Hands Up, Who Likes Me?: The Godmothers of Modern Comedy

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In this weekly column, I’ll introduce you to the world of British comedy in the chronology of how I, an American anglophile, discovered it in my life. This week: Absolutely Fabulous.

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was but a young boy, the observation “women aren’t funny” could still be bandied about with very little irony, or argument.

It wasn’t that women weren’t actually funny, it’s just that everyone seemed to collectively decide to ignore any evidence to the contrary. Lucille Ball? She needed Desi. Mary Tyler Moore? An exception to the rule. Lilly Tomlin? She’s obnoxious. Gilda Radner? Sure, but John Belushi is “really” funny.

The prevailing attitude of the general public was that men were funny, and women should watch them.

The small-mindedness of that thinking built up a pressure so high that in the late 80’s and early 90’s a veritable boom of feminine-hilarity burst forth in to the world. And no woman (or person for that matter) was so funny, so consistently as the incomparable Jennifer Saunders in her hit series Absolutely Fabulous.

I was a freshman in college when I first came across episodes of ABFAB, and it was a boozy-breath of fresh, pot-filled air. Not only had I never seen female leads be so raunchy and risk-taking in a sitcom (with respect to Roseanne), I had never seen so many references to drugs and drinking in a show considered mainstream.

At 3:18 this clip gets rather smoky:

Coke at the airport:

ABFAB did more than tear down a gender wall, it stomped on its grave while blowing rails.

The show itself revolved around Saunders bon vivant lead character Edwina and her strained relationship with her intellectual, uptight daughter Saffron (the wonderfully prim Julia Sawalha) and frighteningly coked out and cold party-girl friend Patsy (brought to legendary life by Joanna Lumley).

The triumvirate served as sort of an ID, ego and Superego with Eddy constantly being guilted by her daughter to behave, while Patsy urged her to dive headlong into hedonistic debauchery. Patsy, in my opinion, often stole the show with her Hedwig meets Keith Richards swagger.

Some choice Patsy, Eddy and Saffy conflicts:

ABFAB was a smash hit and a real crossover for British TV, as video rentals and sales took off here in the states and all over the world. It’s even been in development not once, but twice for an American remake by Roseanne Barr in 2001 and Fox television in 2008. Neither, obviously, got off the ground. Which in hindsight is probably good. Could network TV in America get away with a comedy filled with such dark, drug and booze fueled hi-jinx? I’d like to hope so, but I haven’t seen it yet (apologies to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

ABFAB had two runs, from 1992–1996 and then from 2001–2004. The return series was very funny, but it definitely lost some steam from the time off.

I won’t go into the various other plots and characters that wove through the show (though Eddy’s Mother and running cameos by Mo Gaffney are wonderful); I’ll leave that to you to discover for yourself. I will say though, in this Tina Fey/Amy Poehler world, we often take for granted that everyone knows that women are hilarious. But believe me people, it wasn’t always so! I thank Lilith, Kali and Mary every day that I saw the turning of the tide.

If you tear through ABFAB and you find yourself wanting more Jennifer Saunders, check out the sketch show French and Saunders. It’s a very funny series co-starring her long-time comedy partner Dawn French.

As always, here’s a clip of best-of bits from the show, courtesy of my dear personal friends at YouTube:

Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He’s written for The Onion, MTV’s Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.