Man in dress comedy (CC: BBC)


So here’s a post I’ve wanted to write for a while, its about a certain brand of comedy that really gets my dander up. Not for any particular reason other than the sheer laziness of it. I don’t watch shows like Ja’mie Private School Girl or Mrs Brown’s Boys because that’s where 90% of the comedy in those shows comes from. Both of which are BBC shows, hence the subtitle of the post, as I will be emailing it to the BBC to try and get them to stop being so damn lazy.

I love comedy shows, they’re great fun. They would probably suck if they weren’t great fun, so its really good when they’re not. Most recently I’m watching Fleabag, which has Phoebe Waller-Bridge from Channel 4’s Crashing as the lead role. She’s so funny and perfectly captures the millennial struggle with self-awareness and apathy in an ever changing, ever reflecting world. A world where we have teenagers making thousands from taking pictures of themselves for social media, but also one where the 20 something’s of the world are stuck working hard in a career they hate. It becomes so easy to just give up and say “fuck being proper, prim and all that jazz”, even with the constant pressure from the world around to reflect on yourself and improve. I really, really enjoy this kind of comedy, it speaks to my generation perfectly. It’s an exaggeration of the life we’re all leading and its oh so on point.

Not to mention the countless other absolutely amazing comedy shows that are out there. The most important quality of these comedy shows is that they don’t rely on lazy gimmicks to make people laugh. Unlike comedy which falls into my “man in dress” category. This is what shows like Mrs Browns Boys do. The comedy is derived almost entirely from “that’s a man in a dress”. So when Mrs Brown says something really rude or sarcastic, you laugh because you see a man, being a man, while wearing women’s clothes. “Hahaha, look at how out of the norm that ‘woman’ is being!” It’s a really simple and lazy trick to get people to laugh, because it constantly works against our expectations – which is essentially what you can distil all humour down to. A constant attempt to undermine our expectations, with something absurd or unusual.

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A really pretty girl farting is funny, because you don’t expect really pretty girls to fart publicly. An old woman DJ is funny, because you don’t expect an old woman DJ to drop some sick drum and bass. Really extremely macho men enjoying candle lit baths and talking about the greatness of bath bombs is funny, because its not what you expect from that kind of person. All of the above stop being funny after the repeated use of them, because comedy in its simplest form is an undermining of expectations, and shows like Mrs Browns Boys exploit that. Instead of writing actual comedy, they write situations where a female character is played by a man. This means the man will always undermine your expectations of what a female character might do, and it tricks you into assuming this is funny, when in reality, its just lazy.

Picture this for example; the camera pans up from the ground. Two slender female legs are seen as the camera reaches the butt, the lower back and finally the head. Revealing a woman in a mirror styling her hair, we cannot see her face in the mirror. She turns around, and she’s actually a man with a full motorbike moustache. Which part of this is funny? None of it, even despite its attempt to exploit your expectations.

Except, you did expect it, because you know exactly what this blog post is about, so it stopped being funny. This is the same thing shows like Ja’mie will fall through. Initially the shock to your expectations gets you, and you giggle a little, but really soon after it stops being funny. It stops playing on your expectations, because you know exactly what to expect. Put simply, a man pretending to be a woman.

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All of this is not to say that men can never wear female clothes or vice versa for comedy purposes. Let’s Dance For Comic Relief is amazing, the short story of which is that celebrities dress up as famous singers and re-enact dances from famous songs, musicals, etc. One of my favourites has to be Paddy McGuinness and Keith Lemon’s take on Dirty Dancing. Which is not only an amazing re-enactment, but is so funny to see Keith Lemon dancing incredibly well in heels. These aren’t funny because it’s Keith Lemon in a dress though, they’re funny because they’re really well done re-enactments of some of Britain’s favourite dances by celebrities that you wouldn’t expect to be great dancers.

There’s also Mrs Doubtfire, which doesn’t straight up hit the “man in dress” comedy type. It instead beats around the bush a little, but with good reason. It totally justifies the ‘man in a dress’ comedy trope, and makes it significantly less lazy. Instead of having a female character played by a man, it’s a male character, playing a female nanny, played by a male actor. And it’s amazing. The problem with man-in-dress comedy is that there is literally no good reason or explanation for why there’s a man in a dress, we’re just supposed to laugh and find it funny, that man is pretending to be a woman, hahahaha!

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Yet Mrs Doubtfire pushes this comedy into being actually really funny, and justifies things like misjudging the size of your chest and setting it on fire.  Because we know that’s a man trying and failing to be an old lady and making those kind of errors, something that’s missing everytime a character like Mrs Brown does something similar – as we’re supposed to just believe that’s a woman, not a man playing a woman. The comedy in Doubtfire is derived from things that actually within the confines of the film, wheres are Mrs Brown relies almost entirely on the gimmick – which is external to what’s happening on screen.

That right there is my general issue with this kind of comedy. It’s not immoral, or wrong, or anything – although  I can totally see why both women and trans people are finding it offensive. It’s just lazy, and shows a complete lack of creativity. There are also times when men wearing women’s clothes for comedy can genuinely be great comedy, it’s just that most times its ever attempted, its done in this really lazy way that doesn’t bring anything new to the trope like how Mrs Doubtfire did.

Can we just stop writing man in dress comedy until we figure out a better way to approach it? Thanks.

 

 

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