Funny Cow (2017), directed by Adrian Shergold, tells the tale of a Northern comedienne nicknamed “Funny Cow” (Maxine Peake) who recalls her attempts to enter the male-domina
ted comedy industry of 1970s-80s Britain. The film, however, is much more than pure comedy. Constantly clad in a ferocious shade of red, the protagonist tells the truths of her life with a feisty rawness, intensity and tragedy that will resonate with viewers as much as her amusing one-liners. Funny Cow is not just witty, it is hard-hitting.
From the beginning, it is clear that Funny Cow’s adult life is significantly affected by her childhood spent on a working class estate with mentally unstable parents. With an abusive father and alcoholic mother, she grows up learning to fend for (and amuse) herself – whether it be chasing her bullies away with dog faeces in hand, or splashing around imaginatively in the new family “swimming pool” (i.e. bathtub). However, since abuse and neglect are the norm in Funny Cow’s family, she later follows in the footsteps of her mother, settling into a relationship with a controlling husband who threatens to punish her if she dares to audition for a local comedy show.
Even though the aspiring comedienne appears to later find love – in the form of an amorous, scholarly bookseller named Angus (Paddy Considine) – she proves incapable of opening herself up to him and sees his theatre trips and obsession with “high culture” as a pseudo-intellectual façade. Ultimately, Funny Cow rejects such superficiality and strives to seek meaning in her life by pursuing her true passion: comedy. To this end, she offers to fill in for a despairing (male) comedian at the local comedy club, and, despite his initial reservations – “It’s not a job for a woman” – puts him and her sceptical audience into place with a sharp, sassy and somewhat uncouth performance.
On a superficial level, the film seems to be about pursuing your dreams against all odds. Yet, what makes Funny Cow so special is the fact that the comedienne bases her act on the trials and tribulations she has suffered in life, turning her pain into humour. The cathartic effect of comedy becomes clear, and is emphasised by the close-ups of Peake’s troubled, vulnerable expressions. Funny Cow may fail to open up to Angus, but she certainly does reveal her inner fragility to the audience. What really hits the viewer are her astute observations on society and life: the idea that there are some people who will simply never fit into the mould, that even comedians can’t walk around with a smile on their face all the time, and finally, that in the end it is better to be yourself than pretend to be someone you are not. And yes, even if that means remaining a mardy, insolent, and self-deprecating cynic like Funny Cow, then so be it. She realises that life must be taken with a pinch of (sarcastic) salt.