Why 2016 has been a great year for women in comedy

From Fleabag and Catastrophe to My Dad Wrote a Porno, women have been having the last laugh, says Ellie Harrison

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In a year when I think we’d all agree, we have really needed a good laugh, it is women in comedy who have been providing the goods. A wave of searingly intelligent and refreshingly honest women have changed the face of funny on TV, in the cinema, and through the airwaves, and they are not showing any signs of slowing down.

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Perhaps a good place to start would be with the superlative of British comedy: Sharon Horgan. Horgan is a writer, actor, director and producer who shot up through the ranks with the BBC3 sitcom Pulling, before making the filthily funny Catastrophe, then The Circuit, then Motherland, and then Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

Catastrophe is the show that made Sharon Horgan the funniest woman on television. She co-writes the sitcom with Rob Delaney, and together they play a couple thrown into commitment after a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy. One of the many reasons Catastrophe works is because it’s gritty and coarse – and it’s brazen and frank about sex. Often, it’s when women refuse to prescribe to the social construction of a “lady” that they are taken seriously as a comic… if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Coital awkwardness (legs akimbo, sex going on too long, sex not going on long enough, etc) is terribly British. Rather than deflecting from that, Horgan leads with it. 

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Catastrophe

Phoebe Waller-Bridge laughs at the quirks of sexual intimacy, too. Her stage monologue turned BBC3 series Fleabag is about a young woman whose life unravels as she tries to cope with a personal tragedy. Fleabag’s frequent asides to the camera (mainly consisting of wry smiles and eye-rolls when she’s in bed with her various exploits), is not only amusing, but also unflinching. It is the rawness of Waller-Bridge’s writing and her use of the tragi-comic that has altered the face of British comedy this year.

Fans of Horgan and Waller-Bridge will no doubt enjoy My Dad Wrote a Porno. The podcast is essentially a reading and analysis of an amateur (or genius) erotic novel written by host Jamie Morton’s dad, whose pen name is Rocky Flinstone. Morton sits down with friends James Cooper and Radio 1 DJ Alice Levine once a week and reads out the obscene adventures of the book’s titular character, Belinda Blinked. Summary: regional sales meetings and lots of shagging.

Alice Levine completely steals the show. Her commentary on Belinda’s antics has made functioning people, myself included, break down into hysterical laughter on the tube, much to the bewilderment of fellow passengers. No one has ever been that happy on the Piccadilly Line. And here, as with Catastrophe and Fleabag, it’s the boldness of the content that makes it funny.

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My Dad Wrote a Porno

The Guilty Feminist podcast is yet another example of successful women in comedy. The brainchild of Sofie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White, each episode begins with a confession (“I’m a feminist, but…”), which demonstrates that while we’re all great feminists and everything, we also have hypocrisies and insecurities that undermine this principle.

For example, one of Frances-White’s disclosures was this: “I’m a feminist, but once, when boarding a light aircraft from Cape Cod to Boston, I was asked my weight by the engineer who uses that information to determine how much fuel to put in the plane. I lied, claiming to be 20 pounds lighter than I was. And in doing so, endangered my life and the lives of the other passengers, and the pilot… and a border collie who was along for the ride.” It’s a gloriously candid revelation, and makes for excellent and meaningful comedy. 

But it’s not just in trendy TV series and indie podcasts where women are funny, it’s in blockbuster films, too. Rachel Bloom, the creator of hit US comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, recently pointed to Bridesmaids for leading to people “hungering for women’s voices in a way that they haven’t before” and for making women in comedy “cool in pop culture”.

More recently, Bridget Jones’s Baby is bursting with comic female actors like Emma Thompson’s doctor. The best line in the whole movie has to be when she warns the fathers that they might want to reconsider witnessing the birth from the business end – “My ex-husband said it was like watching his favourite pub burn down.” Emma Thompson co-wrote the script.

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It is a recurring theme that when women are at the helm, they write funny, honest female characters. In Bridget Jones’s Baby alone, the director, two of the writers and one of the producers are female. On The Guilty Feminist, the hosts invite women on as guests, celebrating their voice and giving them a platform. As Sharon Horgan said to the Radio Times in October, “Most of the TV I’m watching is either created by, starring, or directed by women.” And it’s true, she is certainly in good company.