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We're overdosing on comedy panel shows

DARA O Briain is a busy man. He chairs Mock the Week. He presents Science Club, The Apprentice: You're Fired! and School of Hard Sums, which is back on Dave tonight for a second series of maths-flavoured comedy.

He has regularly MC-ed stand-up showcase Live at the Apollo and has also appeared on the bill many times. Throw in occasional broadcasts of his live-show DVDs along with frequent appearances on QI and Have I Got News For You, which he has also guest-hosted a few times, and all O Briain needs to become comedy's version of the Duracell bunny is a pair of fluffy pink ears and a drum.

The big man from Bray will soon be as ubiquitous on television as the stars are in the night sky. Oh, and now that I think of it, he also co-hosts Stargazing Live with scientist Brian Cox (as opposed to actor Brian Cox).

O Briain was even more visible than usual recently when he leapt to his own defence about comments he'd made on the BBC's intention to ban all-male comedy panel shows. The Beeb's director of television, Danny Cohen, said last month that the broadcaster needed to do more to include female panellists in its programmes.


In a Radio Times interview, O Briain said: "A certain number of women want to go into comedy, and they should be cherished and nurtured, but you're not going to shift the fact that loads more men want to do it."

Making it an official positive discrimination policy, rather than simply phasing it in without a big public fuss, he argued, would lead to any female comedian who appears on such shows being regarded as "a token woman".

O Briain subsequently went online to clarify his comments, which he claimed had been bent out of context. "I have no problem with a policy of no all-male panel shows," he wrote. "I just wouldn't have announced it. The same very funny women will be on all these shows and don't deserve anyone to regard that booking as being because of a positive edict."

Fair point, and that would probably have been the end of the matter had O Briain not managed to antagonise Question Time host David Dimbleby, a British national institution descended from a long line of British national institutions, by suggesting that QT is equally guilty of gender imbalance in its choice of panellists.

Declaring that O Briain had picked "the wrong target" when he messed with Question Time, Dimbleby added: "Mr O Briain, the mote is in our eye, the beam is in yours."


Dimbleby was referencing Matthew 7:3 in the Bible. But you knew that, of course. In the King James version it reads: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

Ah, yes; nothing like a bit of King James and Jazzy D to get 'em rocking in the aisles. Poor Dara must have felt like he'd been crushed by a listed building.

Between the jigs and the reels there's a serious point to be made here. But it's not that there are too few women on comedy panel shows; it's that there are too many comedy panel shows featuring too many of the same comedians, and whether they're men or women makes little difference.

Just before Christmas, there were two sightings of Sarah Millican on two different panel shows on the same night. That's no better or worse than two sightings of Ross Noble or Milton Jones or, for that matter, Dara O Briain, though it's far preferable to one sighting of Frankie Boyle in a year.

This same criticism has already been made by none other than David Mitchell. Alas, since Mitchell is a serial offender who has appeared on practically every panel show on British television in the past 10 years, it was a regrettable case of the beam calling the mote black.