Heard the one about funny women on TV...

The reason there are so few female comedy shows is because of unofficial quotas, says Maria Esposito
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The Independent Online

I turn on my TV for my regular Friday night comedy binge, first up a sketch show written and performed by four female Cambridge graduates, after that I flick over to watch the top rated quiz show with its female host and female team captains and what luck this week all the guests are female, I flick again and watch the antics of a female comedy assassin out to meet the public in a series of quick-fire sketches, flick again and watch the award-winning all-female group with their style of dark character comedy performing some hilarious male characters in their equally dark fictitious world. Sorry I must have slipped into a parallel universe where women really are 52 per cent of the population and that somehow women were allowed to make that many comedy shows. If such a schedule of female-led comedy did exist I'm sure there would be questions in the House.

I turn on my TV for my regular Friday night comedy binge, first up a sketch show written and performed by four female Cambridge graduates, after that I flick over to watch the top rated quiz show with its female host and female team captains and what luck this week all the guests are female, I flick again and watch the antics of a female comedy assassin out to meet the public in a series of quick-fire sketches, flick again and watch the award-winning all-female group with their style of dark character comedy performing some hilarious male characters in their equally dark fictitious world. Sorry I must have slipped into a parallel universe where women really are 52 per cent of the population and that somehow women were allowed to make that many comedy shows. If such a schedule of female-led comedy did exist I'm sure there would be questions in the House.

As Harry Thompson pointed out in his article here a few weeks ago, statistics show women to be the majority audience for comedy. It seems we can't get enough of it and we are even the majority audience for They Think It's All Over. Harry asked why we watch so much of it when we make so little of it. Simple answer Harry is that they don't commission as much comedy by women as they do by men. And before we start with the "but men are funnier" stuff let me just throw back the TV sketch show Bruiser. The all-male Cambridge Footlights of 1997 which scored a resounding zero on the laugh-o-meter in my house. But this isn't about who's funnier it's about why women are not commissioned with the same degree of trust as men. Why are the programmes in my parallel universe not being commissioned and why such a schedule would never exist?

No one ever thinks of The Goons, The Pythons, The Goodies, The League of Gentlemen... as "men's" comedy, but Smack The Pony is "women's" comedy. Funny women have made some impact with Smack The Pony, but because Channel 4 now has its "women's" show I have recently heard that there is no room for another.

Herein lies the problem. No commissioning editor has ever turned down a male sketch/comedy show on the basis of "I am sorry we already have our men's comedy show". Yet it has been cited as a good enough reason to turn something down by women. It seems that there is a broadcasting law and that is; only one all female show at a time please. But it doesn't just have to be all female. When did you last see a sketch show that was three women and one bloke? It seems that anything that is dominated by the female presence is categorised as some kind of minority. This is the notion that has to stop if we are really going have parity of representation in comedy on TV. Commissioning editors and schedulers need to see beyond this and start to make visible to a wider audience the female talent that is available and not to label it as a "women's" comedy show. Commission the comedy and not the gender politics.

Of course there have been successful women in comedy - French and Saunders, Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne, Jo Brand, Morwenna Banks - but why do we have to wait for them to retire before new female talent is allowed air time?

Like Harry Thompson, I too produced Week Ending and bemoaned the lack of women writers. However, in the five years I have been with Radio Entertainment most of the sketch shows I have produced have been all male or a majority male cast. I am producing Fellah's Hour with The Cheese Shop for Radio 4, which has a cast of six men. Can you ever imagine having a six-women sketch show commissioned?

Maria Esposito is a producer with BBC Radio Entertainment and currently producing 'Prunella Scales' latest sitcom 'Smelling Of Roses' (starts on 3 May at 11:30am) on Radio 4

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