'We couldn't be so vicious about celebrities today' | Jennifer Saunders also says women are 'less competitive' as comedy writers

'We couldn't be so vicious about celebrities today'

Jennifer Saunders also says women are 'less competitive' as comedy writers

Women comedy writers are less competitive than their male counterparts and more concerned with preserving their friendships, Jennifer Saunders has told the BBC Comedy Festival.

'From watching Ade [Edmondson, her husband] and Rik [Mayall] and other people writing together, it's much higher energy and much more competitive [for male comics]' she said.

Saunders and her long-time double act partner Dawn French, 'have never been competitive. Even down to the fact that sometimes we don't even know which part we're supposed to be playing.

'It was more about friendship, so long as that survived' the Absolutely Fabulous creator explained to the audience in Glasgow. 'Female friendship is more intimate and I think the fun comes from that. We just enjoyed having that slight excuse to be together.'

Indeed, such is the delight that French and Saunders take in each other's company, that some have mistaken their creative process for them simply ‘titting about’.

Rather than sit at a desk and write, 'we generally sort of went out for lunch and read magazines … you have to be relaxed to do it' Saunders told  nterviewer Muriel Gray.

'I know a lot of writers, they get together and hammer it out. But we didn't, it's about gossiping and talking and making each other laugh. And then going through the process of saying this, this, this, these are good ideas and then expanding them. So it's quite a slow process initially.

'But I do believe in that thing. Because I remember one time I was trying to write and a producer came in. And I was writing with Abi [Wilson], who wrote Jam & Jerusalem with me, and the two of us were sitting around laughing and [the producer] said: "Will you stop messing about and get down to some writing?!"

'I remember thinking: "This is writing. This is what it is". It isn't just tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. It's thinking and it's laughing. And it's expanding and it's having ideas. A lot of it is seemingly not writing.'

Nevertheless, she and French did take guidance from Ben Elton, when he advised them to write 'jokes for every situation'.

Sketches should never open with characters wishing each other good morning or similar he instructed them, they 'should always begin with a joke. What's their neuroses?'

Regardless, Saunders continues to struggle with the discipline required. She admitted that 'sheer, utter panic is the only way I can do it' and recalled that for Absolutely Fabulous, her first narrative comedy, she waited until her children had fallen asleep and would then work through the night, whisky to hand.

Currently making a retrospective documentary about the sitcom for Gold, she said that she had been 'incredibly lucky' with the casting.

June Whitfield 'had been in French And Saunders and I'd always watched her in Terry and June and just thought that she did it so beautifully. Because it was a submissive part and she somehow found a strength within it and made him look ridiculous. And I just absolutely admire that so much.'

She had never previously worked with Joanna Lumley but Ruby Wax had and she took her recommendation, seeing that the former model and New Avengers star had been 'extremely funny and funny in a way that was slapstick, not caring what you look like'.

Julia Sawalha she described as 'a genius … she was the person I was most afraid of.

'She came into the audition and she was terrifyingly serious. And I just couldn't stop giggling. I thought "oh, you're terrifying, you'll do really well". She was the hardest one to ever make laugh because she had such concentration.'

Recalling the relatively big budgets and lavish film spoofs that they used to enjoy on French And Saunders, the sheer number of wigs and costumes that they got to play with, she lamented that 'at that time the BBC could afford that sort of thing' as every aspect of production was done in-house. 'I find it quite sad' that that period has passed, she admitted.

But she also conceded that she and her double act partner probably wouldn't go in for the same sort of character assassinations today, even if they appear relatively mild with hindsight.

'There was a very different feeling about taking the piss out of other celebrities and that sort of thing at the back end of the Nineties,’ Saunders recalled. 'People were almost flattered to be mentioned, do you know what I mean? 

‘I think now we couldn't be as vicious about people and celebrities because they would be upset about it … So I think we'd be a bit more sensitive on that.'

Consistently self-effacing about her own talent and work ethic, she did, however, indulge herself in contemplation of an alternative life where her comedy career had never taken off.

'I almost know entirely what I would be doing' she disclosed. 'I would probably be buying very cheap ponies and selling them on for profit. I'd probably have joined a small traveller community.

'Or, I would be doing that thing they do on television a lot, which is going about in a van, raiding old ladies' houses of antiques, doing them up a bit and selling them. That would be my dream!'

- by Jay Richardson

Thanks for reading. If you find Chortle’s coverage of the comedy scene useful or interesting, please consider supporting us with a monthly or one-off ko-fi donation.
Any money you contribute will directly fund more reviews, interviews and features – the sort of in-depth coverage that is increasingly difficult to fund from ever-squeezed advertising income, but which we think the UK’s vibrant comedy scene deserves.

Published: 24 May 2024

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.