how 90s show 'smack the pony' led the way in feminist comedy
An absurdist sketch show paved the way for the likes of 'Broad City' and 'Chewing Gum'.
“Apparently I have been smoking this… tainted weed... for, I don’t even know how long!” spits Abbi Jacobson, in one of the best moments from US comedy Broad City. It comes moments after watching her best mate, Ilana Glazer, tug their shared bag of pot out of her own vagina. With its straight-faced delivery, and uncomfortably long pauses -- Ilana grunts and breathes heavily as she tries to wrestle her weed out into the open -- it’s what the show does best condensed into two minutes.
Following a pair of young women living in New York, the acclaimed comedy’s final season just aired. Across the shows five seasons, Abbi and Ilana experienced nightmare roommates, below-average sexual encounters, poorly-paid jobs and, well, drug storage methods, in absurdly spot-on style. While so many comedies about women have traditionally focused on interaction with men, doomed romances and love interests, Broad City stood out as something different. Instead it was a show about two best mates clowning around, embarking on pointless quests to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and being there for each other no matter what. Above everything, it’s a witty exploration of female friendship.
“I don’t know what to tell you!” Illana protests in reply to Abbi, brandishing the offending weed. “It’s in a bag! And the va-ynaya is natures pocket…”
As Broad City winds down, there’s talk of another cult comedy show returning. Smack the Pony, starring Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips, first aired 20 years ago. It borrowed its name from a slang term for masturbation, and was as provocative as this name suggests. Far from dabbling in vague innuendo -- as many other comedies at the time might’ve -- many of the punchlines in Smack the Pony are brash and sexual. Nervous drivers pant orgasmically as they execute reverse bay parks. A woman reenacts various sexual encounters before declaring “I’ve never cum”. Women articulated their fantasies throughout the three seasons of the show, and as a subversive comedy led by women, it’s an obvious precursor to the no-holds-barred sex positivity of shows like Broad City.
Arriving in 1999, Smack the Pony was a rarity as an all-women sketch show. Though French and Saunders, and Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV were popular shows, the field was largely dominated by male comics. Catchphrases were booming and brash, and sketch shows were often boisterous and dominated by macho characters. While some of the best shows of the 90s unpacked the same stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, it was often through the eyes of men. Comics like Julia Davis (who later went onto play Dawn in Gavin & Stacey) played the quieter, eye-rolling foils to Big Train co-stars Kevin Eldon and Mark Heap -- there to exaggerate their satirical depictions of macho behaviour even further. Smack the Pony differed in that it fleshed out the roles that typically existed at the edges of scenes. Instead of focusing on the clueless bloke making inappropriate dinner party small talk, we instead learn about what his silent, long-suffering wife does when she’s finally shipped him off to work.
Hamming up gender stereotypes into hyperbolic -- and occasionally grotesque -- caricatures, the women of Smack the Pony downed giant glasses of red wine, sighed their way through gratuitous hand-jobs, and constantly sought out potential boyfriends in the show’s many dating agency videos. They are often lewd to the extreme. The characters behaved in strange ways that not only contradict projections of delicate femininity, but the norms of social interaction full stop. They ogled at muscly window-cleaners with kittens stuffed down their pants, fainted at the mere thought of a six-pack, ran away flirtatiously in the middle of dates screaming “catch me!” and plastered on disastrously applied make-up in the back of swerving cabs. Smack the Pony’s characters performed their own ideas of what it ‘means’ to be a perfect woman, and getting it absurdly, brilliantly wrong.
Playing on the trope of bitchy women, characters often become locked into petty, pointless conflicts. In the real world we see female pop stars pitted against each other as ‘rivals’, and tabloids running with dramatic headlines claiming various women hate each other. Women in comedy aren’t immune, either. Various newspapers reported that Dawn French was bitterly jealous of Jennifer Saunders after Saunders’s show with Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous, became a roaring success. Smack the Pony reacts to these myths by embracing them; characters live up to the fiction. In one of the show’s funniest sketches, Phillips and Mackichan flick through gossip mags on their lunch break, and end up locked into a screeching karaoke-style sing-off to Harry Nilsson's Without You -- glaring as the other strains to reach the high note. Straight-faced throughout, the trio of lead actors never show their cards. It thrived in pushing the limits.
Nonsensical, edgy and existing on a completely different planet to logic and reason, Smack the Pony was exceptional. And years later, there’s a clear line leading towards not only Broad City, but a whole lot of other recent shows about, written by, women. The Baroness Von Sketch Show, comedy web series Ackee and Saltfish, Idiotsitter and British comedies like Beehive, Flea Bag and Chewing Gum.
Much of the success of Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum is also down to its razor-sharp dissection of the expectation that women should be sexy, but not slutty, super successful, but not bitchy or competitive. Lead character Tracey Gordon spends much of the show trying to lose her virginity, with calamitous results, and even when she gets a Beyoncé-inspired makeover, her boyfriend Ronald is so disgusted that he flees and subsequently gets hit by a car. Her sexting selfies end in disaster. And when she bumps into Meisha -- a glamorous boaster who rants on, and on, and on, about her brilliant job -- you can’t help but think of a certain sketch from Smack the Pony where Sally Phillips bitterly tells a full-of-herself and completely oblivious ex-schoolmate to “fuck off”.
Far from the two-dimensional depictions elsewhere in comedy, these shows are all united by characters that are allowed to be complex and flawed. Through the lens of comedy -- where reality can be warped and amplified, where new ways of behaving become the norm -- characters’ attempts at keeping up and conforming to expectations are pushed beyond the limits of everyday probability; their failings shift from tragic to laughable.
In her misanthropic comedy Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who went on to pen Killing Eve) hides her super tampons in a panic when she spots ‘Arsehole Guy’ at the shop, trading them for the smallest size on the shelf. In the web series Ackee and Saltfish, best mates Olivia and Rachel have a huge bust-up because they didn’t manage to buy Lauryn Hill tickets. It’s a pathetic feud, and yet it’s a fight we’ve all had.
“I am always finding myself doing things that we identified on screen,” said Smack the Pony’s creator Victoria Pile, looking back on the show “drinking wine by the box, holding one’s breasts whilst running up stairs, humming Fleetwood Mac whilst trying to park in a tight spot...”
Shedding raucous light on all of these everyday instances, and telling these stories on screen in a way that finally feels genuine, this relatability continues with all the other women blazing trails in comedy today, no matter how absurd things get. It’s also why Smack the Pony remains just as funny 20 years on. As Doon Mackichan once put it, “let’s just let women be clowns”.