is no longer commissioning shows with all-male writing teams.
Schuster said she realised last year that “an awful lot of my comedy entertainment shows are made up of all-male writing teams”, reported BBC News.
To combat the problem, Schuster has launched a scheme called Comedy 50:50 to encourage more female comedy writers. On the Comedy 50:50 website she explains that women find it a struggle to break into comedy writing for a number of reasons. This includes the fact that it is hard to compete for jobs with men who have more writing credits. It’s not hard to see that this creates a vicious cycle: women don’t get a job because they don’t have enough writing credits, but they can’t get more writing credits because they can’t get a job because they don’t have enough writing credits. Repeat ad infinitum.
Schuster also said women could find it difficult to be the lone female voice in a writers’ room. Writing on the Comedy 50:50 site, she said: “Too often the writing room is not sensitively run, it can be aggressive and slightly bullying. There can all too often be a sense of tokenism towards the lone female. Or the dominant perception is that the female is there purely so the production can hit quotas. Many women don’t want to be or don’t enjoy being that lone female.”
Schuster’s audit of her comedy entertainment shows found that on screen representation was good, but in scripted commissions “there has been a significant lack of shows written by women of with women on the writing teams”.
For every script Schuster was sent by a female writer, she received five from men, a statistic that then contributed to an imbalance in what was commissioned.
Comedy 50:50 requires writing teams to aim towards 50:50 gender representation, and productions must “demonstrate best endeavours to include female writers in the writing room”.
The BBC reported that Schuster has changed ITV’s contracts, and hired female writers on shows like ITV2’s Celebability.
There have been moves across comedy towards gender equality. Schuster says she was inspired by Miles Jupp, the host of BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz. He made it a condition of his contract that the panels would always be made up of an equal number of men and women.
It might not seem like the most pressing problem in the world, but gender imbalance in writing rooms can lead to gender imbalance on screen, as well as the persistence of outdated, sexist attitudes towards women in comedy.
Schuster’s decision to ban all-male writing rooms is a significant step on the road to gender equality in television.