The hilarious stylings of Jennifer Saunders redefined comedy and the sitcom as we know it. Superfan Mandi Goodier guides us through some of her greatest work, and explains just why Saunders has made us laugh so hard, for so long.
Jennifer Saunders comedy impact
In the early 1990s, Thursday and Friday evenings were spent with my mum and sister watching comedies, and nothing took me more than French and Saunders.
At school I had dreams of becoming a comedian alongside my then best friend Karen, the problem being we weren't that funny. But we were silly, and it was the silliness of the two fully grown women that drew me in. Adults—especially not female adults—didn't behave like this. Not on television and not in real life.
Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French in 1987
The silliness I grew used to in French and Saunders wasn't as obvious to me when watching Absolutely Fabulous. It was still there, it was just a little more sophisticated. Ab Fab is something that I've really come to appreciate with age. Ever since entering into the working world I had a suspicion that no one really knows what they are doing, which seems to be the perfect description of what Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone did for a living (I can hear Eddie shouting at me "it's PR sweetie!").
My life has been accented with admiration for Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and their various collaborators. But what makes her comedy styling so great and loved?
"We were crap!"
With the rest of the Comic Strip gang in the mid-1980s
In 1980, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French responded to an advertisement in The Stage calling for female comics. The pair found themselves wandering into the Raymond Revue (a seedy club in Soho), little did they know that an audition wasn’t required—the main criteria was that they were female and comedians. Peter Richardson had started a comedy variety evening called The Comic Strip and as it stood all the acts were male, so no sooner had they arrived than they were booked.
The pair are the first to admit that their comedy act left a lot to be desired. As Saunders remembers; “all the rumours are true, we were crap. We made the big mistake of thinking that the audience would probably be the same every night and therefore we’d have to change our material, so imagine how good the standard was.” French adds, “It took a long time to realise that the boys were actually doing the same act every single night because, of course, it’s the audience that changes.”
French and Saunders with the Comic Strip house band in 1987
Along with Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson (AKA 20th Century Coyote), Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer (AKA The Outer Limits), and compere Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders brought their double act (formerly known as The Menopause Sisters) to Soho. There they gained a cult following with fans including Jack Nicolson and Robin Williams.
Despite French having a secure day job as a primary school teacher (Keith Allen’s advice was to "stick to your day job"), the pair stuck with The Comic Strip. It quickly gained notoriety for its punk-esque alternative comedy, and was given a television show which aired on the opening night of the all-new and alternative Channel 4 (launched in 1982).
Jennifer and her husband Ade Edmundson in The Comic Strip Presents Consuela, or the New Mrs Saunders
The Comic Strip Presents… are a series of self-contained episodes and is still ongoing, although now very sporadically. It’s first episode, Five Go Mad in Dorset, was a parody of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five, which featured Jennifer, Dawn, Peter and Ade as five young, naïve mystery seekers. The show drew many complaints from people claiming that it was disgusting to make a satire out of a children’s favourite. Needless to say, The Comic Strip pushed on.
Saunders got her first taste of television writing in 1984, with The Comic Strip's Slags, and in 1986 French and Saunders co-wrote Consuela, or the New Mrs Saunders. The pair appeared regularly on television throughout the 1980s, appearing in episodes of The Young Ones, The Lenny Henry Show, and Girls on Top—created and written by French, Saunders and Ruby Wax. Finally, in 1987 French and Saunders were given their own show.
French and Saunders
French and Saunders' famous school girl characters talk about sex
When the comedy duo first met, they weren’t too fond of each other. Both were studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama to become drama teachers. Saunders had no idea that she was training to become a teacher and had very little ambition to head in this direction, her mother, a biology teacher, had filled in her application forms. French, however, did want to be a teacher and Saunders took her enthusiasm as irritating, thinking of her as a "cocky little upstart". In turn, French found her future comedy partner to be rather snooty.
But the pair pulled themselves together and soon became good friends. French was the more career minded of the two, and while she went to work in a primary school, Saunders spent her days sleeping between the dole office and their show with The Comic Strip. With more and more television appearances and after a successful stint with Girls on Top, the pair were already familiar faces by the time their series hit BBC2 in 1987.
French and Saunders started out modestly—low budget sets, spoofing other television shows and films. It was a melting pot of popular culture, where the two played caricatures of themselves, with inflated, grandiose senses of their talents, capabilities and budgets leading to hilarious effect.
With popularity soring, the BBC invested more money into the duo. They received one of the highest budgets ever spent on a comedy show. They would recreate scenes from popular films—their most famous include Titanic (with French as Leo and Saunders and Kate) and Thelma & Louise, and mimicked music videos and artists—Madonna, Bjork, and ABBA spring to mind.
Further to their parodies, they also created a series of characters. Junior and Emma, the public school girls whose parents had abandoned them; Mother and Daughter, the pair would take turns at being one or the other and get into trouble for a variety of reasons; and perhaps most famously The White Room where they would play themselves. Dawn would enter with a ludicrous assertion and Jen would be sat on the sofa making her feel uncomfortable—perhaps an exaggerated version of how their relationship had been when they first met.
In 2009 the pair were jointly awarded a BAFTA Fellowship. But with the creation of Absolutely Fabulous, Saunders would go on to win another BAFTA and an International Emmy Award.
Jennifer Saunders as Edina Monsoon and Joanna Lumley as Patsy Stone
In 1992, while Dawn French was taking a break, Saunders was approached to write her own show. Absolutely Fabulous was born out of a French and Saunders sketch called "The Modern Mother and Daughter". Dawn French played the sensible daughter Saffron, and Jennifer Saunders Played her mother Adrianna, a role reversal that saw a mother financially dependent on her daughter and constantly getting into trouble.
Saunders, being brilliant at ideas but ever the procrastinator, often failed to get the script together in time. Ruby Wax (script editor) recalls: “Jennifer used to write the script the night before filming because she really needs to close her sphincters tight and give herself and adrenaline hit [and] everyone was having a heart attack. Then she’d send it over to me and it was just a mess, and I’d edit the lines for the next day. Then they built a set and did the show.”
Read more: 15 Fabulous facts about Absolutely Fabulous
Absolutely Fabulous was a show about a PR, Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders), and her best friend Eurydice Colette Clytemnestra Dido Bathsheba Rabelais Patricia Cocteau Stone—AKA Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). In the early nineties, PRs were everywhere. They were excessive and loud, into everything faddy and ‘now', and paid to be social. Edina and Patsy are two shallow, border line alcoholic, self-obsessed women with very little dignity. But my goodness are they fabulous!
Saffy: “I’m sorry mum it’s just I’m never
sure what you actually do”
Edina: “[Gasps] PR”
Saffy: “Yes… But”
Edina: “PR! I PR things. People. Places. Concepts.”
Patsy “Lou Lou”
Edina “Lou Lou!”
In a conversation with her onscreen bestie Joanna Lumley, Saunders says “It kind of went against the whole PC culture, it was like two fingers to that, we’re just going to do what we want. And being women I think it made a bit more impact. They’re not supposed to be role models, they’re supposed to be bad people”
The pair admits that they thought it would be a success in the urban areas of the UK, but Saunders was surprised that it took off around the world. When Lumley asks her, why did truck drivers in Ohio enjoy it? Saunders shrugs and has no idea, to which Lumley responds “Well I’ll tell you why, because it was beautifully written and very, very funny, and if things are good, it doesn’t matter what they are or where they’re about or what they’re about or what they contain. If it’s good it works”.
Rather sweetly she adds, “People used to ask for a glass of champagne, but because of your clever funny show, people now ask for a glass of Bolli”
Read more: Joanna Lumley's life in pictures
What makes Saunders so great
From the beginning of her career to Absolutely Fabulous the movie, Saunders has written many sketches and collaborated with some of the biggest names in comedy, (one not mentioned in this article so far is the tremendous Victoria Wood).
Looking back to those days on the playground, with my best friend Karen, wanting to be just like Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, it’s clear what has been at the core of all her work: friendship—specifically the female variety.
Read more: 9 Fabulous films about female friendship
Of Ab Fab Joanna Lumley says to Saunders: “They actually were best friends and I think that was a part of its success. How many times in your short but beautiful life have people come up to you and said ‘Hi, I’m Patsy and this is Edina’, or ‘This is Patsy and I’m Edina’, the amount of people who’ve said to us, ‘you’ve hit us right on the nail’.”
When she won a Glamour Award for being their Woman of the Year, Jennifer Saunders collected her award from life-long best friend Dawn French. In a hilarious and moving speech, she dedicated it to female friendships.