Symposium Review. Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters

Exclusively for WFTHN members, Jay Bamber presents a comprehensive and lively review of a packed one-day symposium on women writers and screen comedy, held at the BFI, Southbank in October 2018.

Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters
28/10/2018 – BFI Southbank

Pamela Hutchinson – ‘Anita Loos: The Soubrette of Satire’
Gail Renard – ‘Carla Lane: Writings of a Liver Bird’
Deborah Jermyn – ‘”I’ll Have What She’s Having”: Nora Ephron’s Brilliant Screenwriting’
Julia Havas – ‘Dry Humping in the Outer Boroughs: Tina Fey and the Image of the Female’ Ashanti Omkar – ‘Mindy Kaling: Breaking Boundaries with Comedy’

Event flyer can be found here.

Hosted by the British Film Institute, as part of their wider Comedy Genius season, Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters narrowed the focus of the season to engage with some of the female screenwriters, past and present, who have challenged comedic norms, helped construct a female comedic language and enriched the visual comedic landscape.

Film journalist Pamela Hutchinson began the discussion of female comedy writers with an analysis of the work of Anita Loos, whose success and influence in the silent film era offers an instructive case study of the difficulties that female creatives experienced in the transition from silent to sound cinema. Hutchinson provided fascinating biographical detail of Loos to examine how her public persona informed her film work and contributed to her ability to tackle taboo subjects, including female sexuality. Examples of Loos’s intertitles were used to illustrate her sharp, risqué comedic style and clips demonstrated her keen interest in the relationship between sex and power in conventional heterosexual romance narratives. Hutchinson provided important cultural and industry context to point out the enormous role that women screenwriters (as well as editors, producers and designers) played in the silent era, as well as to illuminate Loos’s creative partnerships with legends such as D.W. Griffith (who referred to Loos as “the most brilliant woman in the world”) and Douglas Fairbanks. Loos was also famous for her literary output and Hutchinson carefully mapped how the cultural success of the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) indicated Loos’s exceptional authorial cultural capital for that time, making her a unique figure in early sound cinema.

BAFTA-winning comedy writer and producer Gail Renard turned her attention to the Liverpudlian writer/creator Carla Lane, situating her analysis around the British sitcoms The Liver Birds (BBC1, 1969 – 1979) and Butterflies (BBC 2, 1978 – 1983). Renard contextualised the dynamic, multifaceted female characters of The Liver Birds, co-created by Lane and Mayra Taylor, by revealing statistics regarding the rarity of female sitcom writers in 1970s UK television and contrasting the show with parallel (male-centred) texts such as The Likely Lads (BBC 2, 1964 – 1966). Renard demonstrated how scenes of four female characters talking together were an anomaly for the time and an illustration of The Liver Birds’ commitment to the revelatory, comedic potential of the female voice and female-centric interactions, including Lane and Taylor’s confident tackling of everyday experiences to produce an emotionally-nuanced comedic sensibility within the sitcom genre.

Deborah Jermyn offered insight and analysis into the films of Nora Ephron analysing how the popular comedy screenwriter maintained an unusual level of prestige and industry respect whilst working in the often undervalued romantic comedy genre. This analysis led directly into the following Q&A on the often problematic cultural reception of female-oriented comedy, which positions it as “frivolous” – a term which is often used derogatively to describe the genre in which Ephron excelled creatively. Jermyn’s presentation focussed on When Harry Met Sally (Reiner, 1989), Sleepless In Seattle (Ephron, 1993), and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998), the Ephron films which have gained the greatest cultural capital, symbolised by their contributions to the cultural lexicon. In keeping with the theme of the conference, Jermyn also illustrated the ways in which these films elevate the female point of view and legitimise female emotional responses, even when the female characters don’t always seem to take precedence on the page.

Julia Havas focussed her analysis on the comedic image and contribution of Tina Fey, paying particular attention to how Fey constructs and problematises the image of the female comedy writer. Havas discussed how Fey navigates the pretty/funny binary often employed to analyse female comedians, pointing to Fey’s description of herself as a writer first and a performer second. Havas argued that Fey’s more cerebral public identity as a writer helps to legitimise her feminist point of view.

Radio broadcaster Ashanti Omkar turned her attention to Mindy Kaling, who, like Tina Fey, is a show creator, writer, producer and performer – most known for her work on The Office (NBC, 2005-2013) and The Mindy Project (FOX, 2012 – 2015, HULU, 2015 – 2017). Omkar demonstrated how Kaling’s Indian heritage and her comedic persona places her in a unique position to explore diasporic identity more self-reflexively on popular television and to subvert stereotypes through a comedic lens, pointing out the particular nuance placed on romantic comedy tropes through Kaling’s casting as an under-represented minority at their centre. Omkar also highlighted how Kaling has fostered a relationship with her audience separately via social media and book publication.

Many of the themes of the individual presentations were brought together and further scrutinized in the panel discussion. Topics discussed included: female access to creative pursuits, the role of genre in female writing and diversity in comedy screenwriting. At the beginning of the event, it was suggested that screenwriting has always been a “breeding ground” for female comedic talent, even if women’s contribution to comedy (and notions of comedic genius) have often been ignored. The papers that made up Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters more than proved that point by demonstrating how these screenwriters make what is important to them personally, important to their comedy writing. The symposium particularly revealed how these women use the comedic space to uncover new stories and new languages to bring fresh political and social attitudes into the comedic landscape.

Jay Bamber is currently studying for a PhD at Roehampton University after completing a BA and an MA at the same institution. His interests are centred on genre and how it functions in film and television, including romantic comedy. His thesis explores the relationship between the horror genre and The Disney Corporation.

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