June 17, 2018

Yes, Female Writers Produce Funny Television.

Diving Into the Gender Composition of the Best Comedy Writing Staffs

Oliver Gladfelter + Michael Hester

Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty has always been known for its nihilism, vulgarity, and alternate timelines. Yet between seasons two and three, it also became known for defying the status quo, when creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland hired four female writers and created a gender balanced writing staff. Evidently, plenty of male audience members weren’t excited, arguing “social justice warrior” writers were destined to ruin the show. Of course, this was all happening before the first episode of the season was even released. As it turned out, season 3 brought some of the highest ratings Rick and Morty has ever reached.

Rick And Morty Rating
Rick And Morty Rating Mobile

Incidentally, season 3 premiered just one year after Adult Swim head, Mike Lazzo, was asked about the lack of female creators in the network’s projects. His answer?

“Women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects.”

Lazzo would later walk this back, but the comment remains as a stark reminder of the challenges women face in the writing room. But does Lazzo's critique have any merit at all? Do ratings suffer when more women are involved in the writing process?

To test how female writers may affect comedy ratings, we turn to IMDb, which allows millions of users to rate movies and TV shows. It also provides a wealth of information,  including the writing credits of each released project. For our analysis, we gathered data on IMDb’s top 100 comedy TV series1.

In total, these 100 series have released 12,300 episodes written by 2,267 unique writers. Using a combination of data collection tools — including researching nearly 400 writers by hand — we were able to confidently predict the gender for 2,250 of those writers, giving us a final sample of 12,237 episodes to work with2.

Comedies Are Written Mostly by Males

Overall, female writers are a significant minority in TV’s most popular comedies. In fact, 52% of all the episodes we analyzed were written without a single female writer, while fewer than 1% of episodes were written without at least one male on staff. 

On average, shows attributed 81% of their writing credits to male writers. Twenty-three out of the 100 shows attribute a staggering 95% or more of their writing credits to males.

Women are Strongly Underrepresented on Writing Staffs for TV Comedies

The gender distribution of writing credits for TV's top 100 comedies based on IMDb data

% OF MALE WRITING CREDITS:
# OF EPISODES:

Shows Have Something To Gain By Hiring More Female Writers

Lazzo justified this lack of female writers in the television comedy industry by downplaying their comedic abilities. But this argument quickly falls apart when put to the test; in reality, comedy episodes tend to receive slightly higher ratings when they have a more gender-balanced writing staff.

Granted, overall ratings improve only marginally — episodes written exclusively by males averaged an IMDb rating of 8.0 while those written with gender-balanced writing staffs averaged a rating of 8.1 (a small, but statistically significant improvement). Still, this reveals that male-dominated writing staffs are not a prerequisite for creating quality comedy.

Looking at the ratings of male voters vs. female voters tells an even more nuanced story. Male viewers slightly prefer episodes created by more males than those by more females, though the difference in ratings is marginal. By contrast, female viewers strongly prefer episodes written with higher female representation.

Scatterplot Trend
Scatterplot Trend Mobile

Just how strong is this effect? Episodes written exclusively by males averaged an IMDb rating of 7.7 from female viewers, while those written with an even balance (give or take 10%) averaged a rating of 8.1. That's the difference between M*A*S*H  with an average episode rating of 7.7 — and 30 Rock. The two shows are separated by 32 spots on IMDb's list of top comedies.

Another compelling argument for gender parity: ratings peaked when neither males nor females exceeded more than 60% of the writing staff. In other words, gender balanced writing staffs tend to outperform those comprised predominantly of any one gender.

Gender Preferences
Gender Preferences Mobile

It’s also likely that IMDb ratings undervalue content targeted towards female audiences; our data set included a total of nearly 9 million IMDb votes, of which only 14% were from female users. In fact, out of the top 100 comedies, only one show was rated by females more than males — Gilmore Girls, with 52% of its votes coming from female users.

Final Thoughts

Before season 3 of Rick and Morty, Beth and Summer were mostly one-dimensional, supporting characters. But throughout the third season, they became more dynamic and started contributing to the show in meaningful ways. Harmon directly attributes this change to the writing staff’s new additions

It’s a safe bet that most TV viewers don't know who’s writing their favorite comedies, but a staff's gender composition clearly has an impact on viewers and ratings. As we’ve learned from Rick and Morty, having more female inclusion in the creative process can help shows utilize all of their characters, introduce new comedic tropes, and provide more relatable content — which is why approaching gender parity in comedy writing staffs results in more enjoyable content for viewers..


Footnotes:

  1.  With one slight exception: we excluded The Daily Show, which ranks #96 on IMDb's list. We decided that including The Daily Show risked skewing the analysis because of the large number of episodes (3,500 and counting) and its distinctive content. We replaced it in our sample with 90210, the 101st top comedy. ↩︎
  2.  For any given name, the Gender API returns both a predicted gender and its confidence level in the gender prediction. To ensure accuracy, we manually checked each writer whose first name the API could not predict with a confidence level of at least 97%. Moreover, the measurement of a group’s gender composition has greater limitations overall: Gender API actually predicts sex (male/female) based on an individual’s first name. For analytical purposes, we chose to equate sex and gender because they are highly correlated, however it should be noted they are not perfectly correlated. ↩︎

Methodology:

  • We determined our list of shows by taking the top 100 from this list on IMDb, which ranks comedy TV shows by number of votes received.
  • Episode and writing staff data was downloaded from IMDb. All necessary information came from four datasets (title.basics.tsv, title.episode.tsv, title.crew.tsv, name.basics.tsv), which were merged together.
  • Because "writer" is gender agnostic, it made it harder to programmatically determine whether a writer was a male or female (in comparison to something like "actor" vs "actress"). We used a combination of the Gender API, information from TV.com, and manual investigation for about 400 writers. Our research left us with the gender of all but 17 writers in the dataset. You can check out our final dataset here. Let us know if you find any glaring mistakes.
  • We pulled the ratings for each episode from IMDb’s website, which provides the gender and age breakdown for votes.

Nerd Notes:

Static charts were made in Tableau. The interactive beeswarm was created with d3.js.