Broad comedy: A new wave of funny women

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Forget French and Saunders. There's a new wave of funny women hitting British television screens. Gerard Gilbert introduces the best of the next generation

French and Saunders have now officially gone their separate ways; Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne return only for Christmas specials; and Catherine Tate has perhaps exhausted her current repertoire of memorable characters.

With the exception of the evergreen Jo Brand, the top drawer of female British television comedy would appear to be bare. And this at a time when American television is populated by some very funny women indeed, including Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey and the newcomer Sarah Haskins.

However, a new generation of British TV comedians is emerging to fill that French and Saunders-shaped hole and negate the notion that there is only room on British television for one female comedy act in every generation. Miranda Hart's goofy BBC2 sitcom, Miranda, was the sleeper hit of the winter; Emma Fryer showed great promise with the sweetly idiosyncratic Home Time; Watson & Oliver (Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver) are being groomed as the new French & Saunders; and Sharon Horgan has been cornering the market in sharply filthy girls' talk. Kristen Schaal, better known as the scary stalker Mel in Flight of the Conchords, has been busy building up a fanbase over here. This week, in a sign that the high-pitched American comedian has been accepted over here, her web comedy, Penelope: Princess of Pets, starts on Channel 4.

It can't be long before the likes of Laura Solon – who in 2005 became one of only two women to have won the Edinburgh Comedy Award as a solo act (the other was Jenny Eclair in 1995) – and recent best newcomers Josie Long and Sarah Millican branch out from acting as handmaidens to Harry Enfield or Al Murray or guesting on bloke-heavy shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats and Have I Got News for You.

"Authorship is key", says Channel 4's head of comedy, Shane Allen. "If you look at all the old sitcoms, it's either Croft or Perry, Dick Clement or Ian La Frenais... brilliant, brilliant scriptwriters... and still to this day most of them tend to be blokes. But more recently you've got the likes of Victoria Pile, who created Smack the Pony, Jessica Hynes with Spaced, Sharon Horgan with Pulling and Ruth Jones with Gavin & Stacey... you've got really strong female characters through that."

Allen believes the internet, as well as the proliferation of new TV channels, has allowed female talent to shine.

"The internet is a good leveller," he says. "You can be very entry-level . You make a video and it's much easier for someone in commissioning to click on that than it is for them to go to a comedy club for a whole evening. We're doing a pilot with a girl called Morgana Robinson who sent in a really funny DVD, in the same way that Fonejacker did.

"There's one area I think we don't have enough of and that's very silly female comedy. It would brilliant to have a very, very silly, female Vic and Bob. I saw Katy Wix and Anna Crilly [the latter played Magda the Eastern European housekeeper in the Jack Dee sitcom Lead Balloon] last night and they were brilliantly stupid. We're doing a Comedy Lab with them next year."

Nerys Evans, the producer of the first series of Miranda, says: "It's a really healthy time for female comedy. However, you have to differentiate between stand-ups and character comedians – I don't think there are that many proper stand-up female comedians. Stand-up is a hugely competitive and male-dominated – very macho – and more female comedians are coming through the acting route, like Sharon Horgan. Miranda Hart was a 10-year overnight success, starting with character stuff at Edinburgh, which is a more friendly environment than the stand-up circuit. Jo Sargent, who was our executive producer on Miranda, got her in for Absolutely Fabulous originally. Jennifer loved her and wrote her a part."

But does Hart have a wide enough appeal to fill French or Saunders's shoes? Evans says she shouldn't even try. "Everybody is saying, 'Who is the next French and Saunders?' I feel for Watson & Oliver... I mean, one's blonde the other's dark... it's quite something to live up to. And it's not even like French and Saunders have left the building – they're still creating amazing comedy. They paved the way and set the bar very high, but an awful lot of people of following them have been absolutely inspired by them."

'Comedy Lab: Penelope Princess of Pets' airs on 21 April at 11pm on Channel 4; 'Watson & Oliver' comes to BBC2 later this spring

Emma Fryer

Coventry-born Emma Fryer has enormous, googly eyes and a willowy demeanour that has informed her comic persona – first as Johnny Vegas's stoned-sounding, kleptomaniac ex-girlfriend Tanya in 'Ideal' and then as the star of the self-penned 'Home Time'. This refreshingly paced BBC2 sitcom starred Fryer as Gaynor, returning home to Coventry to live with her parents at the age of 29, having left for London at 17. "I was a teacher before and I developed a stutter, so I did this all-female comedy night in Birmingham as a dare to myself, just to see if I could do it", Fryer says. "In typical Gaynor fashion, my poor old dad gave me a lift there and sat outside in the car for three-and-a-half hours." Fryer is currently filming 'PhoneShop', a Ricky Gervais script-edited ensemble sitcom set in...a phone shop. Channel 4 liked it so much that it ordered a full series before last year's pilot aired.

Watson & Oliver

The BBC has high hopes for Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver, having granted them a comedy pilot on BBC2 instead of consigning them to the nursery slopes of BBC3. Friends from school, the duo most obviously fit the shoes of the now departed French and Saunders, although they eschew Jen and Dawn's celebrity and movie pastiches for more surrealistic sketches. The involvement of the 'Peep Show' producer Robert Popper, who created (with Peter Serafinowicz) 'Look Around You', a pitch-perfect pastiche of early 1980s educational TV, bodes well. Citing as influences 'Big Train', 'Spaced', 'The Day Today', 'The Mighty Boosh' and, yes, French and Saunders, Watson & Oliver are unusual among female performers for creating a large number of male characters. "When we write sketches we rarely think of them in terms of women," says Oliver. "We tend to think in male characters a lot."

Kristen Schaal

Born in Colorado, the honorary Briton on our list has been spending more time on these shores since finding cult fame as the stalker fan Mel in HBO's 'Flight of the Conchords'. With her dorky persona and helium-pitched voice, Schaal was an acclaimed stand-up before the 'Conchords' came along – in 2008 she was nominated for an If.comedy Award (as the Perrier Awards were briefly known) in Edinburgh. This month her web comedy 'Penelope: Princess of Pets' transfers to television as part of Channel 4's new 'Comedy Lab' season. Her Edinburgh sketch about dreaming of sex with Winston Churchill (involving an avocado) is everything you would expect from the co-author (with her husband, the 'Daily Show' writer Rich Blomquist) of the 'Sexy Book of Sexy Sex'. You will also be able to sample her vocal talents in two upcoming animation blockbusters, 'Toy Story 3' and 'Shrek Forever After'.

Sharon Horgan

"The funniest woman you've never heard of" and "late starter" are two tags that have followed the Irish comedian Sharon Horgan ever since the riotously and filthily funny 'Pulling' attracted just enough critical attention to ensure that it didn't become the most underrated sitcom of the Noughties. (That dubious honour arguably goes to Horgan's later Channel 5 series, 'Angelo's'.) 'Pulling' was a glorious showcase for Horgan's pitch-black humour, which also suited the potty-mouthed and very funny six-parter 'Free Agents', a Channel 4 'will they/won't they' romantic comedy. Horgan has also co-starred with the 'Arrested Development' star David Cross in his 'Comedy Showcase' offering 'The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret', about a sales executive caught out of his depth when he is sent from the US to run the UK arm of a drinks company. More4 are turning that into a full series. Says Horgan, who turns 40 this year: "I have quite a lot of drive because I started late. I spent a lot of my 20s doing nothing."

Miranda Hart

Big, ungainly and not averse to pratfalls, Miranda Hart had the sleeper comedy hit of last winter with the cheerfully uncool 'Miranda', the BBC2 version of her radio sitcom. It divided some critics along gender and class lines – "Too posh", or "My girlfriend loves Miranda, but I can't stand it", that sort of thing. 'Miranda' was a breath of fresh air – a welcome throwback to a more relaxed style of British comedy. Hart has wanted to be Joyce Grenfell since she was 18, has loved Morecambe and Wise for even longer, and wanted "to try and be big and silly and not be ashamed about falling over". Lee Mack, who created the role of Barbara the cleaner for her in 'Not Going Out', says: "Miranda is naturally funny — BBC2 seems to allow itself one funny woman at a time, and now that Catherine Tate has finished her show, that job is hers."

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Stinson Hunter and his associates Stubbs and Grime in Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
This Banksy mural in Clacton has been removed by the council
art
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?