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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor