Why are funny women on TV judged differently to men?

Why would any woman bother with the bitter world of TV comedy, particularly when she knows any contribution she makes will be shouted down both on the show and online, asks Alison Graham

Women have a tough time being funny on television. Just dip your toes into the running rivers of poison that pollute the social networks after any appearance by a female comedian on TV. After the inevitable attacks on the woman’s appearance we get to the real grist, the finely crafted words pecked out by the stubby, hairy fingers of someone who probably only ever leaves his bedroom to eat crisp sandwiches in the dark: “So-and-so [insert name of female comic here] is JUST NOT FUNNY!!!!”


So it’s hardly surprising that funny women aren’t keen on taking part in those competitively blokey panel shows – Mock the Week, Have I Got News for You and their ilk – because they get lost in the general “Gorillas in the Mist” male bellowing and grappling for attention, praise and affirmation. Unless you’re as fearless as Jo Brand, why would any woman bother, particularly when she knows any contribution she makes will be shouted down both on the show and online?

It’s probably instructive to consider that the most successful “female” comedy figure on television at the moment is that ludicrous, balloon-bosomed caricature of womanhood, Mrs Brown (aka comedian Brendan O’Carroll). The message behind the considerable success of Mrs Brown’s Boys is that Mrs Brown is a woman who is actually a man, so you don’t have to worry, people! “She” can be as bold, outrageous, foul-mouthed and ridiculous as “she” wants, but none of us has to be scared because none of these things are being said by a real woman.

Funny woman are judged differently. The bile directed towards them, when it comes, is more bitter. Take Watson and Oliver, comedians Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver, whose first series for BBC2 last year was greeted by howls of derision. Fair enough, it wasn’t very good (though Watson & Oliver will return for a second series shortly). But there was an unpleasant edge to the criticism and its undercurrent that “women aren’t funny”.

So, despite all of this it’s good to see that women aren’t defeated by the impossible standards they are supposed to meet whenever they appear on television. Miranda Hart (beloved because she is unthreatening and makes fun of herself before anyone else can) is a massive BBC1 comedy star. RT’s own Sarah Millican has just finished a successful second series of her TV show and Sue Perkins’s soft-centred, old-fashioned sitcom Heading Out is hitting its stride (Tuesday BBC2). I rather like Heading Out, though some of my male colleagues are dismissive. But I like its good-heartedness and silliness, and how it doesn’t feel the need to be strident, filthy or in any way unpleasant or, God help us, “edgy”.

Comedians Anna Crilly and Katy Wix are a clever duo doing clever things in Anna & Katy (Wednesday C4). Both are gifted mimics and though some bits don’t quite work, for the most part it’s full of smart TV pastiches. In Parks and Recreation (Wednesday BBC4), Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler is the lead in a spoof docudrama about an under-confident deputy director of parks in a small American town. Poehler, a friend, contemporary and occasional comedy partner of the sainted Tina (30 Rock) Fey is definitely the star and the best thing in it.

We need funny women to stick their heads over the parapet, despite the abuse and general nastiness that will be hurled in their direction, otherwise television comedy will remain the realm of shouty men with too much to say.