USA TODAY US Edition
Amazon’s ‘Fleabag’ burrows deep with caustic comedy
As a bawdy, brutally honest woman in comedy, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has gotten every comparison in the book.
“I’m the ‘next Lena Dunham,’ ‘the ‘English Amy Schumer,’ the ‘next Sharon Horgan,’ ” Waller-Bridge, 31, says with a shrug. “I’ve basically been linked to every other woman who’s written about sex. No guy is ever the ‘new Will Ferrell’ — he’s just a comedian. I guess it’s indicative of it being quite a small pool.”
One in which the British actress and writer hopes to make a splash with her depraved yet heart-wrenching comedy Fleabag (streaming Sept. 16 on Amazon Prime).
Adapted from her 2013 onewoman show that played England’s Edinburgh festival, the sixepisode series follows a seamy London café owner named Fleabag (Waller-Bridge). She provokes her sister (Sian Clifford), steals from her stepmother (Olivia Colman) and strings along her milquetoast boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) when she’s not masturbating to YouTube videos of President Obama.
Fleabag is someone “I knew I had wanted to play for ages: a dark, unapologetic, weird, pervy girl who’s really deadpan,” Waller-Bridge says. As in the play, the character frequently addresses the audience directly with repugnant asides to the camera, which go from funny to fragile as she grieves the loss of her best friend (Jenny Rainsford) and is pursued by her sister’s loutish husband (Brett Gelman).
Onstage, “so much of the humor was knowing that I have something naughty or controversial that I’m about to say, and playing that line with the audience of making them complicit in it, whether they liked it or not,” Waller-Bridge says. “I knew I had to have that element (in the TV show),” without “making it too self-referential or relying on it to nail jokes.”
Fleabag ’s moniker comes from Waller-Bridge’s childhood nickname, Flea, and she says the story is based on experiences of her and her friends. “Funny enough, loads of people think they’re in it, like, ‘It’s me, isn’t it? I’m the brother-in-law?’ ” Waller-Bridge says. “And that’s (coming from) like, a 25-year-old woman.” Like Horgan’s Catastrophe,
Fleabag‘ s first season was acquired by Amazon shortly before it premiered in the U.K. Like the streaming giant’s other new sitcoms, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi and Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six
Scenes, Waller-Bridge had “a very
specific vision,” says Joe Lewis, Amazon Studios’ comedy chief. “The take on the relationship show felt so different, and her approach felt more like a threehour movie, which is what we do. Everything about her is so honest.”
Waller-Bridge cites other female comedies — Absolutely
Fabulous, Bridesmaids and Girls — as inspirations with their depictions of flagrant, fearless women.
“It’s interesting, because there are so many male-led comedies that are all about (sex) and we’re all so used to it,” Waller-Bridge says. “My character comes out and (masturbates) a couple times, and then all of a sudden it’s, ‘Outrageous! Unprecedented!’ That’s without a doubt because I’m a woman.
“I remember when the play first came out,” she continues, “girls actually came up to me saying, ‘It’s so nice to hear someone talk about female masturbation.’ And I thought, ‘Well, if I’ve given my audience anything ...”