Photo courtesy BBC Worldwide
My sister and I share a love for British television comedy that lately has put her in the driver’s seat because she actually lives in London. She raved about The Office, for example, before it was even a culty must-see among the natives. When her favorites actually make it to TV over here — usually on cable channel BBC America — we both feel an optimist’s warmth in the fighting chance they’ll get to make inroads with a viewership who mostly think England has made only two sitcoms ever: Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served?
But when I called her up recently to tell her that a recent cause, Nighty Night, six half-hours about a malevolent hairdresser, had broken through with a spot on the women’s entertainment channel Oxygen, I heard no rah-rah solidarity.
She fearfully blurted out, “Have they watched it?”
They have, and they’re crossing their fingers that you will, too. But not because it’s good for you in the image-conscious, positive-empowerment vibe of shows you might expect to be programmed by a woman-centric channel. Nighty Night, which Oxygen will start airing this week on Fridays at 11 p.m., is good for you because it feels bad for you, like binging on Oreos or having homicidal thoughts about that guy who cut you off in traffic. It’s disturbingly funny. Not only has the show stirred debate in England about what is acceptable subject matter for comedy, it’s given its talented writer/star, a swanlike amazon with regal features named Julia Davis, a sick-puppy cachet few women in the humor business ever achieve. If taboo buster Larry David ever came across Nighty Night’s cruelly calculating Jill Farrell, he just might be speechless.
One of Davis’ first jokes is that when Jill discovers her husband has cancer, she heads straight to a dating service — she’s simply thinking ahead. The peppy agent, inquiring about Jill’s tastes in men, asks, “Emotionally open? Able to communicate?” Jill blithely responds, “No, thank you.” By the end of Episode 1, Jill — whose marvelously condescending Bath accent is like a poisoned spray — has insulted her elderly employee’s denture breath, forever scarred a client with a sloppily applied dye job, sought sympathy by lying that her husband has died, and begun her zealous campaign to seduce the new neighbor across the street, a doctor whose wife has multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound. One of her tormentees is even driven to suicide.
None of this is treated with the wink-wink exaggeration we usually expect from envelope-pushing comedy. Nighty Night doesn’t have to force-feed its scabrous wit, because it has the deliberately drab patina of a daily soap, a format wherein the desperate lives of suburbanites in the throes of lust, illness and death have never been questioned as appropriate fodder for drama. Why not comedy? Julia Davis’ contention is that nervous laughter is still laughter, and therefore a release. You’re not in stitches over the fact that the doctor’s wife, Catherine (Rebecca Front), has a crippling disease. You’re laughing at Jill’s inability to see her as anything but an inconvenient obstacle, and conversely at the absurd politeness the put-upon Catherine shows a long-legged, miniskirted stalker who is torturing her to get to her husband.
The brilliance of Nighty Night is that it’s the evil-woman horror-comedy that the camp classics Fatal Attraction, Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle were too chicken to be. No needling morality, just hilariously shocking behavior, and certainly no less wince-inducing than the perfumed trail of disdain and contempt that Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie leave through the working-class South on The Simple Life. If bad girls are what sell, then Julia Davis has at last justified Oxygen’s cutesy-attitude logo: “Oh!”
Until now, stale sass has mostly defined Oxygen’s comedy rollout. Network chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne’s crusade to glorify funny women on the 5-year-old channel has been better met with Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous repeats than with homegrown shows like the dreadful sluts-on-parade sitcom Good Girls Don’t. Laybourne says she has proof that women are ready for a comedy as unforgivingly black as Nighty Night, a punk rock coup of sorts for the network.
“What they all say is that TV is just too politically correct these days,” she says, citing a recently completed, Oxygen-commissioned research study on women ages 18 to 49 and their humor preferences. “Now, if you were ever going to find a show that is an antidote to that problem, this is it. It’s the least politically correct show I can ever imagine. This is just the kind of outrageous thing that will be water-cooler talk.”
The break-time chitchat Laybourne envisions is innocent compared to the newspaper ink spilled in the U.K., most wondering whether Jill’s sociopathic antics hurt women, especially since they sprouted from the mind of one. Davis, reached on her cell phone in London, recalls one such review. “Someone said, ‘It’s really not doing anything for women, portraying them so badly,’” she says, her soft-spoken phone manner a far cry from the bracingly confident presence she is when performing. “I think integration and balance for men and women are true in real terms, but I don’t think art or comedy is the place to do that. It’s about your particular way of expressing yourself.”
The 37-year-old performer was raised in Bath and Somerset and studied drama in college, but it wasn’t until she tried her hand at making people laugh — she sent a tape of herself doing various characters to English comedy phenom Steve Coogan, who promptly hired her for his live tour — that she made her mark. In 2000, Davis impressed — and frightened — Brits with an acridly witty TV series called Human Remains, in which she and co-writer/friend Rob Brydon played six different creepy couples, each in various stages of delusional dysfunction. Nighty Night has since revealed to her countryfolk that Davis was the morbid half of that duo, and she admits that spending so much time writing alone only led her into more twisted recesses of her imagination. But she finds it particularly bizarre that strangers ask her if she’s Jill. “It’s weird. Obviously I’m not. Maybe I should say I am.”
When asked why such grave topics find their way into her humor, Davis alludes to a life of turmoil, including a close friend who committed suicide, which she won’t discuss. As for the character with MS, Davis explains, “There was a period where I was ill in my early 20s, and I was around a lot of people with MS, and I saw people being so patronizing [to them]. I found it unbearable, so I channeled all that rudeness into Jill. I suppose you’ve got to look at yourself and things that have happened to you and think, ‘Can I take it if jokes are made about it? And if so, maybe I’m allowed to do these other things.’”
Ultimately, the deliriously nasty high that Davis’ monstrous creation provides is in parodying the love-conquers-all scenario in which a girl is destined to be with a guy, decorum be damned. I mention this to Davis, and she acknowledges a connection between Jill’s bulldozer approach toward being loved and a self-help romance culture that odiously convinces women that manipulation is their salvation, citing the best-selling man-grab book The Rules. “It’s all stuff like not returning phone calls, essentially scheming and not being spontaneous or truthful, really, isn’t it?” says Davis, laughing. “I imagine Jill’s concocted her own set of rules.”