Broad comedy: A new wave of funny women

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
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The Independent Culture

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."