Women Aren't as Funny as Men: But Why Rub It in with Sexist Quota Systems?

Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain has criticised the BBC's politically correct decision to impose gender quotas on its comedy panel shows.

Among the reasons he gives is that, like all quota systems, it harms the very people it is supposed to help: in this case the female talent which is either horribly exposed by being overpromoted before its time or made to look like the undeserved beneficiary of patronising special pleading.

"I wouldn't have announced [the ban on all-male panels], is what I'd say," Ó Briain said in a Radio Times interview. "Because it means Katherine Ryan or Holly Walsh, who've been on millions of times, will suddenly look like the token woman. It would have been better if it had evolved without showing your workings, if you know what I mean. Legislating for a token woman isn't much help."

Around nine out of ten stand-up comics are men, Ó Briain added, meaning that producers on shows like the one he hosts - Mock The Week - have far few women to choose from.

"We bring through female comics earlier than we do male comics because there is such a tiny pool of female stand-ups. But this makes it even tougher for them."

Good for Ó Briain. Coming from someone from a milieu as excruciatingly PC as stand-up comedy, this is indeed pretty brave stuff. What Ó Briain doesn't dare do – be bold but not too bold, eh, Mr Fox? – is pursue the argument to its logical conclusions, by asking why it is that there are so many fewer women comedians than male ones.

The answer, of course, is that women can't do comedy as well as men.

This is not a new observation, by the way.

Among the vile sexist pigs to have noticed this down through the ages are the 17th century playwright William Congreve, the 19th century critic Richard Grant White, comedians John Belushi and Jerry Lewis and, most famously, Christopher Hitchens in his 2007 Vanity Fair essay 'Why Women Aren't Funny'. Rolling Stone magazine's 50 Funniest People list from last year names just 12 women.

Hitchens was careful to hedge his argument kindly and with lots of get-out clauses explaining just how brilliant women are, despite everything.

He noted:

"This is not to say that women are humorless, or cannot make great wits and comedians."

He made out men's humour skills to be more the product of desperation than a killer app:

"The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh."

He dutifully noted that, all things considered, it's a sign of just how shallow men are relative to their female superiors:

"Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous."

But still the Sisterhood wouldn't let him get away with it. Being accused of not being funny is, unfortunately, yet another of those things about which women tend to have a total sense of humour failure.

Are they right to get upset? Well up to a point. Some of the funniest people I know are my female friends but unlike my funny male friends they don't feel that same willy-waving compulsion to be funny at every opportunity. Funny men are always looking for the gagline, forever playing to the gallery. Funny women - and of course there are exceptions - tend to deploy their comedic skills more sparingly, less ostentatiously.

Which may be the real reason why there are so relatively few female comedians. It’s not so much that they can't be funny; more that they lack the temperament to make it in stand up.

But really it doesn't matter what the reason for the problem is. What we can say with absolute certainty is that quota systems are not the solution. Anyone who seriously imagines that the reason there aren't more women comics on TV or elsewhere is that they're kept down by some oppressively patriarchal hegemony which needs to be countered with positive discrimination clearly hasn't been living on the planet for the last thirty years.

We men are desperate, absolutely desperate, to get women on our comedy show panels and our political show panels and so on. I know this because I’ve tried pitching these series ideas myself as a producer: you want a woman in the mix for any number of obvious reasons. What holds you back is not rampant sexism, but - as Ó Briain suggested - the relatively limited talent pool.

And I’m certainly not gloating about it in a superior male way. Rather it's an unfortunate fact of life which I find slightly embarrassing and which I don't think we ought to mention too often. Apart from being needlessly hurtful, it's the kind of observation that could easily get your spouse or girlfriend denying you sex for days thereafter by way of punishment for your incorrect thinking.

But let's just remind ourselves, shall we, why I'm mentioning it now.

I'm doing it for one reason and one reason only: because some prize twonk named Danny Cohen – BBC Head of Television, doyen of the polenta-eating metropolitan liberal elite – took it into his bien-pensant head that women comedians are so damned unfunny they need protecting from the market through a new coercive measure in which all comedy panel shows, whether they like it or not, should include at least one member in full possession of a vagina.

Does that sound right or fair to you? It doesn't to me. It sounds like pure, unadulterated sexism.


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