“How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” asks writer-star Aisling Bea’s character Aine in her Channel 4 comedy, This Way Up.
“One,” she says, delivering the punchline to her own joke, “but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”
This Way Up follows Irish-transplant Londoner Aine (Bea) in the aftermath of an attempted suicide. She fumbles through her life as an ESL teacher, always ready to deploy her next corny joke or comedic bit, closely watched over by her protective older sister Shona (Sharon Horgan) and beloved by her roommate Bradley (Kadiff Kirwan) and young student Etienne (Dorian Grover). Over the course of six episodes, Aine develops feelings for Etienne’s father Richard (Tobias Menzies), hooks back up with her cheating ex Freddie (Chris Geere), and amidst it all attempts to convince the world around her that she’s “fine” through her goofy sense of humor—despite still struggling with the depression that institutionalized her a few months prior.
The release of the first season of This Way Up, which only recently concluded in the States, followed on the heels of the second and final season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s equally cutting BBC comedy, Fleabag. The first season of Fleabag follows the nameless protagonist (Waller-Bridge) grappling with the guilt and grief she feels over her role in her best friend Boo’s (Jenny Rainsford) death. The second season follows her ill-advised love affair with a Catholic priest (Andrew Scott). Like Aine, the protagonist of Fleabag has a protective older sister (Sian Clifford) who feels responsible for her, one dead parent, and a distant and complicated relationship with her remaining parent. Like Aine, she consistently acts out self-destructive behavior against her better judgment and uses humor to deflect from her deep pain and hurt. And, like Aine, she knows how to love others in abundance but has no clue how to love herself.
“I think you know how to love better than any of us,” Fleabag’s father (Bill Paterson) tells her in the show’s final episode, “and that’s why you find it all so painful.”
The timing of Fleabag’s ending and This Way Up’s release doesn’t feel entirely coincidental. To look at it cynically, perhaps Channel 4 hoped to fill a Fleabag-shaped hole in BBC viewers’ hearts, to cash in on the Fleabag hype, with the tonally and thematically similar This Way Up. I’m not much for cynicism, though, and This Way Up is no knockoff Fleabag. To me, it feels more like Fleabag held open a door so that This Way Up could walk through.
The growing number of such “traumedies” raises a handful of questions: What is funny, what can be funny, and who is allowed to make it funny?
These are far from the first or only recent comedies to deal with the intersection between womanhood and emotional trauma—these aren’t even the only two such shows whose writers star as the main character. In April, the CW concluded Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which ran for four seasons and starred its head writer Rachel Bloom as unhappy-lawyer-with-undiagnosed-BPD Rebecca Bunch, and in February, Netflix released Russian Doll, written by Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland, and Natasha Lyonne and starring Lyonne as loner-programmer-ignoring-the-effects-of-her-traumatic-childhood Nadia Vulvokov. (It’s worth noting that all of these shows center white women. Television networks must give more opportunity and promotion to shows centering the mental health of women of color, written by people whose life experiences reflect their characters’—lookin’ at you, Euphoria—but I digress.)
Both Bea and Waller-Bridge write and star in their shows. Neither show is autobiographical, but both shows are deeply personal and heartfelt, which is only compounded by the fact that the writer stars as the main character. This enables both shows to devote an incredible amount of empathy, love, and forgiveness to their main characters, even when those characters don’t extend the same love and forgiveness to themselves. It’s empathy which is necessary to mine grief or depression for laughs. Both shows examine what it means to be a “messy” modern woman—someone who struggles, who fucks up, who feels trapped in their life—and dissect the absurdity that comes from that situation. Both shows are deeply internal journeys through trauma, loss, and recovery, and both shows are funny as hell.
The growing number of such “traumedies” raises a handful of questions: What is funny, what can be funny, and who is allowed to make it funny? If your comedy (or art in general, I suppose) is derived from pain, can you hold onto that in recovery? When all your love is pointed outward at others, is it possible to redirect some of it inward at yourself without feeling selfish? How do you hold defensive, deflective humor and profound understanding and honest betterment of the self all in the same hand?
Fleabag seems to have ushered in a new kind of comedy, a genre into which This Way Up slots neatly. It should go without saying that this new women-focused emotional comedy has been pioneered by women; the question of who’s allowed to make women’s suffering funny is, quite obviously to me, women.
“Women are born with pain built in,” Fleabag’s fleeting mentor figure Belinda (Kristin Scott Thomas) tells her over drinks in Season 2, right before Fleabag drives her away by kissing her. “Men don’t. They have to seek it out.”
Those of us who live with the kind of pain the people in these shows carry know it intimately, and it’s us who should be allowed to turn around and derive laughter and enjoyment from it. It’s not simply that most men shouldn’t seek the humor in women’s trauma (although they probably shouldn’t), it’s that the majority of men couldn’t pull it off—not the way these shows do. (Obviously there are shades of nuance here—the world isn’t as simple as “men” and “women,” and I don’t want to paint with a broad brush.) And it’s also not that I think men shouldn’t watch, laugh with, and enjoy these shows, because I actually think more of them should. But shows like these can only fully succeed if the artist thoroughly understands and empathizes with the subject of their art.
The other thing about this emerging genre of comedy that makes these shows feel like a success is that they aren’t just about women’s suffering—they’re about recovery, and clawing one’s way out of suffering. It depicts recovery with authenticity; it’s not a straight line, it’s not easy, and the fixes aren’t perfect or permanent. Even as they “get better” (a loose term, at best), Aine and Fleabag make mistakes. They show recovery as the ongoing process that it is, and that you don’t have to give up essential parts of yourself while it happens. And they show that one person’s love is not a finite resource—that you don’t have to love others less to love yourself more.
So how do you balance the distraction of humor with the direct truth of authentic selfhood and understanding? Can the two things go together without contradicting one another? It’s the fundamental question This Way Up and Fleabag ask—and the fundamental question I, as both comedy writer/funny person and deeply emotional being, ask myself constantly—and perhaps not one with an easy or straightforward answer.
In the final episode of This Way Up, Aine’s sister tells her, “Your life is not your own,” meaning, “Your life affects and matters to people other than yourself.” That’s the possible moral to the “traumedy” genre, and perhaps as close as I get to an answer to my earlier question: that people mean things to each other. Whether you deflect with humor or are upfront about whatever baggage you carry, your life inherently means something, and you live in a world with other people who think so. In the final episode of Fleabag’s first season, Fleabag laments: “Either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone. Which isn’t fucking funny.”
She’s not alone. It all comes down to this: It might not be easy, but you can hang onto both—you can feel your sorrow and your joy, or joy in your sorrow, without denying either.
This Way Up streams on Hulu; Fleabag streams on Amazon Prime; Russian Doll and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stream on Netflix; Euphoria airs on HBO.
Allyson Larcom is a Boston-based writer whose work has appeared in The Satirist and Wellesley College's Counterpoint Magazine. Follow her on twitter @allysonlarcom, or visit her website allysonlarcom.wordpress.com to find more of her writing.