Saturday, April 5, 2014

It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World (But It Would Be Nothing Without A Woman)

I feel like the majority of the stories that I post here begin with "I was talking to my friend Kim." But I was talking to my friend Kim recently about Community and some qualms we have been having with the writing. I told her that what the show truly needs is to return to a balanced writing staff a la season one with an equal number of both males and females. That led me down an interesting rabbit hole in attempting to discover exactly HOW many episodes per season of Community were written or co-written by female writers. After I made a rather startling discovery, I decided to apply this investigative work to more of my favorite network television comedies and made some more pretty starling discoveries, as well as developed a hypothesis based on my raw data. (Look at me sounding all science-y and stuff! You'd hardly know this was a writing blog.)

So, before I break down each show and its seasons, let me explain what you'll be reading and how I recovered the data/what it means:

The shows: I studied Community, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and (to a lesser extent) The Mindy Project.

How I came up with the data: I researched the episodes in each season that have aired. (*Now updated since the seasons are over, to reflect the final percentages!) If a single episode was written solely by a woman or by a pair of women, I counted it as 1 point. My reasoning, of course, is that I am mostly focusing on the number of episodes penned by women. It doesn't matter if one or two or a hundred women write an episode: it counts as one episode. If a single episode was written by a writing team consisting of a male and female, I counted it as 1/2 of a point. I gave women like Annie Mebane and Amy Poehler credit if they wrote with a partner because, duh, they still wrote something!

What it all means: This data is obviously a baseline, not an end-all-be-all set of numbers. A variety of factors played into the percentages -- the number of episodes per season is, of course, a major factor. The larger number of episodes in a season, the less likely that there is a large percentage of episodes written by females (as sad as that is to type). Additionally, the size of the writing staff and the diversity among the staff plays a factor in the number of episodes written by women. Shows with a high turnover rate among the writing staff will also factor into this number. Again: it's not a conclusive set of data, but it's definitely interesting to watch the trend among certain shows rise and fall.

And now, without further adieu, let's take a look at some of the shows on my list!

# of show runners: 2
# of female show runners: 0
male/female lead character: male
# of major female characters on show: 3

The data:
  • Season 1: 12 out of 25 episodes (48%)
  • Season 2: 12 out of 24 episodes (50%)
  • Season 3: 6 out of 22 episodes (27%)
  • Season 4: 4 out of 13 episodes (31%)
  • Season 5: 2 out of 13 episodes (15%)
The discussion/hypothesis: Obviously, Community was the show that spawned this idea in the first place and looking at the numbers, it's clear to see WHY. This is a show that has gone from a fairly decent-sized writing staff in 2009 to a very small, male-dominated one in 2014. Notice the dramatic drop between seasons two and three in regards to the percentage of female-written episodes. Seasons one and two were dominated by writers like Emily Cutler, Megan Ganz, Hilary Winston, etc. and all of have since departed. In a show where half the characters are female, it's interesting that there are so few on staff.

A lot has changed over the years, tonally, with Community. And I think that - by looking at the data - I can attribute some of this to the writing staff. The regression of Annie Edison, the lack of significant stories for Shirley, the evolution (and de-evolution) of Britta... they all are driven by the writing. But what's also interesting is that Community is a show led by two male show runners at this point (Dan and Chris) with a central male character in Jeff Winger. Do you all think that this can impact the tone and structure of a show? (I do, of course. But I want to know what you all think, too!) Community is the only show we see this sharp decline in, by the way.

(I'm getting depressed looking at that 15%, so let's move onto another show.)

# of show runners: 3
# of female show runners: 1
male/female lead character: female
# of major female characters on show: 2

The data:
  • Season 1: 9.5 out of 24 episodes (40%)
  • Season 2: 11 out of 25 episodes (44%)
  • Season 3: 9.5 out of 23 episodes (41%)
The discussion/hypothesis: It's clear from this bit of data (and from the graph that is practically a straight line) that New Girl has a pretty steady and decent percentage of episodes written and/or co-written by female writers. Is this because the show is more balanced in terms of show runners, with two male ones (Dave Finkel and Brett Baer) to one female show runner (Elizabeth Meriwether)? Or is it simply the size and consistency of the female writers on staff like Liz, Kay Cannon, J.J. Philbin, Nina Pedrad, etc.? Though New Girl has a plethora of male writers on the show who are immensely talented, they also allow their female writers ample opportunity to display their talent.

In addition to the diversity of the writing staff and show runners, New Girl is a story that centers around a female protagonist. It would make sense, then, for there to be a greater number of female-written stories on a show that focuses on a female lead character, no? But here's a question to ponder: how does the writing on New Girl (a show where 40+% of the episodes are written by female writer) differ from a show like Community in terms of tone and comedy? Do you notice a difference in how each show approaches a specific topic? In how they deal with relationships or comedy or story?

I'll let you all think about this finally before I move onto another show: can you tell that Community has been (and is now) primarily a male-driven series in terms of writing and is it evident that New Girl is the opposite? If so, what do you think are some of the merits and drawbacks of each?

# of show runners: 1
# of female show runners: 0
male/female lead character: female
# of major female characters on show: 4

The data:
  • Season 1: 1 out of 6 episodes (17%)
  • Season 2: 8 out of 24 episodes (33%)
  • Season 3: 6 out of 16 episodes (38%)
  • Season 4: 7 out of 22 episodes (32%)
  • Season 5: 5.5 out of 22 episodes (25%)
  • Season 6: 6 out of 22 episodes (27%)
The discussion/hypothesis: This is one that I was actually surprised about. With Amy Poehler leading the cast and it having such an array of women, I would have presumed that more episodes would be written per season by women. But what I DID notice about Parks and Rec is this: their show doesn't seem to have a high turnover within its writing staff. A vast majority of the female writers have been writing on the show since the second season and (like I'll discuss momentarily with The Office and Mindy Kaling) are the "go-to" female writers on staff. Now, like with every show listed in this post, this only follows episodes written by females, not females (like writers' assistants) who are on staff.

Nevertheless, Parks is fairly consistent in its writing, both in terms of staff and in terms of how many episodes per season are written or co-written by female writers. There's a distinct presence of these women on the show and their voices carry through and resonate with the characters they write for. Like we'll see too with The Office (a show that, of course, Parks show runner Mike Schur once wrote for), ensemble-driven comedies with a strong female presence need - most of all - a consistent writing staff with a consistent female voice in order to be successful. But what do you all think? Would you have assumed that Parks and Rec would have these numbers or did you anticipate higher ones?

# of show runners: 1
# of female show runners: 0
male/female lead character: male
# of major female characters on show: 6

The data:
  • Season 1: 1 out of 6 episodes (17%)
  • Season 2: 5 out of 22 episodes (23%)
  • Season 3: 5.5 out of 25 episodes (22%)
  • Season 4: 3.5 out of 19 episodes (18%)
  • Season 5: 5.5 out of 28 episodes (20%)
  • Season 6: 5.5 out of 26 episodes (21%)
  • Season 7: 5 out of 26 episodes (19%)
  • Season 8: 5 out of 24 episodes (21%)
  • Season 9: 6 out of 25 episodes (24%)
The discussion/hypothesis: The Office is an interesting television series to look at in terms of female writing staff because - as I noted above - the vast majority of female-penned episodes were those penned by the same females across the years (most notable, of course, being Mindy Kaling). Though these is consistency in the series, the numbers are also quite low for the comedy. At its highest, only 24% of the episodes in a season were written or co-written by a woman. For a series that had six different main women as cast members, that is a tad surprising, don't you think? However, note one of the important facts I mentioned above, as well: the lead character of The Office is a male character (Michael Scott). I feel like that plays a difference in the percentage of episodes written by females and/or females on the writing staff.

As I also mentioned with Parks and Rec though, the writing staff for The Office and the females within that staff had relatively low turnover between seasons. Unlike a show like Community that found its staff shook up and rearranged between seasons two and three, The Office's writing staff remained relatively consistent throughout the years, though changes did occur. So that begs the question: are you all surprised by the lack of female-written episodes of this sitcom? 

However, though there were fewer penned by women in this series, some of the most memorable were the ones written or co-written by the female writers ("The Dundies," "Niagara," and "The Injury").

# of show runners: 2
# of female show runners: 1
male/female lead character: female
# of major female characters on show: 4 (though most are supporting)

The data:
  • Season 1: 8.5 out of 24 episodes (35%)
  • Season 2: 8 out of 22 episodes (36%)
The discussion/hypothesis: It appears that The Mindy Project is headed down a similar route as New Girl (I suppose only next season will truly tell) with the percentage of episodes written or co-written by females on the show. Note the similarity too, between Mindy Kaling and Liz Meriwether's shows: both women are show runners, but both also have co-show runners that are male. My hypothesis is simple: this makes all the difference in the tone of a show and how well-rounded it is. Shows with balanced and consistent male/female writing staffs and EPs/show runners seem to handle their characters (especially the female ones) differently than shows that are strongly rooted in male writing. That's not, of course, to say that male-dominated writing is BAD necessarily. But... is it BEST would be the right question to ask.

The Mindy Project is only partially through its second season but it seems to have found its groove as a comedy and I think that this can be attributed to the staff, cast, and show runners. Only time will tell, of course, how the rest of the series shapes up, but I presume it will follow in its sister show's footsteps. When a show is run, in part or in whole, by a woman and it is written with a female character as its center, it stands apart from other sitcoms somehow. It doesn't mean the show is faultless or somehow better than a comedy with a male lead. It is just different. The way that a show approaches certain topics differs, too, depending on who is calling the shots and who is writing the dialogue.

As for me, I am happy that The Mindy Project seems to have found its footing and has a decent percentage of female-written episodes (with a female show runner, to boot).

So now it's time for you all to weigh in on the raw data I presented. Once more: this isn't a complete thesis as some of the shows have yet to air the remaining episodes of their current seasons (which will obviously adjust the percentages in the post either up or down). But it IS so interesting to read and contemplate, isn't it? Discuss the shows below and YOUR feelings about female-penned episodes. :)


  1. I really had no idea the percentage had dropped so precipitously on Community. I know I desperately miss Ganz and I'm not sure either current female writer is on twitter. I had thought it was Troy's absence that was affecting my enjoyment this year, but there's a very good argument here that it's far more than that. I would hope it could be corrected in a potential s6, but as the issue has clearly worsened each year, I'm not so confident.

    I know that I have paid attention more and more during the last few years as to who authored what on various shows, and have been pleasantly surprised to see a woman's name more often. But then again, the fact I have to be surprised is disappointing in and of itself.

    Anyway, this was a great and informative post!

    1. I had no idea the percentage had dropped off so intensely. I knew there were a lot of writers on seasons 1 and 2 that were female but I guess I never looked at the data before of exactly HOW many episodes later on were written by women. It's crazy to look at, honestly. I think that I'm right there with you regarding the enjoyment of this season: I've pinned it on the writing, most recently, and looking at the stats, I'm now realizing how sad that percentage is (Community has the best AND worst percentage of female-penned episodes).

      Isn't that SO true? We shouldn't have to be pleasantly surprised when something is really solid and written by or directed by a woman (but we are). Gotta love our society. ;) Thanks for the comment! This was such a fun experiment and I'm glad I got to share it with y'all.

    2. Carol Kolb is on the twitter. The other female writer is not. -Kim

  2. The disappointing thing about Community's lack of current female writers is that Dan Harmon knows the importance of having a well-balanced writing staff. Here's an AV Club article from a few years ago where he expresses some of his views on the topic:

    Here are some choice quotes:

    "They’re harder to find. It’s definitely not because women ain’t funny, because I’m finding the opposite. It’s because there’s fewer of them. The statistical probability of picking up a shitty script, it’s compounded for women. There’s the same percentage of genius happening in both genders, but there’s less women writing scripts and out there looking for the job. So you dig a little extra-hard, and you end up with a staff that took a few extra meetings and a few extra shitty scripts to read. Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women. And it seems like the greatest thing in the world, because the world is half women. And the male writers across the board, from top to bottom, in their most private moments drinking with me, when they’re fully licensed to be as misogynist, reactive, old-boy-network as they want, all they can say is, 'This turned out to be a great thing.'"

    "There’s a literal, actual difference between men and women, and it’s in their blood, and it’s in their brains, and it’s in their fingertips, and it’s in our conversations. I think women are different, and I think having them in the room is crucial to a family comedy, ensemble comedy, television comedy, where half the eyeballs on your show are women."

    "now I’m carrying this legacy, going, 'Eh, guys, we really need a half-female writing staff.' I would teach it. I think we have to stop thinking of it as a quota thing and think of it as a common-sense thing."

    I think the timing of Dan's re-hiring may have affected the number of women who were hired for Season 5. I remember him saying that by the time he got back to work, most of the good writers had already been hired, so he didn't have the luxury or the time to pick whomever he wanted. I'm hoping for Season 6 the ratio can get closer to 50-50, but at the same time, I don't want there to be any unnecessary turnover.

    1. You know, I remember that article and him saying how important it was to have good, solid female writers on a sitcom. And how a show needs to be balanced in order to be complete (or as good as it can be). And that is quite possibly true: his rehiring probably had something to do with it. I know that after season two though, a lot of the female writers (like Hilary Winston and Emily Cutler) moved on to other shows and projects. I feel like it started the (obvious) rapid decline in season three and they should have filled those holes back then. Maybe if they had, we wouldn't have the sad, sad statistic we do in season five, haha.

      I wouldn't want any unnecessary turnover, really. If there is a sixth season though, I think the writing staff can definitely expand. There are some vets on there, but I'd like to get new, fresh female writers in (like Ganz was when they hired her), too.