Wednesday, June 26, 2019

ITV bans male-only comedy writer rooms

A number of readers have asked me to comment on this:

ITV, the biggest broadcast production and distribution company in the UK recently adopted a new policy where comedy writers rooms can no longer be male only. Ideally, they’re hoping for a 50/50 mix, but at least for now ITV shows must have some women on staff of every comedy show.

So how do I feel about this?

My daughter is a TV comedy writer. How do you think I feel?

Women are just as talented, just as funny as men – and in many cases, more so. Not hiring qualified women is only hurting the product.

And I’m proud to say this is not a new stand. Twice, David Isaacs and I have had shows that starred women. In both cases we hired women writers, women directors, women producers, women casting directors – and this was long before #MeToo and the current push for diversity.

We didn’t do it to further a cause. We did it simply because these were the very best people we could hire, and why not hire the best?

Women writers offer a different perspective. Our goal has always been to be as accurate as possible, and have the comedy come out of relatable situations. Our shows were so much richer, so much more universal, and so much funnier because we had women writers. To me this is a no-brainer.

In the case of ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis, we partnered with a woman, Robin Schiff, and truly could not have done it without her.

A more recent article opposes this policy.  They feel it's unfair to set quotas and claim shows like CHEERS did just fine with all-male writers.   Except, the first staff writer hired was Heide Perlman.  And throughout the years CHEERS hired many women writers including Cheri Steinkellner (who became a CHEERS showrunner), Tracy Newman, Kathy Ann Stumpe, Rebecca Parr Cioffi, Sue Herring, Kimberly Hill, Janet Leahy, Katherine Green, Lissa Levin, Susan Seeger, and Miriam Trogden.

To me the shame is that this has to be a “policy.” But if that’s what it takes, so be it. I’m sure some British male writers are going to grumble, but in a couple of years showrunners will be thanking ITV for taking this stand.


Sean Farren said...

I was entertainment director of my college TV station. All of my producers were women because they were the best choice and I never had to worry about the work getting done in my absence. That was back in 1990.

Rashad Khan said...

I wonder how all those female writers on "Cheers" feel about being considered men all of a sudden. ;)

Bonnie C said...

So you mean to tell me, you need 6 writers for a show. You interview 15 writers, and
5 of them are some of the most talented, funny people you have ever met, but you cannot
hire 2 of them because all five were men? Odds are that situation wouldn't come up, but don't you think that's not the way to go? What about having to then hire at least one Native American, one African American, one Italian, one Jewish, one Indian, one Australian....and so on. I know there is still the "good old boys network", but shouldn't you be able to hire who you want for your production?

blinky said...

In my decades of experience in TV news, the vast majority of producers were and are women. They are more organized and have a great attention to detail. But News Directors are almost always men. Women make it happen and men get the money and credit.

Andrew said...

Before I laugh at a joke on a sit-com, I always verify that there is at least one female writer.

Mike Bloodworth said...

None of these are new arguments, but that doesn't mean that there isn't some validity to them.
Bonnie C brought up a point that I was going to mention. As Ken himself said, "...these were the very best people we could hire, and why not hire the best?" What if, as Bonnie alluded to, the best are all male?
Don't get me wrong, there are many women I'd love to write with. Some of the funniest people I know are female.

The big issue is doing it because you want to, as you did on "Almost Perfect" or being forced to. The latter will only lead to tokenism and increased resentment.
And what about transgender? Is that a loophole that could be exploited? Sure, he looks male, but she's a female inside.
Women do, "...offer a different perspective." But is it a necessity or a bonus? It reminds me of the "Sanford and Son" situation of Jewish writers vs black writers.

I think the best argument for female writers is "I Love Lucy." One of the greatest sitcoms of all time, if not the greatest. And it had a relatively small writing staff that included a woman.
Of course, the argument against is all the classic sitcoms and variety shows that had all male staffs.

Jeff Boice said...

A brief bit of searching it appears ITV has very few scripted comedies currently in production. By very few I mean one or two.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Someone finally noticed that half the writing team on FAWLTY TOWERS was female (Connie Booth).

Brian said...

I like to propose a toast to Alexa Junge, who contributed some of the funnier scripts for "Friends".

Mike Bloodworth said...

P.S. Madelyn Pugh was her name.

E. Yarber said...

I've read literally thousands of script submissions and find myself encouraging women writers and directors all the time. There are always some who feel they have to ape the boys' club attitude that a lot of guys adopt thinking that will make them "fit in," just as I have discovered male writers who have broken with that posture, but quite often I see a much more emphatic perspective in female work, be it comedy, drama or even action films. It's infuriating for me to see such work rewritten by male teams who feel it isn't crass enough. THEY'RE the ones trying to impose a viewpoint on what you see.

In the end, you have judge the writing as writing, but the attitude behind it is key to what results, and women definitely bring a different level of experience to the creative side of the game. I'm sure this ITV policy seems knee-jerk to many outside the process, but I think it reflects an awareness of the voices in play within the business and makes sense. I don't think this will hurt TALENTED male writers, just the hacks who spew cliches and go for the bottom rung every time yet still turn up getting work out of sheer familiarity.

Michael said...

I am reminded that it took a script by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place to give texture to Margaret Houlihan on MASH ("Hot Lips and Empty Arms"). As great and talented as Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart were, it seems to me they couldn't get there. After that, a lot of writers, male and female, built on their structure for the major.

Myles said...

There's just no way that you can't find one woman that's just as good as the others PLUS you need more POVs in a room. Odds are two of those guys have the exact same POV are very similar life experiences. This is why you need DIVERSITY. Not to check off boxes but because it creates a better product.

E. Yarber said...

Seems like every time there's the possibility of a writers' strike, people pop up saying, "Now's our chance to get rid of established writers, who are just deadwood, and bring in some fresh voices working scab!" Yet when a company institutes a program designed to bring in new scripters, you hear, "Oh, but they can't possibly be qualified for the work! Leave things the way they are!" Wonder how much overlap there is in that.

Peter said...

ITV hasn't had a funny comedy in decades. And I do mean decades.

Their comedy output now consists almost entirely of moronic panel shows where C-list celebrities reel off scripted jokes about the news or pop culture in front of a studio audience. Imagine 2 Broke Girls level jokes but as a panel show instead of a sitcom.

tavm said...

For years, "SNL" was considered an all-boys show based on mostly male cast members breakthroughs and most of the staff being of the dominant chromosome but even during The First Five Years, there were many qualified female voices on the show like writers Rosie Shuster, Anne Beatts, and Marilyn Suzanne Miller. The latter especially should be noted as her sketches were more dramatic short plays as opposed to a "five-jokes-a-page" skit (that quote was something later exec producer Dick Ebersol often wanted) of which the best example was a sketch in which John Belushi and to deal with his impotency to his wife Sissy Spacek. But it wasn't until Tina Fay became head writer that the show really came into its own for the women in the cast especially when it had a couple of Tina's friends-Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler-among them.

Breadbaker said...

If you interview 15 people and need six and find that all the six are men, you need to question your procedure in how you reached that conclusion. If you don't understand implicit bias, you're probably soaking in it.

Sean said...

It sounds like the hiring of women on these shows is already well established. So is there evidence that the ITV shows are unusual somehow?

I'm just worried that its more of societys obsession with shallow characteristics at play rather than taking the time to treat people as individuals.

thomas tucker said...

Hire the best person for the job regardless of age, sex, race, gender, creed, religion, or shoe size.

Jeff said...

It sounds like the hiring of women on these shows is already well established.

There has been no discussion here of the gender balance on ITV panel show writing staffs. Where are you hearing about it?

MikeN said...

tavm, Norm MacDonald on his web show interviewed Fred Stoller and asked him to name 3 good female writers. Fred:"(thinking)"
Norm: "OK, moving on to the next question!"

Fred did come back and name several writers a little later.

Tom said...

To be fair, to the British mind there are two truisms: (i) sitcoms on ITV tend to be unfunny lowest-common-denominator stuff; and (ii) British attempts at using a writing room are usually exactly as derivative of American sitcoms as is their creation process. We just don't have a history of doing it, and as a result don't do it very well.

Since we're perfectly fine at churning out terrible sitcoms through the much cheaper traditional British process of a single writer or, at most, a pair, the expense of a whole room is rarely justified. Just get Ben Elton to do it!

DBenson said...

Whenever somebody argues it's diversity versus merit, observe how many executive and creative positions go to guys who aren't even in the top half of all white males.

Audiences are diverse. Content is diverse. If you limit staff to people who share your genetics and experience, you end up with the 1,000th weak variation of the Brady Bunch or the Trump Administration.

Brian said...

Let me establish this point: I quite agree with your post.

However, you stated, "They feel it's unfair to set quotas and claim shows like CHEERS did just fine with all-male writers."

That's not quite what the article you cite says.

What the article says is, If male-dominated teams of writers weren’t given the green light over the years, viewers would never have known Cheers or The Inbetweeners"

There is a difference between "all-male" and "male-dominated". The article argues that if Cheers was on ITV, even if you had two women on a writing staff of 10, you might be out of compliance:

"Even more extreme, if the writing team does have a female writer on board, they may face backlash under the new rules, as allegedly there can ‘all too often be a sense of tokenism towards the lone female’."

From Saskia Schuster's Comedy 50:50 website:

"I changed the terms of the Social Partnership Agreement. When a show is commissioned or recommissioned, the Social Partnership form is issued with the production contract. From today, this is an additional term of the commission:

Writing teams must aim towards 50:50 gender representation. The production will require commissioner sign off on the make up of the writing teams.

In returning scripted commissions the production must demonstrate best endeavours to include female writers in the writing room."

So, while I agree with the fact that women should have more of a presence and voice in writing rooms (and don't get me started on the guy-dominated, make-each-other-laugh podcasts (not YOURS!) I hear, with only one woman on mic TRYING to get a word in), I don't believe the author was saying that Cheers was written solely by men. She is concerned that a show cannot hire who it wants.

I also would say that if initiatives like this are not put in place, this "concern" will morph into all dudes, almost all the time.

Brian said...

One wonders if this policy would extend to the rare show that is written by one person? Bonnie Hunt in her shows, did most of the scripts after a while and "As Time Goes By", which ran for nine series was written solely by Bob Larbey.

To Bonnie C: To put it as they do in one of those panel shows that Peter loves, the idea is to redress the balance. While it sounds unfair to say no to two of the talented five, how many times has a woman, or a person of color not even have had a shot at being considered? In raw numbers, how many men have gotten writing gigs as opposed to women?

When things like this are implemented, the winning team squawks and squawks LOUDLY.

ERA, Section 1: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex"

SOME MEN: What about MEN'S rights? Can't a fella have a say, fercryinoutloud?

Coram_Loci said...

Is this any different then if Jerry Falwell demanded an evangelical in the writer's room? At least then the bandied about diversity of ideas we profess to love and admire would be explicit and direct. Here, we are just assuming that being a woman is itself proof of diversity rather than just proof of a difference in chromosomes.

What's worse, this is effectively censorship and viewpoint discrimination.

Once again the feel-good goal of equality dons a velvet glove to cover its iron fist.

Funny is hard.
Quotas are easy.

ITV opts for easy.

Coram_Loci said...

"If you don't understand implicit bias, you're probably soaking in it."

That's often said by my friend Petitio Principii

Coram_Loci said...

“While it sounds unfair to say no to two of the talented five, how many times has a woman, or a person of color not even have had a shot at being considered?”

It sounds unfair because it is unfair. To channel Obi Wan: Trust your feelings.

A real but amorphous harm to a group is being redressed by a real and particular individual who is not necessarily the wrongdoer. Tit for tat is fair. Karma is fair. THIS is not fair.

What makes it even worse is that the very instrument of harm the use of which we condemn — sexism — is now the weapon of choice used to beat a person. And the wrong person too.

People hate these kinds of policies because they hate the weapon. People fear these kinds of policies because they can easily foresee the weapon being misused. Many who use it think they are clever like Sherlock Holmes when instead they closer than they care to admit to being Sledgehammer. “Trust me. I know what I'm doing.”

Johnny Walker said...

If anyone thinks it’d be impossible to find one genuinely talented woman that you’d WANT to hire on your writing staff, you must have your head so far up your behind you don’t know when it’s day or night.

Likewise, the “argument” regarding different nationalities or sexualities is akin to opposing same sex marriage because “dogs will be marrying next”.

This is a short term measure by ITV until such a thing isn’t required anymore.

There is no lack of talented female writers here in London (in fact, as someone who knows a fair few people in the London comedy scene, I’d say there were more talented female writers than male at the moment — the women I encounter are incredibly smart and motivated, while most of the men I know are far lazier by comparison - myself included).

You’d have to be deliberately ignoring the female applicants if you didn’t hire at least one.

Unknown said...

This is an old post, and nobody has commented on it in a while. But it's something I see so often that I feel compelled to comment in reply.

In re "but what if all the funniest writers are men? huh? huh? huh? what if that, then?" question.

I'm a comedy writer. I'm not currently a paid TV staff writer, but I work in basically the same context. (I'm a writer on a "house" sketch team at one of the big comedy theaters in L.A.) The theater I write for shoots for and mostly hits a 50/50 gender ratio with both writers and performers. And yet, it happens all the time that the people actually getting material into the show are the men. Yeah, seems odd that if you have half men and half women on the team, magically, the women are just not doing anything. For no reason. It's just... happening. And if you're a female writer, and for 2-3 months nothing you wrote made the show, and you bring up "hey, I've noticed that none of the female writers ever get anything in, what's up with that?" The answer is always, "Sorry, we picked the funniest bits. I guess if you didn't get anything in the show, your stuff must not have been funny enough. If none of the women are getting anything in the show, I guess the women picked for this writing staff just aren't funny enough to be here. It's not sexism, it's just who's the funniest, is all."

Except that we all went through the same submission/staffing process, and we were all vetted and deemed funny enough to get into this theater's writing program. We're all equally experienced. We're all writing the same amount of material. We're all getting laughs in the room and at the table read. But when it comes time for someone to choose what's actually going to go onstage? Whoops, all of the male writers are coincidentally funnier than all of the female writers.

A lot of the time "just pick the funniest regardless of gender" is a stealthy unspoken way to be sexist. You just make sure by some process that The Funniest is always male.

If there's a rule that you can't do that, it means that if the entire staff turns out to be male, something is wrong. It means this does not compute. It means we need to go back and read everyone's packet again and see where we got off track. That's what the rule is for. Not to require people to hire talentless writers just to meet a quota. (And the "but what if there was a quota that you had to have on Native American, one Tongan, one Sikh, etc?" issue doesn't matter, since none of those groups are LITERALLY HALF OF THE POPULATION.)