Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Why do female comedy writers tend to be writer/performers?

Some interesting responses to the post about the Screenwipe TV writing special. It hadn't occured to me that the writers Charlie was interiewing were all male, but when I tried to think of some female television writers as well-known as RTD, Paul Abbot, Bain and Armstrong or Tony Jordan, I simply drew a blank. After a bit of a struggle, I came up with Kay Mellor and Lynda La Plante, although I can't pretend to be that familiar with the work of either of them.

Yet if we're specifically talking about comedy, there are of course, plenty of female comedy writer/performers: The Bearded Ladies, Sharon Horgan, French and Saunders, Ruth Jones, Meera Syal, Catherine Tate and Julia Davies to name but some. So why is this?

1. I think mainly because comedy-writing as a profession is just terribly terribly geeky, which has to be combined with a sort of misplaced rage that women don't seem to suffer from in quite the same way as do men. It's quite a macho little world, in a seedy, sad sort of way.

2. Performer to writer is quite a natural sidestep. This annoyed me terribly when I first started out. These people already have careers of their own, why would they want mine as well? But it actually makes perfect sense: all that time sitting around doing nothing while you wait for people to fiddle with lights means you often have time to think 'surely I could write better than the load of old rubbish masquerading as a script in front of me?' Plus, comedy's a small world - if you already have a living, however meagre, as a performer, you're well placed to get your material to agents, producers and commissioners, in a way you simply don't if you're just starting out.

UPDATE: also, lest anyone think I'm having a go at writer/performers here, people who regularly have to read out their own lines, or those written by other people, usually pick up a load of skills directly transferable to writing: dialogue written by those used to performing is often much more convincing than that written by someone who's never actually had to say their own words aloud. Comic timing translates to the page better than you'd think: think of Victoria Wood, for example. Writer/performers can often fall down on structure (which I often think is overrated anyway), but they usually know how to write dialogue that sounds like something someone would actually say, rather than a bit of speech that just bridges a gap, or fixes some other minor technical problem.

3. Comedy seems to be more and more geared towards writer/performers generally. There really isn't that much cash on offer for writing a half-hour episode of comedy (the starting rate for a channel four sitcom is about seven grand, which may sound a lot until you realise that has to cover month's worth of writing and rewriting, and often you'll be put on a Comedy Lab or similar scheme, which can pay about half that). There's more money in performing, so many actors write scripts almost at a loss, knowing they'll make back the cash if they cast themselves.

4. Female writers just don't seem to do that sort of 'snappy one-liner auto-cue here comes a joke about John Prescott being fat' sort of thing that gets so many comedy writers started. Not to say that they couldn't if they wanted to, but for most of the female comedy writer/performers I know, their material seems to be more complex than that, less reliant on kneejerk 'lol Will Young is teh gayz' type stuff. Thankfully.

5. I suspect quite a few women comedy performers are pushed into writing almost solely because good material for women comic actors is so thin on the ground.

But that's just off the top of my head, and I'm not a) female, or b) a performer, so they could all be completely wrong. Any other points of view, please feel free to comment below.

41 comments:

Tim Footman said...

I noticed the all-male thing. As far as comedy writing goes, Carla Lane was the only name that sprang to mind.

patroclus said...

Breaking into scriptwriting means spending months and years having things rejected, and then getting up and having another go before being knocked back again. You have to really, really, really want to do it. I'm not sure that many women are that single-mindedly obsessive in the way men often are.

Interestingly, whenever I tour around the scribosphere, I don't come across many (if any) female aspiring scriptwriters. They all seem to be blokes. This suggests that very few women want to be scriptwriters in the first place, rather than that only male scriptwriters are successful.

I could be very wrong, though.

patroclus said...

...although there are many female bloggers who either are published novelists or who'd like to be published novelists. Why the interest in one written format and not in the other?

Johanna said...

I can only comment from a passive perspective, but I'm usually a lot more interested in comedy (and drama) that has a coherent plot and where you develop real empathy with the characters (cf green wing), and I think that is probably quite a female view. I would think that it's hard to write something like that in small snippets - if you've written a whole script with three-dimensional characters etc, it would be hard to sell if you have only starting out?

Anonymous said...

dont forget the doors were shut to women for a long time in the comedy world. it can be a macho environment team writing with a group of arrogant big heads (male and female) and pretty unpleasant - but i think that's prevalent in other work places too. also there are loads and loads of male writer performers too, its not an exclusively female thing - Enfield, Henry, Boosh, Two Ronnies, Morcombe and Wise, Steve Coogan etc Do you see them as lesser writers because they perform? I have to say james you do make it seem like being a writer performer is somehow second class to being a writer which i slightly object too. Particularly regarding women doing it. Like they aren't capable of doing just writing - the pure form. Maybe I've misread it.

Victoria isn't a performer, Georgia Pritchard isn't.

also victoria wood and caroline aherne shouldn't be. forgotten.

as for kay mellor she wrote Fat Friends (which spawned James Corden and Ruth Jones meeting), Playing the Field and Band of Gold.

(sorry about spelling)

x

Emma said...

I know lots of female aspiring scriptwriters, but they mostly seem to run a mile from comedy - don't really know why. I think women just find the whole idea of claiming to be funny more embarrassing perhaps.

American comedy seems to have a lot more women writers. Well, one or two anyway.

Anonymous said...

oh and also Lucy Gannon and Debbie Barham,

james henry said...

Hmm, certainly wasn't implying that women weren't capable of the 'pure form', just that they tend not to go in that direction.

I do think performers get a small head start when they take up writing, but that applies to both sexes. And obviously you have to have the talent to keep going once you've used the contacts and so on...

Anonymous said...

Further to the comment up thread, James, I'd have to say that you're missing something incredibly simple. Women are not as highly represented as men at the top levels of almost any profession you care to name. The fact that you could only come up with the names of two women scriptwriters speaks volumes. If you can't think of any in the world of drama, why should there be more in the world of comedy?

This is not a reflection on how geeky women are or are not, or how talented, or how able/unable to admit they're funny, or any other mass generalisation you or other commenters might like to make. It is a reflection on society, which is still strongly biased towards men. Perhaps the women performers turned writers went that way because they could only get someone to listen to their words by performing them themselves first. Perhaps they were sick of being marginalised. Perhaps--and I only say perhaps--they were just funny, and people noticed. You just have to stop looking at it from a position of male privilege (well, I can do it this way, so why can't they?) and start thinking about it from the perspective of a woman trying to make it in a man's world.

Also? These women performers? Particularly those who do stand up/one woman shows. Who do you think writes their material in the first place?

/end 2p'orth

cat

james henry said...

"You just have to stop looking at it from a position of male privilege (well, I can do it this way, so why can't they?)"

I didn't say they can't, more that most women don't seem to want to go into purely comedy scriptwriting, as opposed to writing/performing.

Interestingly, television drama, on the production side at least, is heavily female dominated - I reckon 70/30 at least. And in an appallingly sexist way, I tend to prefer to work with female script editors and producers, as in my experience they have a more consensual approach, whereas male producers often have a more pigheaded 'my way or the highway' style. Or maybe Liz Kilgarrif is just cleverer at making me think I've done things my own way.

Karen's Mouth said...

"Women are not as highly represented as men at the top levels of almost any profession you care to name" and I think this is a really important point but I'm not sure it's necessarily to do with societal bias. In my lab there is one man and he is a student. My boss is female, all the people in my office are female, everyone on my corridor is female. And yet the vast majority of the faculty professors, at the top level, are male.

From my perspective this isn't because of any bias, but rather it's a little bit to do with the single mindedness thing Patroclus referred to, and quite a lot to do with the fact that they've all gone off to have babies. My boss, who is a lady professor, has a family and a hugely successful research career and is also a surgeon...and has a stay-at-home husband.

But possibly this has nothing to do with the topic in hand so I'll get my coat...

james henry said...

No, the single-mindedness thing is a very good point, I think, although it's difficult for me to bring up, as it's easy to make it sound like a masculine quality, whereas I think it's actually a deficiency, if anything.

In short, most comedy writers are borderline Aspergers, which isn't as common in women. There, problem solved.

Anonymous said...

@ Karen's mouth: But why are the women all going off to have babies? Why aren't there more like your lady professor? Because society says that, in general, the woman subsumes her career needs to that of family and the man doesn't. And that's the bias of a patriarchal society and has nothing to do with single-mindedness (and I don't want to come across as a humourless feminist, because, really? No. But I find the generalisation that women can't be as focussed as men insulting) or any other female/male 'personality trait' that we've been conditioned to believe in.

@ James

Yes, sorry, I'm not sure I worded that right. Are you sure they don't want to rather than they can't? Probably needs more research. And out of interest, because I know very little about the inner workings of TV, in terms of the female production staff, how many of them are the big bosses?

Aaaaanyway, I'll just be heading back to my lurking corner.

cat

patroclus said...

Cat: Why aren't there more like your lady professor? Because society says that, in general, the woman subsumes her career needs to that of family and the man doesn't.

Well, look no further than James and me: I'm writing a report about the changing healthcare industry in the US, he's cooking the dinner and looking after the baby. Tomorrow I might be looking after the baby (although not cooking the dinner, because I can't cook) while he writes a kids' TV programme. It's all terribly equal.

I still don't want to be a comedy writer, though.

james henry said...

out of interest, because I know very little about the inner workings of TV, in terms of the female production staff, how many of them are the big bosses?

I'm pleased to say, most of them - there are a lot of high-powered female execs in television, probably more so in any industry apart from publishing, although why this should be, I don't really know. Interestingly (well, I think it's interesting), the same used to be true of in Hollywood, back in the Twenties and Thirties, when there were lots of small studios, and what were rather patronizingly known as 'women's pictures', often written and directed by women, were extremely popular. Then, for financial reasons, the studios became amalgamated under a handful of (male, cigar-chewing) bosses, and the 'women's pictures' were dumped - which meant a lot of female directors suddenly found themselves out of work. Although some of the writers stayed, as no-one cared about writers either way, as long as their drafts turned up on time.

james henry said...

Also, Patroclus is a great cook, although her excellent mince pies have recently been noticeable by their absence.

Jayne said...

Carla Lane's the only comedy writer who's not a performer I can think of in the UK.

Seems to be similar in the US, what with Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman up there as writer/performers. Although Jane Espenson wrote some of the funniest episodes in Buffy.

Other than that I'm keeping out of it. I'm having one of those I hate all fucking writers days...

Jayne said...

Actually that's unfair. I also hate everyone else.

Karen's Mouth said...

Cripes. Lots going on here. As a biologist I'd say a lot of it is down to biology. But I would say that.

I'm very single minded and borderline asperger's which I feel is why I'm a scientist. BUT I recently got married, the ticking of my biological clock is getting a bit louder and, well, there's a palpable conflict between my head and my uterus (metaphorically, anatomically that would be somewhere in my ribs I think).

The upshot being that my priorities are changing. And I wonder if it's less to do with personality traits as such and more to do with biological differences. I am aware this is a not necessarily a popular view, but I guess as the result of the field I work in it's difficult for me to get away from!

I think I'm not explaining myself all too well but I'm trying to be brief(ish).

James: apologies for bringing my uterus onto your comments thread

james henry said...

KM: uteri are everything, the sweetest song that I can sing.

Jayne: no, writers are terribly annoying, sorry.

Anonymous said...

James: I'm simultaneously delighted to hear about the TV industry and sad on behalf of the 'women's pictures'. Oh, world.

Patroclus: If only there were more like you two.

Karen's Mouth: I see your point. I'd debate it with you, but it's too long and not my blog. Just...I have no biological clock, many women don't and many men do. Nothing is simple. Which, as a biologist, you already know.

*re-relurks*

cat

Karen's Mouth said...

Cat: Absolutely. I'm all about the spectrums!

James: Brilliant. Especially given the next line...

Good Dog said...

There's always Lizzie Mickery...

Newf said...

Damnit, I missed the live discussion.

M'kay, how about this... maybe it's not actually about the mental differences between the genders, but more about the business itself. So it's not that females "can't" or "won't" or are "too much" or are "too little"; it's the industry that's all this. Blame it on what comedy has become, rather than the differences between the sexes.

@Patroclus: "You have to really, really, really want to do it. I'm not sure that many women are that single-mindedly obsessive in the way men often are." I don't understand. Why wouldn't women be as single-mindedly obsessive? We appear to be, in other aspects of life.

Like everyone else in the universe, I've wanted to make a living out of writing ever since I was a foetus. I got obsessed with scriptwriting specifically because when I was 15 I er, um, sort of wrote "fanscripts" for Green Wing and bandied them around the fansites. So... oh, I don't know, maybe women stumble across scriptwriting more by accident (like y'said, James, with regards to performers becoming writers), whereas men do so purposefully. Maybe the features of scriptwriting are intrinsically more attractive to men.

Newf said...

Oh, alsoalso... can I (be mildly obnoxious and) ask any ladywriters above if they've ever been the "victim" of gender-related bias in the writing industry? In other words, is all this zooming in on female writers (and celebrating the fact that they're female) actually happening in real life?

patroclus said...

Newf: I don't understand. Why wouldn't women be as single-mindedly obsessive? We appear to be, in other aspects of life.

Yes, I phrased this badly. I didn't mean to say women aren't generally determined, or focused, or anything like that, and I certainly didn't mean to come across as insulting. It just seems to me that men are more capable of being obsessive about a single thing to the exclusion of all else, whereas women tend to be less so. But making generalisations is rubbish, and I'm sure we could come up with hundreds of examples of really geeky, obsessive women.

It's very easy to 'blame the patriarchy' for the lack of women in senior roles in any given profession. Personally I don't like that way of thinking because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe the world has been biased against us since time began, it gives us a reason not to try to do anything about it. I have no doubt in my mind that I could have become a captain of industry if I'd really wanted to. I just didn't want to.

Anonymous said...

"I have no doubt in my mind that I could have become a captain of industry if I'd really wanted to."

I'm sure you could have, but if you were male you'd have to work less hard at convincing people that you are competent and would be the ideal candidate for captain of industry.
is what i think.

Emma said...

Btw I didn't mean women were unable to admit they were funny, I said they were less likely to CLAIM to be funny - the difference between making a joke, and announcing, "Everyone be quiet, I'm about to make a brilliant joke!" Which is what you have to do if you write comedy. I accept the danger of generalisations, but even so I'd say more men than women were likely to operate like that. Perhaps more to do with social conditioning than uteri. Obviously most normal people of either sex would prefer not to be in that situation.

Also, Susan Nickson. As far as I can see, Two Pints is on telly more often than any other comedy.

Anonymous said...

@Patroclus Hum, I disagree a bit, I think that by recognising how things are (biased towards to boys, coz it is, just look at the pay gap/nos of women at the top) we can be aware and not let it happen to us and quosh where it is happening e.g. making sure equal pay etc. (I like to quosh with a giant fly-swat)

But back to comedy and women...there was a time where women were stereotyped as only doing character/novelty acts. Character stuff is certainly something that I could see leading to writing (embodying diff voices leading nicely to dialogue writing) which harks back to some of the points our host Mr BlueCat was making. There are more straight standups that are women now, as far as I'm aware, but still plenty of character-ladys: Isy Suttie, the amazing Irish lady whose name I wish I could find but I saw her at the Fortnight Club once, Katy Brand, to name just a few. But then Josie Long writes and performs (loved the Skins sketches) without characters, as does Ruby Wax etc.

Questions: is it still the case that the majority of women are doing characters or is that a myth, and do as many men do character stuff? And, is it the women comedy/performers doing characters that tend to become performer/writers? Discuss.
C

Newf said...

@Patroclus: oh no, you weren't insulting at all! I just didn't understand why women might have less of a propensity to be single-minded. I do see what you mean, but I also agree with you that there's so many exceptions to the generalisation that it barely works.

The question that Anon brought up regarding women doing characters and men doing... what? All the bloomin' jokes?... is pretty uncomfortable. And I think the answer is in wot Patroclus said about self-fulfilling prophecies. If women think - based on... evidence?! - that their gender is more prone to character stuff, then they're more likely to go along with it.

Personally, I wouldn't - and don't - see that kind of thing as a motivation to do character stuff at all. I see it as a motivation to damn well avoid it.

Emma said...

Another thing which occurs to me is that, in sitcoms anyway, the most successful writers tend to be duos - Galton and Simpson etc. It's very hard to write a sitcom alone. But the few women writers that there are all seem to be solo - I can't think of a single female writing duo (apart from performers like French and Saunders) or even male/female one (Connie Booth and John Cleese writing Fawlty Towers is the only one of those I can think of, though that didn't seem to turn out so well for her). Why is that? Just the lack of numbers? I don't know.

Newf said...

^ Stephenson/Pegg! (Spaced)
I guess it's mainly because there are less female writers, meaning that there are less duos that include them.

Marsha Klein said...

'Well, look no further than James and me: I'm writing a report about the changing healthcare industry in the US, he's cooking the dinner and looking after the baby. Tomorrow I might be looking after the baby (although not cooking the dinner, because I can't cook) while he writes a kids' TV programme. It's all terribly equal.'

And there's your answer. Eliza will grow up knowing that men are just as good at cooking dinner and washing pants as women and that women go to work and become company directors just as often as men. I'm a great believer in leading by example - unfortunately this means my daughters are likely to grow up barefoot and pregnant with a strange ribbon fetish.

Emma said...

Newf - good point, I'd forgotten about them. Maybe because he's gone on to write with other people - and as he pointed out when complaining about the American remake, she often doesn't get the credit she deserves

Boz said...

It's certainly a fair point that women are unforgivably under-represented in a wide range of industries, and there are still jobs that for better or worse are more associated with one sex than another. That of course does not mean that either sex is any better or worse at them.

Before I go *any* further, let the record state I am passionate about equal opportunity and rights along gender (or for that matter almost any) basis. I think I am a feminist in the sense that I absolutely believe in equal rights regardless of sex.

However, I dimly recall some vague research about the differences in the way men and women think, and use their brains. Which may or may have derived from evolution. Would it be fair to say then that they way we use our brains affects they way we work and what we might be more inclined to do?

The beauty of that research was it that it found a lot of exceptions that proved the rule; it discovered men in 'traditionally female' professions that tended to use their brain more like the 'normal' women model - proving we're all different beasts anyway. I reckon I might be a bit like this, sometimes. Going back to an earlier comment - if I were a writer, I reckon I would be more inclined to be a novelist, rather than a scriptwriter (which is a moot point anyway).

All this is by-the-by, because I don't care where my comedy comes from, so long as it makes me larf. And my money is on this trend changing over the next few years, hopefully.

Anyway. KNICKERS.

(Sorry - was worried this was a bit of a serious comment).

Karen's Mouth said...

Boz: Yes.

Last comment I promise. I think this is less about equal opportunities, particularly as females apparently do so well in other areas of writing. I know nothing at all about this industry, but it seems the point is perhaps more about the TYPE of people who become comedy writers, rather than their gender...

"In short, most comedy writers are borderline Aspergers, which isn't as common in women"

Most people 'like that' are men but not all men are 'like that' i.e. geeks. Some are women i.e. me.

And I also think this is what's being referred to as single-mindedness, which is perhaps being taken to mean ambition or drive or something.

I think Boz might be talking about Simon Baron-Cohen's work (uncle of Sacha). Austisitc spectrum disorder affects men more at a ratio of something like 4:1. Baron-Cohen's theory is that austism is a form of extreme male brain (systemising) whereas extreme female brains are empathising. We are all somewhere along these spectrums. Most people are some mixture of the two.

According to the test I'm 50:50 (my brain that is, I'm not "Keith's Mouth" by day or anything)

Anonymous said...

Women duos incl Mel & Sue, Bearded Ladies... Boy-girl incl the Ruth Jones & James Cordon, the Krankies, Nadia Kamil and John-Luke Roberts...

Anonymous said...

i'm a writing duo - messina and rusling and then we do bearded ladies with donkin and mcdougal making us a quad team.

Anonymous said...

also Alice Lowe and Steve Oram write together. Ben Willbond and Katy Brand have written together.

Sylvia said...

One name that I haven't seen here (please forgive me if I've missed it) is Lisa Meyer - remember her anyone? Latest outing as the wronged wife of Angus Deayton. Wrote on first series of Young Ones and Blackadder, then barged out of the way when they became successful. No mention of her ever on any of those comedy history programmes.

Boz said...

I think I like Karen.