The Week in Comedy: Women can stand up for themselves

 

Here's a little comedy quiz. Everyone loves a comedy quiz, especially television commissioners, who cannot get enough of them. You may have heard the questions a few times before, but here goes (1) Are women as funny as men? And (2) not unrelated, should there be more women on panel shows? The answers are yes and yes, and always have been, but that does not stop the two questions being asked with tedious regularity.

They came up again this week thanks to Danny Cohen, the BBC's director of television, who declared that there will be no more all-male panel shows on his watch. "You can't do that," he said. "It's not acceptable." What should have happened next is that Cohen was handed the phone numbers of 50 excellent female comedians and everyone moved quietly on. Instead the debate bored on, with Newsnight pulling out all the stops to find three funny people "with not a testicle between them" as Jeremy Paxman put it, to discuss it further. Apart from Jan Ravens branding panel shows "ejaculatory", it was not particularly illuminating. Although Lucy Porter did point out that girls shouldn't wear high heels on Mock the Week, as they make it harder to run to the microphone.

Of course there should not be all-male panels when there are female guests willing and able to appear on them, but arguing over gender imbalance misses a wider point. Bearpits of banter, frequently half-scripted in advance, comedy quiz shows are tired, a lame format that suits some comedians but that many others, male and female, find off-putting and uninspiring. Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee are just two adored stand-ups who will not go near them. They can be marvellous – think Simon Amstell-era Buzzcocks, Have I Got News for You when the host or hostess is right or Shooting Stars (which, incidentally, had an excellent female team captain in Ulrika Jonsson) – but the real problem is that there are far, far too many of them, soaking up valuable primetime slots, money and talent. The sheer number of them points to a damaging lack of imagination on the part of commissioners, who are paid to be imaginative.

For women who do want to go on panel shows, Cohen's decree is good news. For the rest, I would argue that they are doing quite well without them. Miranda Hart is about to set off on a tour of the country's arenas. Bridget Christie, winner of last year's Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award, now has the best-selling comedy show in the Soho Theatre's history. Sarah Millican has her own chat show. Ruth Jones continues to churn out ratings mega-hits. There are more treats to come. Sharon Horgan is currently shooting a sitcom pilot for Channel 4, Caitlin Moran's Raised by Wolves has been commissioned for a full series and Doll & Em, a sly sitcom about female friendship which starts next week on Sky Living, is one of the most original comedies to come to screen of late. Sarah Solemani, Kerry Howard and Roisin Conaty are all fast-rising stars, independent women with utterly distinctive voices.

Elsewhere, Josie Long continues to push at boundaries, releasing her last stand-up show Romance and Adventure for free on YouTube and setting up an arts education charity in her spare time. Aisling Bea, Sara Pascoe and Bryony Kimmings are among the most exciting and engaging performers on the live circuit.

The last thing any of these women need, or probably want, is a seat on the end of a banter panel.

Prankster's latte latte show

This week a new cafe opened in L.A. It looked familiar, with its green awning, mermaid logo and Venti cups, but this was no ordinary Starbucks. This was "Dumb Starbucks" and it sold Dumb chai lattes and Dumb muffins and played Dumb Norah Jones on its stereo. The spoof cafe has now been shut down and revealed as the work of the Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder. He has vowed to open another but in the meantime, it's worth checking out his pranks online. Most notoriously he asked fans to text loved ones with the words, "I haven't been fully honest with you…", turn off their phones for an hour and then send in the frenzied replies. They are quite something.

WHAT I WATCHED THIS WEEK

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's charming Alpine caper is a treat but the real revelation is Ralph Fiennes's hilarious star turn as a camp, sweary concierge. Out on 7 March.

Babylon

On Channel 4. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's police satire, directed by Danny Boyle, was a breath of fresh air. Jonny Sweet as a hapless assistant and foul-mouthed Adam Deacon gave the lion's share of the laughs.

Panic Stations

Online. I am horribly hooked on Jim Owen's mini-films about the super-awkward moment at the end of a first date. Brett Goldstein, Rachel Stubbings, Ingrid Oliver and Alistair Green are among the unfortunate pairings. http://vimeo.com/86191687

www.twitter.com/alicevjones

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