Mock the Tweet

by Philippa Willitts // 29 September 2011, 11:08

Tags: comedy, diversity audit, mock the week, representation of women, twitter

Mock the Week Publicity Photo This is a guest post by Vicky Brewster. Vicky is an accountant, occasional writer and cat obsessive from Swansea.

What began as a simple grumble by those who commonly use the #diversityaudit hashtag on Twitter has turned into a stormy debate with television comedy show Mock the Week. Viewers are complaining that women are under-represented on the show, while the programme's twitter feed argue that there are more male comedians than female, and women are well represented.

The first point is, what counts as proportional representation? I'm sure we'd all love to see a perfect fifty/fifty split on panel shows, but that's just not practical where women make up a smaller percentage of the comedy circuit than men. Mock the Week claim that only 18% of live comedians are women (their figures obtained from www.chortle.com - I made it 19%, but we won't split hairs). However, the website includes several faces that we're very unlikely to see on a Brit panel show any time soon, and also fails to include British stalwart comedians such as Victoria Wood. So, I went hunting for my own figures! I surveyed nine British panel shows for all their participants in the most recent complete series, then filtered the results to show only those who class themselves as 'comedians'. My results showed that women made up 25% of this list - quite a difference. (NB - these names available on request, but all information gathered from public domain sources.)

Graph of female guests on panel shows, with 8 out of 10 cats having the highest percentage and Mock the Week the lowest

So how does Mock the Week fare alongside either of these figures? Series 10, which is still in full swing, comprises 16% female guests. I put this to the Mock the Week twitter feed, and was told that I can't generalise statistics from one series. So I looked back further. Series 9, 13%. Series 8, 20%. Still pretty damning. From its inception (not including Christmas or Charity specials) the programme averages 22% female inclusion. However, a glance at the graph shows that this is more because of the regular appearances of women when the show was new, than any consistent effort to maintain proportional representation. In fact, during the first and second series there was a woman in every single show. This does not happen again in the rest of the programme's running. In eight out of the ten series, you will always find at least one episode without a single female face.

A 2-line graph entitled Representation of Women in Mock the Week, showing the proportion of female guests alone, compared to the proportion of female guests when including regulars

This is perhaps a good moment to point out that these figures only take into account guests on the show, and not the programme's exclusively male list of regulars. When these are counted into the equation, there is a very distinct and worrying bias.

Some might agree with Mock the Week, that the comedy circuit is a boys' network and it's unfair to expect them to include more women at the expense of men who might be more talented. Answering questions around this matter, Ava Vidal has said, "For people asking if I think [Mock the Week] is a boys' club then yes I do. Pretty much like the whole comedy circuit is in general," and then added, "To people suggesting an all female [Mock the Week] I wouldn't argue for that-ever! Can you imagine if the ratings slipped? We'd be crucified!!"

So in an effort to better understand why Mock the Week has been so singled out, I did a survey of other similar panel shows. Mock the Week came last. There will be a defence that it is the only panel show that chooses its guests purely from the world of live comedy. However, consider the other professions from which these shows might pick - politics, journalism, performed comedy. They are all male dominated. And while this is a limited sample study, there is a definite deficit, right now, in the number of women Mock the Week is supporting. I say supporting because I think Mock the Week is a wonderful platform to bring new comedians to television. Several of its former guests and regulars have since gone on to have their own shows. This is why it's so important that their producers take note of this debate.

Graph entitled Female Representation in Mock the Week including captains, showing the proportion of women over 10 series of the programme

These are the facts. Mock the Week has under-represented women, by my figures, for the last four series, in contrast to their competitors. When taking regular panellists into account, they always have, by their own figures. They say that they don't want to take part in 'positive discrimination', and have made no indication that they intend to take the complaints of their fans seriously. In doing so, they are enabling the existing boys' club, and are actively limiting the number of women who could go on to have glittering careers. British comedy (and especially 'minorities' in British comedy) need Mock the Week to look at the cold hard facts, and re-think the way they are doing things.

Note from Philippa: I approached Mock the Week about writing a response for us on this blog, but they declined.

[The image is of Dara O'Briain in the centre, and four other comedians who have been regulars on Mock the Week behind him. All five are white men. The photograph is from the BBC press office]

Comments From You

Andrew // Posted 29 September 2011 at 11:32

I seem to remember a quote from Jo Brand along the lines that she appeared in it once, hated the entire boys-club experience, and has never gone back. And she's hardly a shy retiring type on Mock The Week. Other (male) comedians have also made similar comments about being on it, as being a vicious snipy gladiator-style bearpit. I think Mark Watson - who's been on it a fair few times - has also said that.

Which female comedienne would you put in the hotseat, if you could?

sianandcrookedrib // Posted 29 September 2011 at 11:33

great post!

here's my take on the debate, http://sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com/2011/09/mock-week-mock-women.html

which uses your excellent stats (copied from twitter).
Pretty unsurprising response from some of the commenters.

Frau BH (1848) // Posted 29 September 2011 at 11:55

Excellent post Vicky - could not agree with you more!

I wrote the blog which was cross-posted by Minority Thought on this subject. Rather than accepting that they could actually change, they accused me ofmisleading my audience!

Vicky Brewster // Posted 29 September 2011 at 13:09

Andrew - Jo Brand appeared on the show for the first three series. In the first series she was in nearly every episode. You'll note that the disappearance of women guests occurs shortly after her departure. Possible women in the hotseat? Depends how you want to go, really. If you want an established comedian, perhaps Sandi Toksvig, Ronni Ancona or Arabella Weir? Or if you wanted to give a platform to a fresher face, Sarah Millican and Ava Vidal are both excellent.

sianandcrookedrib & Frau BH - thank you, I'm glad you both enjoyed. Have read both your pieces, and I'm so pleased that each article on this subject is taking a different angle. Just shows that this is a fully rounded debate and that the issues we're raising really need to be taken more seriously.

harry dvn // Posted 30 September 2011 at 09:44

a few weeks ago i was watching 8 out of ten cats and found it infuriating that they had booked male comedians and any female guests were not comedians and were generally the butt of jokes implying that they were stupid or daft.
I really think this is another issue which goes on on panel shows - that dynamic is often evident.

That could also have an impact on your statistics?

People often argue that comedy - standup in particular- is aggressive and tough and so on and whilst I don't think this precludes women from taking part, it is difficult to establish yourself in any field in which you are a minority and if this is coupled with an existing bias about women in comedy (i.e. that they don't do it or don't succeed) then people must acknowledge the factors which make it difficult for women to succeed and do something about it. That doesn't have to be so called 'positive discrimination'.

I don't see any reason why comedy should have this reputation for toughness- it is about being funny, after all. I suspect that the reputation comedy has for being so tough will have deterred many talented men and women alike. It strikes me as a very out of date concept and the 'powers that be' will have to start acknowledging new forms and sources of talent. (youtube videos in particular - see Jenna Marbles)

I'd like to see some fresh and different formats for encouraging new talent on telly. Personally I find these panel shows pretty tedious.

A couple of comedians I'd like to see more of - Josie Long and Nina Conti. Brilliant.

Vicky Brewster // Posted 30 September 2011 at 13:25

harry dvn - I know that on panel shows like 8 out of 10 cats and Have I Got News for You there's almost always a guest whose purpose is to be 'the butt of the joke'. I have to say, I've noticed just as many men suffer as women. Think of Boris Johnson on HIGNFY! It's one that it's difficult to gather statistical data on, and unfortunately that's what I'm good at, but it would certainly make an interesting study.

Both Jo Brand and Ava Vidal (see her Twitter feed linked above) have talked about how Mock teh Week is a particularly difficult show, because it's very fast paced and shot in a short space of time compared to other shows. But also, I think, there's something different about the atmosphere. You watch an episode of 8 out of 10 Cats, and half of it is Jimmy Carr just cracking up! You can tell that the people there are having a good time.

Part of the reason panel shows are so popular is because there are (or were, it's improving!) very few outlets for live comedians to appear on television. I read an interview with Chris O'Dowd after he shot Bridesmaids (which was heavily improvised) where he said it's quite difficult to meld into that way of acting/being funny, because it's not done a lot over here EXCEPT in panel shows. This is starting to change, thanks to increased instances of televised stand up, eg. Live at The Apollo, Michael Macintyre's Comedy Roadshow, televised chunks of the Edinburgh Fringe. We're also starting to improvise more on our television shows, like Outnumbered. So maybe panel shows will start to phase out.

Vicky Brewster // Posted 01 October 2011 at 11:15

Responses to a series of challenges I received on my article on Twitter. As you’ll see, I’m a wordy woman and Twitter really isn’t my best forum. I’ve answered these queries and challenges to the best of my ability, but I would like to underline that the overall purpose of this article is NOT to split hairs. It is to emphasise that whether there are 18% or 25% of women in comedy, or whether the right figure for women on MTW is 16% or 22%, the overriding point is this:

Putting More Women On Your Show Will Hurt No One, And Could Help Create a More Diverse and FUNNIER Comedy Circuit.

Thank you, and enjoy 

What makes you think it's in the remit of the show to represent gender, race, age, height, beauty (or not), disability etc?

If we stick with gender for now – there are others making arguments, I know, about their representation of age and race, so I’ll leave that to persons better informed than myself. The Mock the Week feed have said it’s not their responsibility to reflect their audience in their show. Others have argued that it is their responsibility, speaking in purely ethical terms and because, as a BBC commissioned programme, we have some right to complain about the way they choose to do things. I’m not going to do that, because I suspect it will amount to banging my head against a brick wall. And I like my head, I don’t want to smash it up unnecessarily. Some of my best thinking goes on in there.

Instead I’m going to re-iterate a point I made in the article. Mock the Week, especially since it made the slight shift to booking exclusively live comedians, has been a platform for fresh-faced comedians. Its guest spots exist to give a television presence to acts that have previously perhaps only made small appearances from televised live sets, or even have only performed live and not on television. You don’t need me to reel off the careers Mock the Week has launched, but off the top of my head I first recall seeing Michael MacIntyre, Frankie Boyle, Russell Howard and Andy Parsons on Mock the Week. Perhaps it wasn’t their first television appearance, but it was certainly their first regular appearance on a high ratings show. What I’m trying to get at is: no, Mock the Week have absolutely no legal obligation to proportionally – or even over-proportionally – represent women. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they did. They have themselves (on their twitter feed) said that it is a shame that such a small percentage of women appear on the comedy circuit. So why not help launch more of these careers? Why not push more women into the limelight? Who, precisely, does it hurt?

This is, really, the crux of my argument. I analysed a lot of statistics to prove that we, the women who are complaining, have a legitimate point. But what really makes me angry about this whole debate is that we are asking for something that hurts NOBODY and that could make a boys’ club one hell of a lot more diverse. If anything, we are INVITING Mock the Week to be a pioneer in comedy, to be a trend setter, to have the balls to stand up and say, “We recognise that this is not right, we are going to make an effort to do something about it.”

What makes you think having more women on the show will make more women get into comedy?

Have you seen the army recruitment adverts lately? Those new ones, with the sketched out people? They feature a man who used to work on a checkout in a supermarket, and a woman. They have done this because they want to show that people from diverse backgrounds, people who do not fit the standard ‘army thug’ stereotype, are welcome and can do well in the armed forces. This is a golden demonstration of the semiotics of advertising.

Put simply, semiotics studies the images and language a created item of media chooses to include, and those it chooses to leave out. It makes a study of what this tells its audience. What does the semiotics of Mock the Week tell us about their views on gender and comedy? Well, if you hadn’t gathered by now from the readings of a whole disparate bunch of women, it says, “Women aren’t funny, so we don’t deem many of them worthy of our show.” Please note, I am not saying this is the producers’ ACTUAL intentions from the guests they choose to put on the shows, but it is what a (particularly female) audience is likely to read from their programme.

A young woman, say a teenager who’s funny and likes making people laugh, looks at a show like Mock the Week. Perhaps she’s watching one of the five episodes from this series that has no women. Maybe she’s watching it for the first time. The first thing that will hit her is: There is no one like me here, so I am not welcome. First impressions really, really count. Ambitions are made and destroyed on such seemingly insignificant details. Young boys grow up wanting to play for the Premier League, because that’s what their heroes and role models do. Give funny women more role models.

Ah, interesting. You haven't even heard of a successful Channel 4 stand up show yet you wade in to criticise @MockTheWeek…

This point really is beneath you. I’m not going to spend time explaining my television choices to anyone. I watch Mock the Week regularly and have done for years, I pay a license fee, and I pay for my wonderful Sky Plus. I watch a lot of comedy programmes. But no, I hadn’t heard of that one (He’s talking about Stand Up for the Week). I’ll be sure to include it in future studies. Of which there will be many. Because this issue isn’t going to go away, I’m afraid.

I think what's telling is that a) the BBC exec that commissions @MockTheWeek is female, yet has no problem with line-ups, b) that the production staff of @MockTheWeek are broadly mixed sex and have no problem with line-up, and c) the female comedians who've appeared on the show are happy to be booked for their talent, not their vaginas.

If you think the women on Mock the Week have no idea that their women, and that they’re the only women on the show, you’re tragically mistaken. I can tell you as a woman who work in a male dominated environment (I’m an accountant for an engineering firm, and the only professional woman, ie. Not a secretary) when you are the only woman in the room, you are ALWAYS aware of it. Think of how you would feel in a similar situation. You’re seriously telling me you’d be oblivious to the fact you’re the only man?

I can’t comment on whether the people who commission the show have an issue with the line up or not. I don’t sit in on any of those meetings, I don’t hear what’s said behind closed doors. What I know is I watch their show, I help to boost their ratings, I pay a license fee which then goes towards their show’s income. As their audience, I have a right to complain about something I feel they’re doing wrong, and that’s what I’m doing.

Even when Jo Brand spoke about 'quitting' @MockTheWeek, she said wasn't for her, not sexist/discriminative. The format of @MockTheWeek is bearpit/one-up-man-ship, but that doesn't mean they turn women away from it.

Again, I really can’t comment on life as a comedian, nor on the atmosphere or ethos of shooting the show. I know Ava Vidal’s referenced that it’s not easy, and I’ve read the Jo Brand article. I’m really more of a numbers woman. You’ll note I say nothing in this article about women not participating because of the format of the show. I happen to think that’s rather a patronising thing to say – having been to comedy clubs, I know that no gig is easy in that industry! So I’m going to leave that one to my ladies who are better informed to comment upon.

By comparing to other types of panel shows, you are manipulating the @MockTheWeek data by trying to make it look bad

This is a reference to Mock the Week’s inclusion of guests purely from the world of live comedy, as opposed to other panel shows who use journalists, performed comedians, politicians, pop stars, etc. I briefly addressed this point before, but it clearly didn’t sink in. The programmes I used for my contextual data were garnered from suggestions from Mock the Week’s audience of what shows THEY felt were similar. I feel that this is a fair assessment of how the show stands against its competitors. Furthermore, I did nothing to “make them look bad”. I chose to use the statistics from the current incomplete series, rather than their last series which was 3% lower. I did not know what the results would be before I carried out the diversity audit – for all I knew Mock the Week could have ended up smack bang in the middle of this graph. But what d’you know? It didn’t. That really isn’t my fault.

I am currently carrying out more research. I am open to suggestions from both sides of the debate for what you feel would be fairer or a more accurate display of the figures in the correct context. But ALL of the data I use is in the public domain. If you have an issue with my figures, go out and verify them; carry out your own studies; place the figures in a context that you like, and publish something yourself. I would be delighted to make comment on someone else’s research. And rest assured, I will be checking your figures.

*

You will note that this Q&A is actually longer than the article. Pity my editor!

Philippa Willitts // Posted 01 October 2011 at 11:54

I just wanted to add that the reason that some of us really care about this isn't because we want to make a point, or call someone out at random, it's because we like the show! I love comedy, stand-up and panel shows in particular, so I watch Mock the Week because I enjoy it! However, my enjoyment is increasingly marred by the fact that, week after week, it's the same white men when I KNOW there are fantastic women in stand-up who could be amazing. As Vicky says, it could be the perfect showcase for women on the circuit who haven't had much TV exposure, and it could encourage younger women into the profession if they see others having success.

I don't hate the show and want it to disappear because of lack of representation of anyone other than white men. I want it to be even better, and I want to be able to enjoy it again.

Summer // Posted 03 October 2011 at 10:36

I like mock the week but it is a shame they don't vary it more because it can sometimes be a bit...stale. They do need fresh blood and to encourage and represent. though the regulars are great, hence having their own shows, new blood and big differences between the comedienes can really liven things up. Mock the Week seems more cliquey to me then anything else, kinda reminds me of of that more then exlcusion due to anything else. I can imagine that cliqueness is a big put off for a lot of other newbies. My friend is trying to get into 'the circuit' and she wouldn't consider mock the week for this reason although she loves the show o watch, instead she's trying to break into the live comedy clubs and aiming for HIGNFY.

But shooting stars as a comparison? That has very few comedians on it, female wise, regular or otherwise. Ulrika is not a comedian, or funny in the slightest, really the funniness (if you actually like the show, which i don't) comes from reeves, mortimer and Angelos. Even Jack's more a 'butt' like Ulrika then anything else. And a name to draw people in. They are just kinda...there...very occassionally interjecting but not what I'd call comedians doing there bit. Ironic since Jack is a comedian and very funny at times.

I think diversity is good, not for the sake of 'PC' as someone commented in you 'comment replies' above, because it's an equal oppotunities thing with the best...whoever they may be....getting on, not a matter of trying to positively discriminate (lets leave that to Harriet Harmen). I agree with your points above and think some shows are too tight and cliquey and not only put people off but as you say, turn people off with non-representation. I think an injection of fresh blood can make things a lot different and shake them off. Even just 1 or two different guests a week with regulars alternating would shake up the dynamic and encourage folks.

caladria // Posted 03 October 2011 at 22:11

@Summer

The original article says, "I surveyed nine British panel shows for all their participants in the most recent complete series, then filtered the results to show only those who class themselves as 'comedians'"

So non-comedians don't exist - if there are four guests on A Show, and two of them are comedians and one is female, then that's a comedic 50% female lineup for the show.

And it sounds like they're only counting guests as well, so Shooting Stars has a massive advantage because Vic, Bob and Jack Dee are automatically excluded from the count as well because they're "regulars". Actually, excluding all the regulars gives a massive advantage to all the shows except the News Quiz, because the News Quiz is the only one to feature a female comedian regular (Sandi Toksvig)

Vicky Brewster // Posted 04 October 2011 at 10:36

@Summer & caladria

Thank you both for your comments. I just wanted to clarify your query about the criteria for my stats. Where I was working out the average number of comedians working in television on panel shows at the moment, I filtered down to only comedians. But where I was comparing Mock the Week to other similar (admittedly, some more similar than others) panel shows I looked at all guests irrespective of their normal profession. Hence my argument about two thirds of the way down the blog, that most of the professions from which these shows take their guests are male dominated.

I agree that Shooting Stars is probably the most dissimilar to Mock the Week of the shows that I surveyed. I thought it was an interesting one though, BECAUSE they have a woman regular. I know that Ulrikakakaka is often the butt of jokes but, let's face it, on Shooting Stars everyone is there to have the piss taken! She's also remained a regular since the programme's first series, whereas the male panelist on the other side has changed three times.

Hope that clear up some queries :)

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