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Tick Tock: Where’s the F in Comedy?

New year is usually when people reflect on the year past and make, occasionally, unrealistic plans for the year ahead. A healthier future is envisaged, usually this involves promises of daily smoothies, salads and stomach crunches. But seeing as 2017 was somewhat tumultuous, this year women are looking to change society rather than changing for society.

For instance, Carol Burnett, Abbi Jacobson, Amy Poehler, Illana Glazer, Mindy Kaling, Jenny Slate and Tracee Ellis Ross to name a few, have put their names to an open letter in the New York Times announcing an initiative called Time’s Up. This initiative features a $13 million legal defence fund for people in less fortunate positions in order to enable them to report incidents of sexual misconduct. Award-winning producer and writer Shonda Rhimes told the New York Times: “If this group of women can’t fight for a model for other women who don’t have as much power and privilege, then who can?”

While there is something pleasing in the idea of men being told their time is up – men, who don’t age but become handsomely rugged, men, for whom fatherhood waits, men who don’t go mad and stupid but grow wise and endearingly eccentric with age – this letter is not addressed to men, but acknowledging those who have been left behind. The letter is not calling time on men as such, but calling time on the “impenetrable monopoly” that has been exploited to silence those who wish to go about their work day without being harassed – can that silence become a rebel yell?

It’s already been noted that Time’s Up would not have happened in this moment without #MeToo. What also would not have happened is a rather wonderful moment in comedy. I am of course referring to Jo Brand schooling the all male Have I Got News For You team. When Ian Hislop was lazily dismissive of the sexual allegations hitting the headlines, Jo said: “if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears your down.” Cue sheepishness from the teams.

We’ve been talking about sexism and abuse in comedy for years, which is why I think women in comedy such as Jo, Samantha Bee, Tiff Stevenson and Bridget Christie (etc, etc, etc…) have been rather expert in responding to the issues that finally hit the headlines in 2017.

This is because they know this subject all too well. Which raises the question of where comedy will go in 2018. In the Guardian Hadley Freeman wrote that funny women’s disruptive jokes had got her through 2017: “No wonder these [panel] shows hate to have women on: they insist on ruining all the sexist lols.”

Which is great, goodness knows I for one enjoy seeing a ‘sexist lol’ being bested with a ‘lol’. But it also highlights the reason entertainment needs to make women and non-cis comedians more visible, had there actually been a gender balance on the HIGNFY panel on that fateful episode, Jo probably wouldn’t have had to deliver her dressing down. A truly diverse panel would not have produced a ‘sexist lol’ nor put any minority present in the uncomfortable position of risking appearing to ‘police’ the conversation as the only representative present.

Touching on this subject means I have to address censorship. But if we simply aren’t producing sexist, LGBTQ-phobic, ableist or racist comedy… can we cry censorship? Surely a truly diverse comedy scene would cultivate an audience who could decipher nuanced argument from offensive crap?

Echoing Shonda Rhimes words, we in comedy should be fighting for a model of comedy that works for people of all privileges. I know as the producer of Funny Women’s Brighton Nights that there are more than enough talented comedians who belong to various minorities to simply flood the market. So why don’t we? I ask the comedy community to call time on the monopoly a privileged few have on comedy in the media. It would certainly make for a healthier 2018.

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