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Less bromance, more womance

There’s not an insignificant number of fan fiction in existence about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

It’s not all imagined sex scenes, either. Cast all references to the pair’s potential romantic chemistry aside, and people just really want to imagine being mates with them. Who wouldn’t? In a world where your best friend is funny, you make the kind of money that can buy the stadiums you perform to, and you can spend all day writhing about on top of a piano in the name of work, life does seem pretty grand.

It’s been well established that comedy ‘bromances’ are big business. From Australia’s Hamish and Andy to Stephen Fry and Alan Davies chilling on QI, from James Franco and Seth Rogen to the whole Monty Python crew, teams of funny friends are a weird aphrodisiac for us commoners.

But there are fewer examples of female duos with this level of power, and Fey and Poehler illustrate the role gender plays in constructing the brands of comedians. Their popularity is mega – and yet they sit in a precarious position, between commentators who think they bring too much ‘lady comedy’ to events like the Golden Globes, which they have hosted the past two years, and those who feel they are a distraction from the lack of diversity in award nominations and the entertainment industry more broadly. It seems a lose/lose situation, held together only by a fascination with their chemistry.

The idea that aspirational friendships play a role in the success of comedians might be obvious, but we shouldn’t overlook how important it is. If humour comes from recognition and empathy, then surely you’re going to have to like a performer before they make you laugh. When Liz Lemon flips a table, you’re imagining yourself with her, and that kind of affinity is what moves a performance from funny to having a cult following.

From behind the Fey/Poehler machine is sliding a new kind of funny female friendship, however – and it says a lot about what punters are searching for.

If you haven’t heard of Miranda Hart, you’re about to. She’s on her way to Australia in February for a bunch of stand-up shows on a long list of tour dates. She’s a British writer and talented physical comedian best known for her semi-autobiographical sitcom, Miranda. She is becoming freakishly popular.

Hart has tapped into something new. Her show, scheduled to relaunch in 2015 (after an 18-month gap due to her many other tour commitments), focuses on her life and heavily features the relationship between Miranda and her best friend Stevie (Sarah Hadland).

Miranda is a 30-something in desperate need of social tact, counselled by the much smaller Stevie, an energetic and enthusiastic woman who will readily tell anyone about her possession of the ‘allure’ – a skill that will guarantee men will fall for her. The pair negotiate running a business, falling off a wide variety of chairs, and avoiding Miranda’s toffy mother, Penny (Patricia Hodge). They’re working out exactly how to seduce men in a world that seems wholly unamused by their desire to have fun and stay immature.

These women play dress-ups when they’re supposed to be working and invent maraca-based exercise routines. Both actresses are no doubt skilled at slapstick, perhaps more so than Fey and company. Really, though, they are so endearing because they are friends first and a punchline second.

There’s no doubt that people want to be part of the Miranda/Stevie friendship. Affection for Hart’s straight-shooting on Twitter has earned her 1.4 million followers and counting. While Fey and Poehler are known for sketch comedy, a medium in which they have a certain amount of power in portraying other characters, Hart’s schtick is her own flaws. She puts them forward with joy, though, and while her show doesn’t apologise for the misadventures she has with Stevie, she is honest when something hurts.

This is a relatively rare comedy dynamic: women who are friends and also happen to be funny (not friends who are brought together as comedians). This isn’t your typical sitcom relationship, either – it’s not Monica, Phoebe and Rachel being amusing in spite of themselves and their prejudices. Nor is it Fey’s excellent portrayal of Liz Lemon, a flawed individual chucked into ‘high powered’ chaos because she is chasing a particular dream.

Miranda is still figuring it out – all of it, from career goals to whether it is acceptable to make ‘Fruit Friends’ when bored at home alone. This is about self-aware women who bring a galloping happiness to the face-plants of everyday life, rather than giving them noir edges. Where there might be cynicism in the writing of 30 Rock, Miranda is almost annoyingly wholesome. She enjoys life, and she tells you when she isn’t.

Last year, Hart’s fellow comedian Lee Mack got in deep when he told press that the reason for the lack of females on British comedy panel shows was a result of women being less likely to show off or be aggressive when trying to make an audience laugh. The assertion triggered a wider debate about why exactly blokey comeraderie in such formats is automatically accepted as funnier programming.

During this conversation, many pointed to the obvious affection for Hart and her female US counterparts. These women are churning out an immense catalogue of works, and seducing audiences into wanting to be them in the process. Is it just a case of their male peers being jealous?

Within this question sits a reality that Miranda has tapped into a desire from audiences to see funny friendships on screen. Viewers have been after a picture of women who are desirable, giving, and able to pick apart the oddities of life with happiness rather than cynicism. Hart is building on the blocks set up by Fey and Poehler. The best way to construct your comedy is by being upfront about who you are and the peculiarities of your life. Miranda is doing it with more flatulence and grace than anyone who’s come before her. The place of funny women is still a strangely fraught one, but her popularity stems from a demand that is yet to be properly recognised.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Emma Koehn is a freelance writer and editor. In 2013 she edited Farrago magazine.

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