Skip to content

The Oscars’ woman problem –


The Oscars’ woman problem –


This recent article from decries the absence of women in positions of power in Hollywood. In fact, author Michael Barthel notes that in this year’s best picture category, “there are as many movies about women as there are movies about horses.”

The most disturbing trend that Barthel notes, the tendency for the male-dominated academy awards to make token gestures towards inclusion with milestone awards (such as, a women winning best director, or an African-American receiving a best actor award), which do not in fact have any permanent impact on inclusion and equality in the industry.

CanCon Does Well on Youtube

According to recently released YouTube viewership statistics, Canadians not only watch more hours of YouTube per capita than anyone else, they are also equally likely to watch Canadian videos as American ones. This finding renews questions about the relevance and efficacy of Canadian content regulation in other forms of media.

While the low production value required for the creation of online content allows Canadian videos to compete well in this open market, I do still feel that Canadian content regulation is necessary in other media where the cost of entry is much higher. All the same, the success of Canadian content online merits further consideration, discussion, and study.

For a more detailed discussion, see Misty Harris, We like to be watched: Canadians count for more clicks and flicks on YouTube. National Post. January 19, 2012.

Letterman Comedy Talent Booker Not a Fan of Female Comics

The talent booker for Letterman, Eddie Brill, has reportedly been let go amid controversy stemming from statements made in a New York Times profile. Brill claimed, “there are alot less female comics who are authentic. I see alot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.” Not surprisingly, The Late Show with David Letterman has an appalling record when it comes to booking female comics.

Despite a record year for the success and notoriety of female comedians, in 2011 only one of the 22 stand-ups booked for the show was a woman.

As the talent booker for a prominent television show, and therefore a significant gatekeeper to a comic’s upward career trajectory, Brill has been a major arbiter of taste in the American comedy field. His disparaging attitude towards female performers has no doubt been a significant barrier to their career development, having been disproportionately deprived of the opportunity to publicize their performances on such a major staple of late-night television.

For further details, see Letterman Talent Booker Dropped After Comments About Women in Comedy.

Also, this article posted on Gawker argues that Letterman and the overall institutional culture of the show itself are to blame; Brill’s attitudes are more symptom than cause.

Cultural Production and the Digital Humour Economy

I have just uploaded a brief paper based upon my research at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, one of the most significant meetings of performers, producers, agents and networks involved in the comedy industry. This document includes some analysis that is no longer being used in my dissertation, and that I have not yet found another place for.

I analyze data from the annual industry conference, Just Comedy, which takes place during the festival.

Here, industry “insiders” discuss potential trends, anxieties, and frustrations related to the casualization of cultural labour and the growth of digital technologies. I consider this in relation to academic discourses about the creative economy and cultural production.

Humour, stand-up comedy, internet, cultural production.

Retrieve Full-Text Here


Kate Taylor (Globe and Mail) reports that TV’s writer’s rooms are as male dominated as ever

In recent years, the success of female writers/comedians such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler has led to much praise about the changing fortunes of women working in the entertainment industry. However, in an article published in The Globe and Mail, Kate Taylor asks, “If women are so hot on TV this fall, why are most of the writers still men?” She cites new research that finds, despite the increased presence of women on screen, behind the scenes men are still calling the shots and writing the jokes.

The author cites a survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film that found the numbers of female writers were low (29% in 2009-2010) and getting lower. According to Darnell Hunt (UCLA Sociology), the reason for the drop may be linked to the recession, arguing that women may be taking the brunt of the job cuts. According to Darnell,

You make a TV show, you don’t have many opportunities to get it right. Show runners [head writers, who oversee the rooms] hire teams they feel extremely comfortable with, people who look like them. Nine times out of 10, that means white men are hiring white men. You may have a token woman or a token minority, but women and people of colour are having a hard time being welcomed into the club.

While these statistics are for the US entertainment industry, Taylor suggests the situation is not much better in Canada, noting that only 32 percent of Writers Guild of Canada members are women. While all-male writers rooms are common, Alexandra Zarowny (Degrassi; Murdoch Mysteries, The Listener) jokes that,

It would be surprising if you had a room composed of only women unless it was, excuse my language, a vagina show.

While the statistics remain bleak, there are small signs of change which may offer reasons for optimism. For example, Dan Harmon, show runner for NBC’s Community, requested that half his writing staff be women. And more shows are being created by women, such as Global’s Rookie Blue.

Taylor’s article is

a great read and an interesting take on the challenges that female writers continue to face in the entertainment industry. Definitely check it out:

-Kate Taylor, “You’ve come a long way—maybe.” The Globe and Mail: Globe Arts (Saturday October 8, 2011): R1, R7.

“Comediennes” on FOD

Well it has been a while since I posted anything. I’ve been busy trying to finish up my dissertation. The good news is the end

is in sight! In the meantime, a friend sent me a funny clip from Funny or Die the other day. A Day in the Life of a Female Comedian features comics Maria Bamford, Nikki Glaser, Amy Schumer, and Jackie Monahan. This humorous video mocks the idea of “women’s” comedy while also drawing attention to the sexism and biases that female performers face in their male-dominated workplace. I found it pretty clever and though you might too. Enjoy!

Comedy & Conflict – University of Salford 2nd & 3rd June 2011

I’ve just attended a fantastic comedy conference in Salford. Comedy and Conflict, organized by Chris Lee and David James,  is the 5th International Comedy Conference held annually in the greater Manchester area.

I presented on Canadian sketch comedy, my first attempt to discuss this research with a non-Canadian audience. Much to my surprise, The Kids in the Hall was in fact broadcast in the UK in the early-90s. As such, a number of conference participants were already familiar with some of the work I was discussing, which was a great relief!

I saw a number of fantastic papers in including Rosie White‘s discussion of the gender dynamics of a dark comedy pilot that never went into production, Chris Ritchie‘s analysis of the importance of invisible characters in traditional sitcoms, and Ian Wilkie‘s consideration of anti-Englishness humour and Scottish identity construction.

Look for selected papers from this event next year in Comedy Studies.

How Celebratory is Too Celebratory?

Watching the Junos on Sunday, I couldn’t help but be uneasy at all of the emotional celebrations of Canadianness and Canadian music. Understandably an awards ceremony the supports Canadian cultural production must speak in some way to the importance of this national mandate, but a little subtlety would have gone a long way.

Twain returned "home" to the 2011 Junos for her induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame

International superstar after international superstar waxed poetic about the vitality of the Canadian music industry, the depth of talent that this little country produces, and the pride that they (Shania, Robbie, Bryan, etc.) felt at being from Canada every time they returned.

This final bit of praise passing a little too closely to the similar, but significantly less flattering, assertion that when it comes to being a successful musician (or comedian, or actor, etc.) Canada is a great place to be from.

Now, the reasons for an international career are obvious. The economic rewards available to the Canadian artist who does not pursue a global career are meager. Not to mention the fact that without international sales, your likelihood of being considered a great, Canadian, musician diminish significantly.

My point is merely that the over the top celebration of being from Canada seems little more than a strategy to acquire knee-jerk, nationalist applause. Lay it on too thick, and it becomes a little embarrassing. After all, the Juno’s are already a celebration of Canadian music. Does this really require restating—constantly and aggressively—throughout the broadcast? Presumably, those of us watching an awards show celebrating Canadian music already care about Canadian music.

Medical Clowns and IVF: A Dialogue with Rebecca Scott

A story is making the rounds in various news sources that researchers in Israel have shown that women who were visited by a “medical clown” after receiving in vitro fertilization treatment had a 16% higher rate of pregnancy than women who did not receive this followup visit.

Photos from Pawns (flickr) Creative Commons Licence

As my colleague, Rebecca Scott, studies science and reproduction, and I study humour, we thought that a dialogue on the issue of medical clowns and IVF was simply asking to be had…


To me, this story resonates with discussions of the so-called ‘placebo’ effect. What is a medical treatment, and what does it mean to treat? Often times it seems that effects of treatments that do not fit neatly within biomedical understandings of chemistry or physiology are deemed placebos – for example, homeopathic treatments without a strong evidence from clinical trials supporting them. The placebo effect is often seen as evidence for the ways in which our psychological state of mind is profoundly linked to other aspects of our well-being. However, positive outcomes of treatments that are biomedically unproven are often dismissed by proclaiming them ‘placebo effects,’ undermining their value in people’s experiences of health and disease. To me, so-called placebos are really just indicative of how little we truly understand about our bodies’ healing. This study of the use of medical clowns to improve the spirits of women undergoing stressful procedures suggests that researchers are attempting to move beyond the standard forms of treatment in medicine (medicinal chemicals, surgery, etc.) toward a wider understanding of care.

In order to buy the story, we must be willing to imagine that implantation of a fertilized embryo is not just a physiological process. We must, in fact, be willing to see that laughter, a smile, or a good mood are forces that affect that tiny, fragile embryo. So a question for Danielle: does the standup comedian, purveyor of humour, understand how they may have the power to affect the tiny embryo?


Certainly many stand-up comedians are conscious of their role as laughmakers, and that the impact of humour can resonate beyond the walls of the comedy club. The “release” that we get from a good laugh is perhaps vaguely associated with a general sense of well-being. However, when a joke goes badly, offending someone or causing them emotional harm, joke-tellers are often quick to argue that ‘it’s just a joke.’ The implication is that what they are doing is profoundly insignificant, just for fun, and has no legitimately serious consequences. Humour takes the praise more readily than it takes the blame.

What I find particularly intriguing about the discussions of this clown-program are that they are quick to associate clowning and comedy with improved health (or in this case, improved success rates of in vitro fertilization). To suggest, however, that there is something particular about laughter and humour that makes it a valuable medical tool cannot really be argued based upon the current data. What we know about this study is that pleasure, or distraction, or relaxation, or some combination of similar effects may be impacting the viability of the procedure. To foreground the comic aspects of the study is to misrepresent the data. Any number of things could have been used to take patients’ minds off of the stressful procedure; simply talking about something other than medicine and babies might have been sufficient. Or, if the key is relaxation, then a massage or perhaps calming music might have been equally effective.

There is something very compelling about the idea that laughter is good for us, that it really is the best medicine, but this believability can unfortunately distract us from the actual evidence. Rebecca, might there be room for more nuanced understandings of this study in medical discourses? Or, should we simply accept that the use of clowns “works” and leave the social scientific qualifying statements out of it?


Good point, Danielle. In fact one of my first reactions to the story was, “Hm, but I don’t think clowns are very funny and I doubt they could make me laugh.” To interpret the effect observed in pregnancy rates as a function of the good work of humour does seem to be making sweeping assumptions about the nature of humour. As you say, sometimes humour can harm.

The question of whether something “works” is actually quite profound. First, we must decide on an outcome: what “work” do we hope to accomplish? In this case, the work is implantation of the embryo – but by proxy, the work is actually to have a woman laugh or feel less stress. Then we must try to determine what entities could potentially do this work. One wonders if laughing gas or a good tickle could have the same effect as the clown – but medical clown it is. We run the experiment or trial. Then we must find ways to determine if the work we wanted done has actually been done. Each step requires a selection from many possible decisions. In this way, the outcome of the experiment seems really just to be a trace of the decisions made. We must somehow make a leap from the trace to a statement of generalizable truth if we want it to become scientific knowledge. And even if we are confident our desired work was carried out by the mechanism we tested, is it ever possible to fully separate from all the possible causes the “real” cause of the observed effect? The evolution, change and growth of scientific knowledge shows that there is always something left unaccounted for.

There are many treatments that seem to “work” and we don’t know why; sometimes scientists themselves do not know the exact mechanism of established medications. In fact, some of the mechanisms by which acetaminophen “works” are not known!

Yet I eagerly take acetaminophen despite not knowing exactly how it works because I have first hand, phenomenological experience that when I do, physical pain, so material, so insistent, subsides. At the same time, I sure am glad that scientists have tested it rigourously and have confidence in its safety. When we’re talking clowns, it seems innocent enough. But we also knew that thalidomide worked to treat morning sickness… So I’m glad that “it works” is now not typically the approach taken to developing new potential medications and therapies.

Danielle, what do you think: could the ways in which the researchers/journalists seem to potentially be “misconstruing” the nature of humour rather be interpreted as a pragmatic approach to care, one that combines current knowledge with a bit of speculation and a bit of experience? Or is this antithetical to the rigour we expect from science?


As I think you’ve laid out very well, there are serious methodological implications related to the statement that something “works.” I think part of my concern is that when medical experts assert that something “works,” we tend to believe them, regardless of the methodological rigor with which they came to this claim. At every stage of the study, from the choice to use clowns, to the way that we acquire the data related to the efficacy of clowning, decisions are being made, exclusions are being justified and assumptions are being folded into a compelling narrative  about the medical efficacy of humour and good spirits.

To round out the study, perhaps women who are frightened of clowns should have been exposed to the entertainment. In such instances, could we expect to see a drop in the success rate of in vitro, and would this tell us anything about the actual effectiveness of clowns per se? Obviously such a sample would not be sought, as it violates our expectations about medical ethics and notions of harm. Again, it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that something “works” when the “work” is perceived as positive.

Furthermore, if the efficacy of in vitro fertilization can be linked to an emotional or psychological state of the patient following the procedure, does this not open up the possibility that women who do not successfully conceive are somehow at fault? Are women who do not experience better in vitro results simply less fun than women that do? Do they simply lack the right sense of humour? To correlate medical results with something experiential runs the risk of also correlating the lack of medical success with the patients’ inability to effectively experience post-procedure pleasure, bliss, and entertainment. We cannot, after all, simply order people to relax and expect that this will do the trick.

Rebecca, do these narratives have the potential to open up discourses of blame directed from medical practitioners towards patients? Does proof that a woman’s mental and emotional state impacts her ability to conceive bring us dangerously close to associating a woman’s inability to conceive with hysteria, or unwillingness to follow her doctor’s orders?


Interesting, Danielle. The clown is not hysterical; she is.

Heather Knight Creates Robotic Stand-Up Comic

In her December 2010 TED Woman lecture, social roboticist Heather Knight gave the first public demonstration of her latest project, a robot capable of altering its behavior in relation to audience feedback. Data, an intelligent robot, performs joke based stand-up comedy. It contains a joke database with subject-matter markers, and uses audience reactions to alter the stand-up routine. The theory goes that as Data performs more comedy and compiles more data on audience responses, the robot will become better at choosing material for particular audiences.

The use of comedy in the development of reception and feedback capabilities in robotics is an intriguing choice. Humour, being highly dependent upon social and cultural frameworks, timing, and audience attitudes, offers a particularly challenging feedback experience for the robot. In essence, if the robot can be successfully programmed to interpret sufficient information to appropriately select comedic material, it follows that less culturally loaded interactions will be well within the range of possibilities for social robotics.

As the robot does not write its own material, but rather uses statistics from previous experiences to rank material that Knight has uploaded, the extent to which it can be said that Data “performs stand-up” is perhaps questionable. For most professional comedians, routine development involves creative and observational work that a computer is simply not capable of doing. However, the idea that the robot might be able to predict what audiences find funny could be of interest to comedians who themselves sometimes struggle to accurately predict audience reactions to material. Even highly successful comedians sometimes fail to read the mood and expectations of the audience. Could a robot really be programmed to account for all of the tiny factors that contribute to a stimulating and successful night of comedy

? It’s certainly an interesting question. I’m not convinced any feedback system, however technologically advance, could match the complexity of the audience-comic exchange. Humour is the domain of highly intelligent animals. While some of Data’s jokes did in fact play well with the audience, I doubt the human stand-up comic need worry about being replaced by a machine anytime soon.

Tweets by @popculturelab