Ban male comedy writers? Of course not – but do more to give women a chance | Brona C Titley
Last Monday, I spoke for five minutes on a panel in Bradford, alongside the head of ITV comedy, about diversity in television. As a working comedy writer, I was well positioned to make the point that comedy is better when it’s written by a wide range of voices – people of different genders, races, sexualities, everything. Mad controversial, right? Burn the witch! I assumed my comments would, like most comments ever made on panel discussions, be lost in the annals of time. Even if I wasn’t, like most people on panels, speaking out of my annals.
Quite the shock, then, when I woke up the next morning to find that my name, photo, quotes and tweets had been used – without my knowledge – on multiple news platforms. Most under versions of the inaccurate headline “ITV bans all-male comedy teams”. I opened story after story to see an (old) photo of myself, looking like a demented elf who just tried ketamine for the first time, staring up at the world as the new poster child for “keeping men out of comedy” … GO AWAY MEN! TAKE YOUR PENISES, TUCK THEM BETWEEN YOUR LEGS AND NEVER BE FUNNY AGAIN! The stories mentioned I had recently been hired to write on ITV’s CelebAbility, a show that had no female writers on its previous two series.
The headlines might as well have read: “All men are BANNED from comedy for ever, and will be replaced with inferior women who wouldn’t know a joke if it hit them in the tits. [Giggles. Tits …]” Predictably, men were outraged and, with an easily searchable surname like Titley [Giggles. “Titley”], I was a target. My fault, really. I had committed the trifecta of crimes: being a woman, a woman on the internet, and a woman on the internet with a job. So the trolls mobilised: did I know I was ruining comedy? That I was only hired to tick a box? That because of me, Only Fools and Horses never got written in the past? That I was part of #GalQaeda? To be fair, GalQaeda is a hilarious hashtag. Maybe we should let men do comedy.
I can’t speak for ITV but as far as I understand it, nothing has been “banned”. ITV’s comedy commissioner, the excellent Saskia Schuster, has launched an initiative, Comedy 50:50, to move away from all-male writers’ rooms – and has changed ITV contracts so shows must aim towards equal gender representation. If you don’t know what a writers’ room is, (congratulations, you’ve made better life choices than me), it’s a group of writers, usually put together by producers in order to write jokes for a sketch or entertainment show or create stories for a sitcom. Historically they have been male-dominated, and I admire Saskia’s attempts to draw in more much-needed female voices. (And I’m not just saying that so she’ll commission the sitcom I pitch her next month – working title: GalQaeda.)
The reaction online revealed an uncomfortable truth: some people are terrified of inclusion. On the one hand, I get it. If TV comedy was an antelope you were eating and some female writers came along and started eating the antelope too … there’d be less antelope for you. I’d understand that you might be chagrined. But – and I know this sounds crazy – TV writing is NOT an antelope. More varied voices create better comedy. And better comedy creates an appetite for MORE comedy. It serves everyone in television when shows go well. Great shows beget great shows, we’ve all seen it happen. After you loved Fleabag, didn’t you crave more shows like it? Success feeds the industry. Even if Fleabag’s sexy priest left us all on our knees, horny and confused.
When certain people hear that there’s to be an end of “all-male writers’ rooms”, they don’t hear “this will be better for everyone”. They hear “something is being taken away from you”. As the saying goes: when you’re accustomed to privilege, sometimes equality feels like oppression.
The big (misguided) belief is that the men already in the writers’ room “deserve to be there” and the new women don’t. That’s a myth. Everyone who has ever worked in TV got there because someone opened a door for them. If they can’t do the job they won’t last long. This is just about giving more people a chance in a system that has not, until now, been designed to do so. Is that really such a big ask? (Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll still get paid less.) I understand that headlines are designed to grab our attention and make us click, but it’s annoying when a good news story is framed as a bad one. If I, a lowly comedy writer, could make a gentle suggestion: not everything has to be a culture war. Not every conversation has to have two polar views with no room for nuance. Life is nuance. (OK, that “life is nuance” sentence is a bit on the nose, but don’t worry: I’ll get a room of men to rewrite it later).
For the sake of the future of comedy, hire more varied writers. And I don’t just mean female writers: hire more writers of colour, more queer, disabled, trans, working-class writers, maybe even some vegan writers … And look, I can only take on the world one article at a time, but how about we open this attitude of inclusion to all industries? To all people? Remember, if they’re not good enough, they’ll quickly fall away. But if they are good enough, it will make the work better and stronger. For all of us.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to writing my GalQaeda pitch – which Andrew Lloyd Webber has already agreed to score.
• Brona C Titley is a TV comedy writer and actor