8th May 2021
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Can The Laughter: Katherine Ryan & Stereotypes Of Women Comedians

Can The Laughter: Katherine Ryan & Stereotypes Of Women Comedians TheatreArtLife
By Michelle Sciarrotta

While tuning into topical BBC show Have I Got News For You this week, I was brought out of my viewing experience by the overly distracting edit of the ‘virtual audience’ laughter when featuring Canadian comedienne Katherine Ryan. While the stereotype of ‘women aren’t as funny as men’ is nothing new, and audience reactions to a man versus a woman telling a joke are apparent, this show posed new questions due to the current pandemic-state of television production.

A virtual audience and the editing process

At the head of the show, a notice states, “Recorded in front of a virtual audience.” But what does this mean?

Hat Trick are the production company who make the show for the BBC. On their website, they explain that the current series 61 of Have I Got News For You is recorded in a different way due to coronavirus restrictions:

 “Shows recorded during lockdown are streamed live to 200 virtual audience members who watch in their homes. The reactions of the virtual audience recorded on the night are mixed with audience reactions from shows previously recorded.”

This means that the episode’s laughter has been edited and carefully considered before going live. So why is there such a huge discrepancy between the tiny ripples of laughter Katherine Ryan receives on some of her jokes in this episode, yet every contribution from the other three male guests and male guest host Adrian Dunbar receives a multi-layered, booming reaction? On other jokes made by Ryan there is no laughter at all.

In 2019, UCL published findings of a study that proved “adding canned laughter to the punchline of jokes (even bad ones) makes them funnier.” It’s therefore an interesting creative choice not to add a few more reactions in the edit; if it’s assumed that Katherine Ryan’s jokes actually fell flat on the entire 200-strong virtual audience, would it not make sense to boost the canned laughter track?

Perhaps the situation for women working in comedy is more complex than it might first appear. In an Atlantic article titled Plight of the Funny Female, a 1998 study is cited in relation to heterosexual dating research. The article explains that for women, a man’s use of humour increases his desirability. When women used humour however, it made them appear less alluring to men. Similarly, another psychology test showed that men rated women as less attractive if told that the woman outperformed them in an intelligence test.

The BBC defends Ryan

During the same period that Katherine Ryan’s episode of Have I Got News For You aired, the BBC defended the comedienne for a joke she made on another show which sparked viewer complaints. In a reality show titled All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewellery Star Ryan advised one of the contestants:

“You need to really back yourself… do you know how confident a straight white man would be right now?”

“Yeah, I know,” the Sri-Lankan contestant Tamara responded.

“Think about Boris Johnson, how pleased he’d be right now. He’d be like, ‘Nailed it’. Sometimes we’ve got to think like these men,” Ryan quipped.

In a dedicated BBC page, concerned viewers can observe the summary of complaint, which states:

We were contacted by some viewers who were unhappy that Katherine Ryan made a joke about the confidence displayed by straight white men.

As well as the BBC’s response:

Many viewers of this programme will be familiar with Katherine Ryan’s well-established style of comedy after multiple appearances on BBC comedy programmes over the years. Comedy is one of the most subjective areas of programming and we can assure you we never set out to offend viewers with anything we show.

It seems the BBC is committed to its recent ban on all-male line-ups in their shows, and it’s refreshing to see Ryan defended in this way by the corporation.

The comedienne has always been quite outspoken on double standards within the industry – she publicly quit the panel show Mock The Week in 2020 for it’s ‘macho bias and gender tokenism’ that would begrudgingly include one woman on the show (sometimes), but not include them in all rounds of the show, and weirdly always placed them in the same chair.

While all of this appears to be fairly positive in the face of relentless gender stereotypes on the surface, it’s worth remembering that only 13.7% of the guests on Have I Got News For You have been women in the show’s totality since first airing back in 1990, as pointed out by Gina Lyons in Stylist. There is still far to go for women, and perhaps Lyon’s explains it best, that:

“Every woman I know in comedy – on stage or behind a camera – feels they have a responsibility to change the scene, whether that be by booking more female writers, by hiring the female director or by the discussions they cover on stage. But it isn’t just up to us: as a reader and audience member, you can too.”

Also by Michelle Sciarrotta:

Accessibility At The Smith Center Series: Part One

James “Fitz” FitzSimmons Interview: The Boys In The Band On Netflix

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