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Comedy and trauma in Nanette and Funny Cow

  • 01 August 2018


Funny Cow (MA). Director: Adrian Shergold. Starring: Maxine Peake, Stephen Graham, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong. 102 minutes

Plenty has already been said about Tasmanian comic Hannah Gadsby's brilliant and devastating Netflix special Nanette. I won't dwell on it overly much here, other than to say that it is, among other things, an elegant critique of comedy as an imperfect tool for processing and transcending trauma. Gadsby, a lesbian who grew up in Tasmania at a time when anti-gay prejudice was enshrined in law, has made a career out of joking about the bigotry she has experienced in her life. But jokes are not the cure, she concludes by the end of Nanette; stories are.

In this regard it ought to be a strength of Funny Cow that it is more concerned with the life story of its titular character (Peake) than with the jokes that arise from it. She is an aspiring comedian (named only as Funny Cow in the credits) in 1970s northern England. Though we know from glimpses of her future she attains a level of success, the film gives scarce attention to her development of her craft, or her efforts to forge a career, other than to the extent that they provide an escape from socioeconomic and gendered oppression, towards independence.

In fact, for a film about a comedian, Funny Cow is surprisingly dour. She was raised by an abusive father, and an alcoholic mother who failed to protect her. Later she marries a man, Bob (Pitts), who turns out to be no less a brute than her father. From a young age Funny Cow is shown to use humour to deflect trauma. When, as a child, local bullies push her into a pile of dog turds, she picks up said turds and chases them down the street. After enduring a beating from her father, she asks mildly, 'Are you angry? You seem angry.' She later uses the same line on Bob.

The film doesn't shy from the violence she suffers at the hands of these men, from the markers of socioeconomic hardship in her life, or from the various ways in which she, as a woman, is oppressed both privately and publicly. But nor does it follow through in any meaningful way the idea of comedy-as-coping, or critique this the way Gadsby does. (To be fair, Funny Cow is an entirely different medium and context, but both concern themselves with