Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underrated, we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.
Over the last ten years, Kay Cannon has specialized in mainstream comedy curation. As an Emmy-nominated writer and producer on the groundbreaking 30 Rock, scribe for all three blockbuster Pitch Perfect films, and director of this year’s subversively sweet take on the raunchy R-rated comedy, Blockers, Cannon hasn’t just pushed comedy’s proverbial envelope — she’s unsealed it, opened it up, reassembled its contents, and presented it with a new and refreshingly inventive context.
Blockers marked Cannon’s directorial debut (and it hits the shelves on Blu-ray today), and she used her opening salvo as a director to upend the tired trope of “horny high-school boys on a quest to get laid” by grounding the hijinks within the spectrum of female sexuality and agency. Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Gideon Adlon are the high-school BFFs who make a sex pact for their approaching homecoming night, and while Cannon gives them their fair share of dick jokes and slapstick to perform, she makes sure there is an equal amount of interiority to match. In fact, the young girls are portrayed as mature and self-possessed characters while their respective parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz) — who discover their daughters’ plot and band together to foil it — are the knuckleheads in need of some supervision. Cannon strips away the infantilizing stigma and taboo attached to female desire and sex positivity without losing any of the intrinsic hilarity that comes with awkward sexual experiences.
Cannon has a deep admiration for complicated female characters navigating through worlds that are propped up by their marginalization, which makes her selection of Fleabag for our Underrated column very on brand. Fleabag is a ferociously dark British comedy that follows the titular Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who adapted the show for BBC Three from her one-woman play) as she attempts to bring equilibrium back into her life after a traumatic experience. From disastrous dates to fractured family ties, Fleabag laces the viewer tightly into one woman’s shoes to show how life can toggle between comical, crushing, bubbly, and bleak in the blink of an eye.
Amazon began streaming season one in 2016, and the show has since found a steady IV drip of support from American viewers. But Kay Cannon wants you to know that Fleabag is deserving of way more attention.
What inspired you to choose Fleabag as the underrated comedy you wanted to discuss?
You know when you watch a show and you just love it so much that you expect everyone to be talking about it all the time? That’s Fleabag for me. I instantly thought it was incredible. I binged the whole first season pretty quickly. At the time, I was doing Girlboss, and Fleabag became this show I started watching on my down time that I found myself growing jealous of: “That’s what I want my show to be like!” I wanted it to be that good. Then I would mention Fleabag to other people and nobody was watching it. It’s that thing where you’re like, “It’s just the best thing in the world and it’s so funny and real and it’s such a great part and Phoebe should be winning every award!” It hits everything that I love about comedy in such a great way. I just didn’t feel like people were talking about it enough.
What is it specifically about the writing or performances that really checks off those boxes for you?
We’ve seen shows where a main character talks to the camera, but I think Fleabag is doing it the best. The way Phoebe looks at the camera to sneak in a line in way that is not necessarily on the rhythm that you think she’s gonna do it is so great. Then for me personally, it was the scene where she’s masturbating to Obama giving a speech, and I was like “Okay, this is different.” I’ll always love something that makes you feel something and also has something to say, and every episode, through dry humor, has a message that is never heavy-handed. Like the episode where Phoebe goes on the all-women silent retreat with [her sister] Claire, and they run into these guys who are at a different workshop, and these are very troubled guys who have been sent off to work through their troubles. And they’re yelling about how all of their problems are women’s fault. They’re allowed to get out their anger by screaming and doing the absolute opposite of what the women on the silent retreat were doing. Of course, the bigger picture is how women are being made to lose their voices while men find theirs and are given permission to become even louder. It was all done in this very subtle and humorous way.
Tonally, the comedies you write and produce — from 30 Rock to New Girl to Pitch Perfect — have a sharp and cynical bite, but overall they’re teeming with optimism. Fleabag can be very bleak at times. Does that affect how you watch in any way?
A thing I think about a lot is when you’re in the comedy world and you do it for a living, you’re a tougher critic on comedy. You don’t laugh as much. But Fleabag’s sensibility is the sweet spot. I just laugh so much. There’s this scene where her boyfriend says something like, “We should surprise each other more!” and he surprises her with dinner, but then she surprises him by coming into the shower with a knife. I laughed so hard at that scene that I rewound it and watched it again. I think I called my husband down to watch it with me and he was like, “What?” I was cackling with laughter. The acting is just so good and everything feels genuine. It took something that maybe you’ve seen before, something that could’ve been very sitcom-y, and it was just executed on such a high-level that it made it really special.
Do you think American audiences haven’t caught on to Fleabag because of a resistance to its very British sensibility?
I’m sure I’m wrong about this, but I feel like Americans don’t understand what they’re saying. [Laughs.] They don’t want to have to lean in to the television or have it on subtitles to really understand it, because it is much slower and much quieter. I’m not sure if you remember, but the American version of The Office did not do well in the first season. They were sort of still finding the show, really trying to translate its voice and tone. Then it did its own thing and became what it became, and Steve Carell was able to really display his genius. Then American audiences started to like it: “Oh, this is like us!” They started to accept it when the creators of the American version made it with an American sensibility as opposed to relying on the story lines of the British version, which they did a lot in that first season. So when it became its own thing and more Americanized or whatever, it clicked for people here. I honestly think when it comes down to it, people just don’t understand the dialogue. They just don’t get it. But my husband and I have a tradition where on New Year’s Eve we will watch the Christmas episode of the British Office. It’s just so beautiful. It’s a shame that people aren’t connecting to [this style of British humor].
I do see some overlap in the tenor of Fleabag and your comedy, especially Blockers, in that they both pack an emotional punch. How important is it to you that the sillier comedy beats of your films are tethered to an emotional truth?
If I have any artistry or a philosophy on comedy, it’s that there’s so much content out there that it’s important to me to make sure I’m making you laugh really hard but also making you feel something. Like in Blockers, I have something that’s as silly as butt chugging, then you’re moved during the scene where Sam comes out to her dad. It makes me cry every time! In real life, we can laugh and cry throughout the same day — like, you’ll be at work and hear something really ridiculous that cracks you up and then you come home and have a really serious conversation with your husband or something. I love that balance, and that’s what I want to watch. I’ve been down on a few critics where they’re like, “I don’t know what I’m watching!” They want to put it in a box because maybe the comedy is so broad. They say I don’t know what I want it to be. But what I put out is exactly what I want it to be. I want you to feel all these feelings in one sitting.
You’ve been attached to so many groundbreaking comedy shows and films over the last decade as a writer, producer, and now director. What advice would you give to someone reading this who would want to follow in your multi-hyphenate footsteps?
I would have them read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. It’s sort of both my writing philosophy and my life philosophy, which is you take one joke, one line, one page, one scene at a time and you don’t worry about the “big.” I think up-and-coming writers get bogged down by thinking of the whole script instead of just focusing on what’s right in front of them. Also, if you’re getting into comedy, make sure you’re watching everything that has to do with comedy. I’m a TV whore in that I watch it all and I love it all. I watch every comedy that I can. I try to watch every movie I can. And if I don’t like it, I watch it until the end because I think there’s something important in understanding your voice and discovering what you like and what you don’t. Also, don’t quit.
Before we go, how would you pitch Fleabag to our readers who may not have heard of it to encourage them to catch up before season two?
Phoebe’s character is a celebration of a complicated woman, the show is full of complicated characters, and it’s just really funny. I would especially encourage women to get used to enjoying watching complicated women who are defined as unlikable. I think us ladies, especially as viewers, view unlikable female characters as an indictment on us as women. All these years, all these generations of us watching flawed men ingrained in us and we are okay. We root for them. We like them. We enjoy it. We find them charming. We don’t find characters like Fleabag charming. I’m looking forward to the day when there’s so many stories and shows very similar to the amazingness that is Fleabag that we normalize it and get used to it — where it becomes ingrained in us and we start to accept the story lines of all these different kinds of complex women. Then I think we’ll finally be on par with the kind of stories that men have been allowed to tell. It’s just a great show that is so underrated. Not to make this about me, but I felt like we tried to do something similar with Girlboss and we fell flat on our face with it, but I still feel very proud of it. I just think we have to be allowed to take these risks and tell stories of all different kinds of women and start to accept them a little bit more.