It’s 50 years since the world’s greatest ever sketch troupe first took their show to commissioners. Fresh from the imaginary archives, this ‘lost audio’ reel imagines what the world would have been like if gender bias was flipped, and the world’s greatest sketch show had never made it to air.
“A lovely sketch about the Pythons trying to sell their show to commissioners and receiving a response many female comedians will recognise…”Dick Fiddy, TV Archivist and curator of the BFI’s ‘Missing Believed Wiped’
We launched it on International Women’s Day but ‘Flogging a Dead Parrot’ has – we hope – a year-round sentiment. It is set in a female gaze world, where the current gender bias in comedy is flipped. In 2019 the Writers Guild Association released research that women make up 11% of commissioned comedy writers – which is frankly a bit of a circus in 2020.
Obviously a lot of is unconscious bias, and it’s a hugely competitive industry. But when we first started out years ago as writer/performers MelonComedy, we would get friendly emails that went like this:
I mean – we can take rejection but at least make it because we can’t write, or our ideas suck? Do men ever get rejected on the basis that there’s already a male led-sketch show, we wondered? Also: there is so much more to Melon Comedy than that. We’re a female, male, trans, gender-fluid motley crewe of white, black, brown, ginger, neurodiverse clowns.
Still, rather than get upset or call it out on twitter, we decided to do what we always do when something depressing happens. Whether it’s a break-up or a climate crisis, we look for the joke. Then we push it to the point of silly. What if the best sketch group that ever lived were told they couldn’t have a show because of that?
“Women appear to have gone missing’Gail Renard, WGA
Then we heard Gail Renard of the Writers Guild on a Sit Com Geeks podcast, talking about their WGA survey which found that TV comedy writers are still only 11% women. We realised this really was a problem and we weren’t alone. Off the back of this we wrote what a draft of ‘Flogging a dead parrot’ which has resonated with everyone we play it to (except the odd mansplainer.) Comedy is hard to get into. It’s sad to think what other comedy writers or sketch groups wouldn’t exist because they didn’t have the weeble-like tenacity required to keep going in spite of it?
Don’t get me wrong – we’re in no way saying we’re in the same ability, talent or league as the Pythons. And we’re always open to constructive feedback. We’re just saying that nobody should be rejected for the wrong reasons.
A few weeks later, the script got accepted for a read-through at read-through group – London Comedy Writers. The staggeringly talented John Cleese impressionist Jonathan Hansler just happened to be there the night the script was being read. We did a sight-read of the sketch that we always intended to shoot for real. I only recorded it so I could hear where the laughs were for the edit.
From dead horses to coconuts
But then we struggled to get any production budget to do it justice…After writing to every funding body I could think of, I nearly laid it to rest so many times, it became a dead horse of its own. Until my genius editor spotted that the idea worked better as a ‘found audio’. Like another of Dick Fiddy’s ‘missing believed wiped’ lost audio visual treasures from the history of telly. So we roped in a sound engineer who added warps to make it sound more damaged. So many people said to us – but that’s John Cleese! What are you, Cassette Boy?! That first sight-read we did is still the same one you hear in the sketch. Maybe if we’d filmed it it wouldn’t have quite the same effect. Sometimes, budget constraints actually serve creativity. There’s a little-known film where the writers wanted everyone to be on horses, but they couldn’t afford them in the production budget. So they came up with something else. Sometimes, the poor-man’s version is funnier, and more memorable. (Not always!)
He for She
We still didn’t have the balls to send it out, though. So we sent a rough cut to our mentor – human comedy encyclopaedia Dick Fiddy – to sense check it. ‘Obviously we mean no disrespect to our national treasures! – We just wanted to use comedy to make a point that in commissioning there is still a way to go for equality…?’ It meant the world when Dick Fiddy gave it his blessing and has been actively encouraging us to get it out there ever since. Proper #HeForShe in action.
Even then, we still felt weird putting it out just as as sketch. Rather than the film end as a Donny Downer, I wanted to resolve it with a happy ending – to a body able to create change. Then a few days later came a tweet from Saskia Schuster about something she’d just launched. There was our happy ending.
Comedy 50:50 is the change we all want to see in the comedy world. Here we all are at the premiere in 2020 at Comedy 5050 at ITV.
Here’s hoping one day we’ll be able to turn that 11 % into 50%. That really would be (sorry) the holy grail.
Thanks for having us, Comedy. We’re grateful to be here.