Women in television: Girl comedy and lady sitcoms
Caitlin Moran's hell-raising teen avatar gets her own show in Raised by Wolves, and that's good news for rude, rowdy women everywhere, writes Laura Tennant
So what if America has Lena Dunham, whose sitcom Girls , now in its third series, supposedly rewrote the rules for the female-focused sitcom? Britain has funny, filthy Caitlin Moran, columnist, feminist, author of How to Be A Woman – and now screenwriter of a sitcom of her own, written with her sister Caroline.
A Tough Sell
Sitcoms centred around female characters are notoriously hard to get made (a screenwriter friend recently complained to me that commissioning editors like to tell her that ‘they have their female sitcom for that year, thank you very much’). Of course there have been some famous and honourable exceptions – including The Liver Birds , AbFab, Birds of a Feather (now returning to our screens), Dinner Ladies , Miranda and Up the Women , an unlikely-sounding comedy-drama inspired by the suffragette movement.
But with commentators heralding ‘the fourth wave of feminism’, can we expect to see a slew of new female-centred comedy drama? Alongside Raised by Wolves, there’s actress Emily Mortimer’s show Doll & Em , which is co-written by Mortimer and her real-life friend Dolly Wells and sends up Mortimer’s own life in the Hollywood Hills. And in related news, the BBC’s new head of television, Danny Cohen, marked a definite cultural shift when he told journalists last weekend that, ‘We're not going to have panel shows on any more with no women on them. You can't do that. It's not acceptable.’
Jane Bussmann, whose CV reads like a roll call of the most shocking, satirical, politically incorrect and quite simply funniest comedy of the last 20 years (think South Park , Smack the Pony , Brass Eye and The Fast Show ) is another trailblazer. Her book, The Worst Date Ever , tells how she travelled to Uganda to impress a fanciable peace activist, only to find herself, almost by accident, exposing the 'secret war’ pursued by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army with the complicity of Western governments and NGOs. The book was published to huge acclaim from, among others, Channel 4’s Jon Snow.
Now she’s turned it into a sitcom pilot called The Ladies with her writing partner Naisola Grimwood – and they are billing it as ‘the rudest sitcom ever’. Set in ‘the world’s worst magazine and a nice old lady’s house’, it stars Sally Phillips as an ‘inspirational boss’, Kayvan Novak as an ‘Australian intellectual’, Morgana Robinson as ‘the boss’s thick daughter’ and Olivia Poulet as ‘Kate Middleton, a princess’. The taping in the former BBC Radio London building had 700 people queuing round the block and Phillips has described it as ‘South Park does Grazia’. It's certainly popular, but it's pretty rude, and probably advisable to file well away from the 'Things to do in London with kids' section of your timetable.
‘Classic British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder featured entertaining characters with lots of jokes,’ Jane tells CW. ‘Then at some point in the Nineties I began to be asked why my sitcom idea wasn’t more “relatable”. But I don’t want my audience to “empathise” with my characters, I want them to laugh.
‘British humour is full of cuddly villains and loveable rogues like Alf Garnett, who was a racist, cowardly, teddy bear who audiences loved to hate,’ she continues. ‘Comedy is all about getting warm characters to do naughty things, or bad stuff happening to flawed characters – like The Good Life’s Margot Leadbetter falling down the stairs.'
The Ladies' almost completely female cast, she tells CW, was more accident than act of positive discrimination. ‘We wrote the characters as big fun sitcom characters based on people we knew, so each was probably a mix of horrendous men and women who'd appalled us and made us laugh over the years,’ Bussmann explains. ‘When it came to actually casting them as men or women, we knew it was about particular actors bringing warmth and fun, not gender. However, I can't deny it's lots of fun to hear an elegant veteran screen goddess like Vilma Hollingberry let loose the way my mum talks when she's had couple of glasses of Frascati and David Cameron comes on the news. The air goes blue across London.’
If it ever gets made, The Ladies might just be the most offensive thing on television. The pilot features a press conference at Buckingham Palace in which the actor playing Prince William tells the assembled journalists that he recently went on a fact-finding mission to meet ‘a group of Somali lesbians who didn’t have two clitorises to rub together’.
‘Mainstream comedy gets it out there,’ protests Bussmann. ‘If I tried to make a documentary about FGM, people would turn off because it’s so depressing.’ Her methods may be unorthodox but she is a genuine and ferocious campaigner for Africa and Africans and offers a blistering critique of the charity industry. In her adopted city of Nairobi, she occasionally entertains herself by driving to the most expensive restaurant in town and counting the number of Unicef jeeps parked outside – or recounting to outsiders the true story of the former Wall Street consultant who now ‘empowers’ Nairobi’s slum dwellers with yoga classes. ‘I don’t actually have to make up any jokes about white perceptions of Africa,’ says Jane. ‘I just write down what happens around me.’
Bussmann’s willingness to be wildly, trangressively ‘inappropriate’, she says, explains her success as a comedy writer – and why she believes sitcoms written by men are funnier. ‘Women are raised to care about whether they have upset people and if they look awful. And, by and large, the two things that are good for comedy, are looking awful, and upsetting people,” she told The Independent last year.
With comedy from Bussmann, Moran and Dunham liberating girls to be physically flawed, filthy-minded, furious and infuriating in equal measure, that might be about to change.