Comic Strip. Girls on Top. French & Saunders. Absolutely Fabulous. The Life and Times of Vivian Vyle. Jam & Jerusalem. Jennifer Saunders has been responsible for some of the most memorable British comedies of the last thirty years. And even though each project is distinct, there is a thread that links them – an understated sullenness – the sort of class clown sarcasm that can demolish any level of pretension, no matter how lofty.
The last few years of Saunders’ life has provided her with material for her memoirs, Bonkers: My Life in Laughs: the end of her 30-year comic act, French and Saunders; her successful battle with breast cancer; her disappointing turn as a playwright, adapting the oeuvre of the Spice Girls in the West End musical, Viva Forever!; a triumphant return for her alter-ego, Edina Monsoon, that won her a BAFTA; and Saunders is now a grandmother. It’s these events that make up the latter part of Bonkers – but it’s the first half that chronicle her childhood as well as her humble beginnings as a comedienne that provide the most interesting, hilarious, and lovely reading.
While the book is structure chronologically, there are moments that Saunders inserts that break up a strict timeline. She opens her book at a drama class, during which the students must hatch out of eggs fashioned out of paper. This scene is perfect for the kind of humor Saunders is apt with – she gamely participates, with a knowing skepticism of the assignment, and there’s always a subtle lace of mockery that permeates her description of the project.
Saunders life doesn’t include events or episodes that mark it as unusual or historic – in fact, before she became famous, her life was rather mundane and quiet. Thankfully, readers don’t have to wait too long to read about Saunders’ early relationship with her future comedy partner, Dawn French. The two started off as merely acquaintances – Saunders was a struggling and unemployed comic, while French was a teacher – but the ladies found an affinity for each other as well as an ability to make each other laugh. This shared comedic vision translated to earnest performances in pubs, before meeting with other comics from the alternative comedy scene, and forming Comic Strip.
Those looking for juicy gossip about backstabbing bitchery will be disappointed: French and Saunders – both the duo and the two friends – were refreshingly functional, and drama-free. In fact, Saunders piles a lot of praise and reverence on her famous colleague, highlighting French’s masterful talent for physical comedy, as well as her wide acting range. Saunders also spends a bit of time writing about the genesis of some of the duo’s most popular spoofs and skits – for example, the origin of her The House of Elliott parody, The House of Idiot, came from watching the original program being taped at the BBC, and marveling at the ridiculously overdramatic script.
But Dawn French isn’t the only important performer in Saunders’ life – comic writer Ruby Wax, Absolutely Fabulous costar Joanna Lumley, and her former Comic Strip costar Ade Edmondson (who later becomes her husband) all appear – and all come off as fabulously talented and wonderful. Other celebrities also make appearances: Roseanne Barr, Dolly Parton, Julie Andrews, Eddie Murphy, Catherine Deneuve, and Rupert Everett have cameos in her life and near-brushes with Hollywood. One particularly interesting episode in Saunders’ life is when she and Wax get hitched into Goldie Hawn’s glamorous A-List life when the two British comics were hired to write a comedy about Hawn’s spirituality. The three comediennes travel throughout India and spend an ungodly amount of time together, but Saunders’ chronic procrastination, coupled with Hawn’s overreaching ambition doomed the project (which sounded terrible). And while the film was never made, the story is hilarious as Hawn starts off as a nurturing and supportive client, before turning into a stern and schoolmarmish taskmaster by the end of the eventually-aborted project (despite the film’s premature death, Hawn apparently is still on good terms with Saunders, as she gets a shout out in the acknowledgements).
Not all of the stories fit into a larger story arc – some are just included because they’re hilarious – and though these instances feel a bit like filler, they still are worth reading because Saunders’ is a fantastic writer. Because of the success of Absolutely Fabulous in the United States, and the show’s particular success with the gay community, Saunders and Lumley were invited by the New York Senate to collect an award in honor of the state’s gay marriage victory. Assuming the audience will want Saunders as her debauched and irreverent Edina Monsoon, she gets kitted up in Yankee Doodle drag, and plans to attend the ceremony as Edina; she realizes her miscalculation when the event is a heart-felt and heart-breaking tribute to the struggles of the LGBT community, and is caught with her pants around her ankles (she writes that Lumley is far more prepared and graceful in the situation). Speaking of Lumley, there are fantastic exchanges of faxes between the two that show that Lumley’s a fantastic wit on her own, not needing the aid of Saunders’ one-liners to be funny.
Because of her bout with breast cancer, Saunders was asked a lot about her illness at interviews when doing PR for Bonkers. She’s remarkably self-aware and does not indulge in self-pity – not surprising, since Saunders has little patience for schmaltz or cheap sentiment. In fact, she’s filled with contempt to celebrities who mine their illness for publicity – she doesn’t present herself as someone who’s brave, smiling through tears, and learning from adversity. She writes about her breast cancer with disarming frankness and the patented finger-up-her-nose snark.
Bonkers works as a great companion piece to Dawn French’s beautiful epistolary memoir, Dear Fatty. Reading the two women’s shared experiences from such different points of view gives great insight to the birth of one of the greatest comic duos in popular culture. Saunders’ work also reveals the fascinating world of the BBC, showing its inner workings, and how shows get made (Ricky Gervais used similar material in his brilliant show Extras). And though she may spend a bit too much time dropping names, it makes perfect sense when looking at her career in context: celebrity has always been a theme in her comedy – the desire to be famous as well as the absurdity that accompanies fame. She never forgets that she’s never on the same level as the stars she’s running with – her timid and nervous exchange with Deneuve perfectly encapsulates her outsider-looking-in persona, which she tweaks to a heightened, stylized stage when lampooning her obsessive desire to meet Madonna. One hopes that Saunders will follow up Bonkers with a sequel, or pen a collection of essays as she shows that not only is her talent evident on television, the silver screen, and the stage – but it translates perfectly on paper, as well.