The biggest broadcast production and distribution company in the U.K., ITV, is taking a unilateral approach to gender diversity in its comedy writers’ rooms, implementing a new policy that calls for all commissioned or recommissioned shows to “aim towards 50:50 gender representation.” In response to the industry’s incrementalism and the common refrain that there just aren’t enough female comedians that “are ready,” ITV’s head of comedy, Saskia Schuster has announced on BBC 4 that she’s gone ahead and made gender inclusion a requirement of any new comedy production from the studio.
The policy change is just the latest move in Schuster’s quest to change the culture of comedy writing rooms. In February 2018, Schuster launched Comedy 50:50, an initiative that provides an independent database of female writers, hosts networking events and workshops, and offers mentoring and shadowing opportunities to women who want to break into the field. All of this, Schuster says, is to correct the central imbalance perpetuated by the long male dominance over the comedy world, which includes in her view the following:
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.
The comedy world’s reputation for cultivating a “boys’ club” mentality in its writers’ rooms has become so ubiquitous as to be practically enshrined in the entertainment industry mythos and served as the basis for Mindy Kaling’s latest film. Looking at the diversity numbers in late-night comedy alone, the myth might even underplay the facts.
In the golden age of Saturday Night Live, comedy’s writers’ rooms were known for their contempt, if not openly hostile attitudes, toward women. Jane Curtin recalls John Belushi stating that “women are just fundamentally not funny,” recalling that he saw it as “his duty to sabotage pieces that were written by women.” Accounts of this misogyny persist well into the ’90s. The ascension of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and countless more from SNL’s female ranks would seem to signal a change in this culture, but each can attest to how the industry has held women back from their full potential. Sure, there has been some positive change in recent years, but in broadcast comedy landscapes dominated by old-guard power brokers like Lorne Michaels, change isn’t coming fast enough for female comedy writers even as audiences demand more diverse narratives and comedic voices.
Michaels’ own SNL has still struggled to diversify its writing staff, a fact evidenced by 2014’s rare midseason hires of three women of color, Sasheer Zamata, LaKendra Tookes, and Leslie Jones, in response to Kenan Thompson’s refusal to play female roles on the show. But this is only one example of SNL’s fumbling approach to racial and gender diversity. It is impossible to know how different the show’s output would be with a more inclusive writing culture, but as Schuster points out, the problem of gender inequality is also a quality concern. As women make up a considerable percentage of viewership, it makes sense that their perspectives should be reflected in the writers’ room. The final straw for Schuster was the realization that “for every five scripts sent to me written by a man, I’d get one script written by a woman.”
Perhaps if the reins of power at a place like NBC could ever be wrested from the cold, white hands of producers like Michaels, and placed within the grasp of any of the countless qualified female comedians, writers, and showrunners working right now, then similar change could be effected in the culture of the writers’ room here in the states. It is encouraging to see the example the ITV is setting with Schuster’s 50:50 policy in the U.K. One hopes that, as with so much of British television, this too will be adapted for American audiences.