Fleabag’s dark tragi-comedy sweeps Emmy awards

Funny bones: “Women have pain built into them,” says Fleabag’s therapist in one episode.

Is sadness what makes it so brilliant? Fleabag has won four awards at the Emmys, including best comedy series. But despite the belly laughs, the show has a dark heart of grief and despair.

“This is just getting ridiculous,” said Pheobe Waller-Bridge on Sunday night, as she stood on stage in Los Angeles to pick up Fleabag’s third Emmy award of the night. The show, which she wrote and starred in, swept the comedy categories for best direction, outstanding writing and best comedy series.

There was more to come: Waller-Bridge also picked up best lead actress in a comedy before the night was out.

What began as a one-woman Edinburgh Fringe show is now a global phenomenon. When Waller-Bridge reprised Fleabag at the West End this Autumn, the performances were beamed to sold-out cinemas across the country. The second season, which aired earlier this year, has been widely declared the best TV show of 2019.

Fleabag centres around a young woman who uses casual relationships and caustic wit to disguise the guilt she feels after her best friend’s death. The plot may sound more tragedy than comedy — indeed, the second season sees Fleabag embark on a doomed love affair with an alcoholic priest, after her sister suffers a miscarriage in a restaurant. So, why is it funny?

Sadness and comedy are often deeply linked. We see it in the trope of the sad clown comedian, who is hilarious on the surface and despairing beneath.

Many of the laughs in Fleabag come from the eponymous character’s blunt, outrageous behaviour, coupled with witty asides direct to the camera. As described in an essay by Zara Barrie, Fleabag (the character) is the epitome of “the razor-sharp, bitingly funny and wildly inappropriate people” in comedy who “never fail to provide us with the perfect quip at the perfect time” while being “so heartbroken within”.

The fear and insecurity beneath Fleabag’s witty veneer is finally exposed when she enters a confessional booth, alone with her thoughts in the dark.

“I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate…” Tears run down her face. “Just tell me what to do.”

Waller-Bridge herself says that she uses a “Funny/Not Funny” writing strategy. “How do you make an audience laugh in one moment, then feel something completely and profoundly different in the next?” she mused in a recent interview. It seems that she has mastered the art.

“How many TV shows this year ripped your heart out and, at the same time, made you feel like you’re capable of being a better person?” asks TV writer Jen Chaney. “For me, there was only one.”

So funny it hurts?

Is it sadness that makes Fleabag so brilliant? Repressed grief, unrequited love, old family wounds. By drawing out the dark humour in human pain, Fleabag makes us feel both the laughter and the heartbreak all the more keenly. As an emotional TV experience it stands alone.

But a lot of comedies mix sadness and happiness: the true magic of Fleabag lies in its flawless execution. It is slick, fast-paced, without a line wasted. It employs bizarre, inventive narrative techniques never before seen on screen. It is Waller-Bridge’s sheer mastery that has us awestruck.

You Decide

  1. Are funny people really more likely to be sad?
  2. What makes something funny?

Activities

  1. List your favourite three comedians or fictional comedy characters. For each one, write a sentence explaining why you find them funny.
  2. Write your own joke or a short, funny poem.

Some People Say...

“Life is like coffee, the darker it gets, the more it energises.”

Ankita Singhal, US author and marketeer.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Fleabag won four awards at Sunday night’s Emmy awards, upsetting HBO’s political satire Veep. Jodie Comer won best lead actress in a drama series for spy thriller Killing Eve, which was also written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Game of Thrones won best drama series, taking its total number of Emmys to 32, which is the most won by one show in the award’s history.
What do we not know?
Why Fleabag has been so hugely successful. Some reviewers say that it depicts female sexuality and experience with biting realism. Others say it is the way the main character breaks the fourth wall to make the viewers her confidantes. Others praise Andrew Scott’s performance as ‘The Hot Priest’ (as with Fleabag, we never find out his character’s name).

Word Watch

Pheobe Waller-Bridge
Aside from Fleabag, Waller-Bridge was also the show runner, writer and producer for the first season of Killing Eve. She is also helping to write the script for the next James Bond film.
Caustic
Sarcastic.
Alcoholic priest
Played by Sherlock star Andrew Scott, the character is widely known as “The Hot Priest”.
Trope
A recurring idea.
Eponymous
An eponymous character has the same name as title of the book, film or show.
Epitome
A perfect example of something.
Confessional booth
In the Catholic church, it is a tiny room where a person goes to confess their sins to a priest.
Narrative techniques
Fleabag regularly turns to the camera to speak directly to her audience, without other characters noticing. However, in the second season, the Priest starts to notice what she is doing and asks her, “Where did you just go?”

Subjects

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