In their groundbreaking one-woman plays, Phoebe-Waller Bridge and Jacqueline Novak prove that uncensored comedy celebrating female sexuality can find mainstream success.
The world has come down with Fleabag fever. Months after the release of its celebrated second season, the British television series swept the Emmy Awards, picking up wins in Outstanding Comedy Series, Director for a Comedy Series, Writing for a Comedy Series, and Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, the latter two awards bestowed to the show’s creator, writer, and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Fleabag’s rise from a one-woman play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to one of Hollywood’s most coveted new properties would not be so remarkable if not for its quietly revolutionary subject matter. Waller-Bridge, in both the play and the television series, breaks the fourth wall to share with her audience the trials and tribulations she faces as a young woman (known to the viewers only as Fleabag) in present-day London. But it is buried beneath the wacky anecdotes and charming glances that the audience discovers Fleabag’s darkest insecurity: that she might be, “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, mannish-looking, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”1 Isn’t that every woman’s worst fear?
It is perhaps a sign of progress that Waller-Bridge’s opus was not the only daring one-woman theatrical piece of 2019 to capture audiences’ attention and leave them talking long after the curtain had fallen; Get on Your Knees, Jacqueline Novak’s stand-up comedy set meets manifesto, took Off-Broadway by storm this summer. Throughout the show, Novak tells a sort of coming-of-age story through an… unconventional lens: her personal and philosophical thoughts on oral sex. Yes, the entire hour and a half play is dedicated to Novak’s journey with the peculiar act of intimacy—and critics adored it.
The success of these two pieces not only reaffirms the creative triumph of female playwrights with humble beginnings (both Fleabag and Get on Your Knees got their start at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), it reflects society’s growing willingness to celebrate unique female stories that don’t steer clear of the taboo. In their own deeply comedic and profound ways, Fleabag and Get on Your Knees shed light on the complexities of the modern female experience while pushing the boundaries of how those very stories are told.
By speaking in conversational, seemingly spontaneous stream-of-consciousness monologues, Waller-Bridge and Novak allow their audiences to feel at ease, delighted to get a peek inside these women’s brains. They never delve into fantastical situations—both women examine everyday occurrences and simply find the comedy within them. It is this approach that gains the trust of the audience and allows the performers to throw in dramatic gut-punches that may not have been embraced otherwise. For Waller-Bridge, these shifts happen more frequently and abruptly: Fleabag will often tell a joke, laugh with the audience, and then blurt out a comment about her recently-deceased best friend or her struggle to find self-worth. In Get on Your Knees, the discrepancy between comedy and drama is a bit more nuanced. Novak never embodies sadness in the show but confirmed in an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers that the entire set holds deeper meaning: “(It’s) a kind of way to poeticize these things (oral sex) that makes them tolerable to me.”2
The device of comedy as a mask that both Waller-Bridge and Novak utilize invites a question: Do we need comedy to take women seriously? Both Fleabag and Get on Your Knees end in very different places than they begin: in the former, the protagonist is killing a hamster and panicking that the act of sex is the only thing that makes her useful; in the latter, the protagonist is giving, as Vanity Fair so eloquently puts it, “(A) six-minute finale, in which Novak leans into her poetry background to deliver a moving, resounding and surprisingly emotional ode to oral sex.” 3 While it is true that trust is built throughout the show between the performers and the audience that allows for such payoffs at the end, I find it hard to believe that the audience would give in to Waller-Bridge and Novak at all if not for their charismatic, comedic sensibilities. Television is filled with male antiheroes who audiences sympathize with nonetheless (Walter White, Don Draper), and yet women must find a way to make the audience fall in love with them if they want to be heard at all. As Lauren Duca notes in her HuffPost article “Anatomy of the Female Antihero,” “The gendered likability issue of the small screen has never been so clear as in our willingness to accept serial-philandering murderers and meth cooks, just so long as they’re men.”4 Change could be coming in theatre, where the audience is unable to flip the channel when confronted with drama. Waller-Bridge and Novak both conquer this platform and hopefully lead the way for women who desire to tell their stories without the prerequisite of humor.
More important than the form of these pieces is the content. I have been wondering recently what it is about Fleabag that has rendered me (and many others) so fascinated and why I had that same feeling walking out of Get On Your Knees. Jacqueline Novak gave the obvious answer on her Late Night appearance: her show gives the female perspective on a topic that is usually reserved for men, which I believe can also be said about Fleabag. Both women give their brutally honest, hilarious opinions on sex and how certain women experience it, a matter that is not usually explored on stage or in film. Novack particularly noticed this vacuum in media and aimed to challenge it: “Usually (in regards to sex) the woman is the goal, but what if you’re the woman? Where’s the heroine’s quest?”5 Fleabag and Get on Your Knees provide both a breath of fresh air for those who have listened to men grapple with the subject of sex for years and a guide for young women who are coming of age and eager to hear about these things from the female point of view, standing on the shoulders of shows like Broad City and Girls that have had similar impacts in the last decade.
Furthermore, neither woman ever apologizes nor compromises her intelligence while putting themselves at the forefront of stories usually told by men. Amidst the #MeToo and Times Up Movement, as we are reckoning with the enduring mistreatment and harassment of women, Waller-Bridge and Novak have proudly stood up and given us their uncensored, unsimplified opinions on the modern female experience—these stories could not have come at a better time.
While Fleabag and Get on Your Knees represent some of the most recent and celebrated examples of the genre, they are hardly the only shows from the last few years to be spearheaded by female auteurs. Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, an examination of the American Constitution and the ways it has affected generations of women in her family, was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama while Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an original musical-comedy television series, just completed a successful four-year run on the CW. This wave of female-created content shows no signs of slowing down and it should come as no surprise: According to the Broadway League, women made up a total of 66% of the audiences that attended a Broadway show during the 2017-2018 season.6 Sure, the success of these shows could mean nothing, but perhaps they signify that female audiences are finally realizing the power they hold as major consumers of media and demanding that their stories be told.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Jacqueline Novak have inarguably shown Hollywood and Broadway that honest, uncensored female stories can be extremely successful. But looking past the politics surrounding these two shows, it should not be ignored that at their simplest forms, Fleabag and Get on Your Knees are great pieces of writing. They have found mainstream success beyond their target demographic, transcending gender lines and creating universal appeal for very specific stories. I think that’s the most one can dream for as a playwright—male or female.
- Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag (Nick Hern Books, 2019).
- Meyers, Seth. “Jacqueline Novak Wants to Put on Her Show in a Haunted Theater.” Late Night with Seth Meyers, NBC, 13 Aug. 2019.
- Sarah Shoen, “Jacqueline Novak Is Getting Thoughtful-And Very Funny-About Sex.” (Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 18 July 2019).
- Lauren Duca, “Anatomy Of The Female Antihero.” (HuffPost, HuffPost, 13 July 2015).
- Meyers, “Jacqueline Novak Wants to Put on Her Show in a Haunted Theater.”
- “The Broadway League Reveals ‘The Demographics Of The Broadway Audience’ For 2017–2018 Season.” The Broadway League, 18 Oct. 2019.