It’s always been tough to be a woman in comedy, and while we’ve seen some progress in recent years, the cliché of a male-dominated TV comedy writing staff remains very much a reality. (Just take a look at this recent late-night writing staff breakdown from the Los Angeles Times if you need proof.) But now there’s a network across the pond that’s taking proactive measures to do something about it in the form of a ban of all-male comedy writing teams for their shows.
According to the BBC, U.K. channel ITV’s head of comedy, Saskia Schuster, recently started a campaign called Comedy 50:50, in which she will use her impact and resources at the network to work toward true gender equality on ITV comedy shows. In a lengthy statement on the Comedy 50:50 website, Schuster explained that after reviewing the comedy roster at ITV, she found that while onscreen representation was on track to achieving a 50:50 balance, the writing staffs told a bleaker story. “An awful lot of my comedy entertainment shows are made up of all male writing teams,” she said. “In scripted commissions there has been a significant lack of shows written by women or with women on the writing teams.”
After discovering that submissions were similar (“for every five scripts sent to me written by a man, I’d get one script written by a woman”) and that a looser request to seek out more women creators wasn’t effective enough, Schuster consulted a handful of women in the industry and landed on a decision: “I won’t commission anything with an all-male writing team.” On the 50:50 website, she explained in further detail why women still struggle in comedy writing rooms and why previous efforts to change it haven’t been successful:
These are some of my findings:
• Female writers aren’t being hired onto writing teams because they can’t compete with male writers who commonly have accumulated more writing credits. This reflects the long standing culture of comedy being male dominated.
• Female writers find it hard to find producers to work with who ‘get’ their voice and can thereby develop a script to its full potential. This reflects the difficulty of broadening personal networks and producer/writer relationships — partly relating back to the problem of not gaining enough writing credits to even get that first meeting.
• Female writers often don’t thrive as the lone female voice in the writing room. Too often the writing room is not sensitively run, it can be aggressive and slightly bullying. There can all too often be a sense of tokenism towards the lone female. Or the dominant perception is that the female is there purely so the production can hit quotas. Many women don’t want to be or don’t enjoy being that lone female.
• Producers often don’t know how to expand their circle of female writers with whom they work and many feel frustrated that they know only a small pool of talent upon which to draw.
In addition to the ban on all-male writing teams, Schuster outlined more actions she’s taking, including all shows agreeing to aim for a 50:50 gender representation, creating an independent database of women writers for shows’ producers to access, “enforced networking,” a mentorship program, and support groups for writers. “In all honesty I don’t know how to change the culture in writing rooms. Incidentally I know plenty of male writers who want no part of those writing rooms because of the behaviour that is allowed to play out,” she wrote. “I think the change has to be producer led. But I hope that drawing attention to it might start producers thinking about how to address it.” Schuster added that she’s aware that writing staffs are just one small part of the issue, but for now she’s “keeping the focus small, and the solutions practical, so that we can effect change quickly. But I hope this endeavour will grow.”
Your move, American comedy shows.