Since emerging from radio and successfully making the transition into the world of television in the late 1940s, panel shows have remained a boys’ club for the majority of their time on the small screen. 8 Out Of 10 Cats former team captain Aisling Bea – who has done her time, and then some, in the world of comedy panel shows – has recently revealed on The Last Of Your Laughs podcast, that she had a terrible experience early on in her career. When appearing on an unnamed panel show, she recalls talking at the same time as a male comedian:
“I remember I went to speak at the same time as this guy and I didn’t know that I was supposed to and still don’t know this fact because I refuse to learn it that when a man goes to speak and I go to speak at the same time that he would get, like, first dibs.”
Following the recording of the show, she could see that the host was irritated and asked him if she had done okay, only to be met with: “‘well, the thing about a panel show is, Aisling, you know, the host is like the dad and you’re sort of like brothers but when daddy or whatever is talking, the little girl should shut the f*** up.” Bea apologised profusely and returned to her hotel room sobbing, feeling like throwing in the towel over the incident.
Aisling Bea’s experience is echoed with other female comedians’ criticisms towards panel shows. In 2009, Victoria Wood accused the genre of being “male dominated” and “testosterone-fuelled”. Jo Brand agreed, commenting in her brilliant op-ed for The Guardian: “Women don’t want to go on panel shows for six reasons. 1) They won’t get a word in edgeways. 2) They may be edited to look stupid. 3) They may get the piss taken out of them. 4) They may not be funny. 5) They don’t like competing for air time. 6) They may be patronised, marginalised or dismissed.” She goes on to explain that QI is a great space for women, but Mock The Week is one of the worst, not just for women but for both genders – perhaps one of the reasons its ratings declined – along with They Think It’s All Over (which came to an end in 2006) with whose regular panellist Rory McGrath, Brand would regularly “lock horns” due to his “‘all sportswomen have moustaches and are dykes’ lines”.
But it’s not just the sexism that will be the genre’s demise. Comedy panel shows have become stale, like anything would when it’s been left out too long. The same panellists, the same guests, the same jokes. There is a severe lack of diversity, not just in terms of gender or race, but in terms of variety of guests. Have I Got News For You has not only had the same two team leaders since its inception in 1990, but its guests are equally as unvaried. Victoria Coren Mitchell has appeared over 24 times, Jack Dee has hosted 16 times while Alexander Armstrong has presented 37 times. What’s more, many of these figures do the rounds, featuring in a different panel show each week (or so it seems!). Besides, with the rise of social media, we no longer need anyone to point out the irony in the latest political news or poke fun at the latest “it girl”, we are doing it ourselves, and with the political climate feeling a hell of a lot heavier, perhaps social commentary-based humour just isn’t as appealing.
Never Mind the Buzzcocks was axed in 2015 and it was a tragic hit for comedy panel shows at the time. It’s since returned to a new home on Sky, where it’s about to air its second series with Daisy May Cooper as the show’s first female team leader. Reviews of the reboot have been largely lukewarm with a sense of ‘so what?’. The “British institution” that is Have I Got News For You is still alive and ticking, but at this point, it’s in a repetitive time loop whereby the headlines change but the text stays the same. The every man for himself attitude just doesn’t sit right with modern audiences. Comedy panel shows often descended into chaos, with comedians entering into shouting matches in a bid to have the last laugh. This can mean many of the less experienced, or not so loud, personalities get left behind and watching it becomes boring and more about egos than genuine wit. So what can be done to save these beloved British shows before another one bites the dust just like Mock The Week, if anything?