'We Didn't Want to Gender-Bash' – Remembering 90s Comedy 'Smack the Pony'
Twenty years on, we talk about the cult C4 sketch show and the changing face of comedy with its creator and one of its stars.
A perfect Smack The Pony comedy sketch. A skinny, blow-dried blonde in a fuzzy pink top walks into a plus-size clothing store, picks up a shirt and asks: "Do you have this in a smaller size?" Trying it on, she pretends the fabric is swallowing her up into a different vortex. "Help me, I'm drowning in a black hole," she laughs. "It's like a tent, do you guys sell ropes?" She then squeezes her whole body into one leg of a pair of trousers and jumps around, adding, "I feel like a mad pencil." Increasingly bored, the shop assistant prods her in the face and she collapses onto the floor.
While this scene is testament to why retail workers should be armed with tasers, it’s also an example of what made the cult sketch show – which premiered in 1999, 20 years ago this week – so great. It allowed women to be awful. It took degrading stereotypes about us – that we are bitchy, nagging, humourless and competitive – and exaggerated them to extreme proportions in order to dismantle the notion that women should be smiley cyborgs programmed to giggle and make cups of tea; though also suggested we could still possess shades of those traits.
The two-to-three minute sketches included: two surgeons performing heart transplant surgery passive-aggressively splashing each other with their patient's blood; bushes fluffing out of swimming costumes; the peach pages of the Financial Times crumpling around young professionals as they laughed at how they don’t understand what the stock market is. And this formula was immensely successful; at its height, 2.5 million tuned in, and it beat Ali G to win an Emmy.
I first watched Smack The Pony aged 11. Mum and dad were on the sofa and I was sitting on the itchy living room carpet. I might have been too young to understand most of the jokes, but I still found it hilarious. The women had libidos, an idea entirely foreign to a girl whose main encounter with sex was James Bond's hairy chest sliding into showers with the wives of Russian criminals. In the sketches, a nervous driver wailed orgasmically as she successfully executed a reverse bay-park. Another stood at a bar inflating her tits with a balloon pump in the hopes that the barman would serve her Sauvignon Blanc quicker. A dentist persuaded her male client that he had a specific molar plaque issue that could only be resolved through the attention of her tongue.
When Smack The Pony arrived, British culture was enjoying (or suffering, depending on your point of view) a renewed sense of patriotism. For the first time since the 1970s, people felt positive about the fate of the United Kingdom (lol), and it was somewhere amid this cultural and economic boom called "Cool Britannia" that a woman named Caroline Leddy, commissioning editor at Channel 4, thought it was time for an all-female sketch show. Until then, incredibly, there still hadn't been one.
Caroline approached Victoria Pile, a writer at Talkback, and asked her to develop a pilot.
"This is shaming to say, but we weren't actually sure we could find enough really brilliant women to feature on the show. Isn't that awful?" Caroline tells me over the phone. "Female comedians weren't in the public eye so much, and there were very few doing the sort of comedy we were after."
Victoria watched endless showreels, plays and stand-up gigs, before eventually casting Sally Phillips (the receptionist from Alan Partridge), Fiona Allen (from the stand up circuit) and Doon Mackichan (from Armando Iannucci's The Day Today).
Fiona says the formula worked because they all had very different personalities. "I'm quite blunt, Sally is polite, Doon is eccentric and therefore very, very funny," she explains. "It got to the point where we would know who should do what sketch. Doon is a very physical performer, so I'd go, 'Oh, you do that,' but then I'd do something that was deadpan instead."
Putting three women at the centre of Smack The Pony was an exciting concept, given opportunities for women in comedy at the time were often confined to "feeding" or setting up jokes for the male performer. "We women were told in no uncertain terms that the show was to launch the men’s careers," Doon said of her experience working on sketch show Five Alive. In the 2000s, when asked whether she got on with the other women on the show, Sally quipped: "There are some drawbacks. If you're working with blokes, and you're the only girl, you get to do all the women's parts. Admittedly, you're only saying, 'Do you want a cappuccino?' but you can do it in four different accents."
To ensure a range of different perspectives, Victoria accepted unsolicited material from writers. "I was inspired by the producers of Not The 9 O’clock News – rather than just going to the BBC writer's room to get material, they opened the doors to people. That was one of our policies: let's not restrict ourselves."
Once they had assembled a team, Victoria would run improvisational workshops to work on scripts. "We’d stick on All Saints' "never ever have I ever felt so low" and share personal details about our lives. People would sit on a hot seat and I’d say: 'You're lonely and you've got a parrot,' and we would do these clichéd drama exercises to see if we could discover anything. We often drew things; there was lots of genitalia. This led to one of my favourite sketches, where Sally and her boyfriend are in bed together and she's trying to give him a hand-job. No one had dared to do that before on telly – it was great seeing someone being honest about how hard it is for girls to know what to do with a bloke's penis."
I remember the sketch well. In the next scene, Sally appears on a dating website with puffed purple eye bags and her arm in a sling, declaring, "I want a man who suffers from premature ejaculation."
Though the sketches tackled a wide range of issues, strict rules were laid out from the outset: "No celebrity references, no recurring characters, no catchphrases, no period jokes." According to Victoria, these were put in place to avoid being too political: "We didn't want to be gender bashing," she explains, adding that they wanted to avoid emulating the angry polemics of 1980s sketch show Revolting Women: "It was just a diatribe. It was so overtly feminist that it wasn't funny, and I thought that was something to be avoided at all costs. You lead the way with humour, you don’t make it difficult. I would rather induce feelings than shout rules out."
The desire to not alienate men might seem limited now, but it was very much the prevailing tone of feminism at the time. The hairy armpits and taste your period blood feminism as fashioned in the 80s had been replaced by the shiny corporate idea of Girl Power. Here, the emphasis was on showing that women can be just as funny, interesting and opinionated as men. The Spice Girls sold us the idea of sisterhood, while Denise van Outen and other ladettes downed pints of Stella, pissed on pavements, stole ashtrays from Buckingham Palace and went some way to showing that not all women are ladies. The feminism of the 1990s was not about seeking a wholesale reinvention of society; they just wanted to entry into the boy’s club.
For Victoria, the very fact that Smack The Pony was a comedy written from a female perspective was enough to make it radical. "We were making social commentary but not in any sort of knowing way," she says. "We were just laughing at things we found absurd around us: the latest craze for certain types of coffee, ideas we found portentous in the arts world, things that we as women related to, drinking wine by the box, holding your tits as you run up the stairs, obsessions with eating biscuits. It was that freedom to talk about whatever made us laugh that was the key at that stage in broadcast history, because it hadn't yet happened; we hadn't had the opportunity to show these things that we found hilarious or painful."
When it came to filming, Victoria took inspiration from the new wave of naturalistic comedy, which swapped flamboyant characters and catchphrases for deadpan deliveries and observations of the minutiae of human existence. "I'm Alan Partridge had made a big impact on me, so did Ally McBeal. It was important that the characters on Smack The Pony sounded like real people talking," she explains, adding that she wanted to do away with the cheap studio sets and polyester wigs of TV comedy: "The glossy, aspirational look of commercials influenced me a lot. I wanted to make a show where people enjoyed the visuals; it was important that it was shot in real locations, real living rooms, real taxis."
Victoria’s interest in commercials cumulated in a parody of a Coca-Cola advert. The original shows women in a hair salon dribbling and lip-biting as a sweaty window cleaner refreshes himself on Coke as one of the customers remarks, "No wonder it's so hard to get an appointment in here." The Smack The Pony version looked identical, except he has a meowing white kitten bulging out of his crotch. After the sketch aired, Coca-Cola approached Victoria and asked if she would write for them. "I was too busy, but I gave them two of our writers," she says.
Besides the arguments – Victoria tells me her vision of the show was often so meticulous she ended up bullying directors, while Fiona says her and the other girls bickered like sisters – the atmosphere on set was funny, if not slightly chaotic. For Fiona’s favourite sketch – a cross-species romance between a Matador and a bull who run away together to Wigan because she can’t bring herself to kill him – she actually managed to persuade Channel 4 to get her a real bull: "They got me a brown one and I said, 'I'm really sorry, he's so pretty and everything, but I can't have him, he's got to be black.'"
Except nudging its head into Fiona's ribs, nothing went wrong – which is surprising, given the circumstances. In one scene she's having a picnic with the bull, and during filming the blanket kept flapping in the wind, angering him as though he was facing a real matador flipping a red cape. "He was scraping his hoof in like he was going to charge," says Fiona. "I looked around and thought, 'Shit.' There was about 30-odd crew, but they were all at the other end of the field behind a fence, so I was alone with this thing. If you watch the scene back I’m splayed out quite elegantly, but the pose was just so I could push myself up and run if he went for me. He also didn't like umbrellas and those hi-vis jackets people used to wear. He would just stop and refuse to move, and I would just pull him by the ring of his nose because that's what the farmer told me I needed to do."
As of the last few years, the question "is satire dead?" has been asked a number of times by newspaper columnists and your boyfriend on Twitter, because apparently everyone's so sad we can't laugh anymore. And given the #MeToo movement and the election of a misogynist into the White House, comedy performances like Nanette have seen the return to a more polemic style of comedy. I ask Victoria, if Smack The Pony were to return, would it be any different.
"We were quite gung-ho about everything, so I think there would be an added air of sensitivity," she says. "There are some serious things going on and you wouldn't want to undermine that, but I also think there are very few taboos in comedy, and you should have the freedom to be brave and say stuff without offence."
Watching it back, Smack The Pony still resonates. After speaking to members of the cast, I read an interview from the 2000s where Sally tells the reporter: "What a relief that you didn't ask our least favourite question: 'What's it like to be a woman in comedy?' Men are never asked that question. I always resort to stupid answers: it's like being a metal rat in a blender, or a lion at an aerobics class. You could cause a fair amount of trouble if you wanted to."
I had asked Fiona that very question, and though she politely replied with an anecdote about a male comedian introducing her by saying, "This next girl, she's not bad for a bird," I cringed thinking about my misfire. I sympathise with Sally's sentiment: sometimes it can be exhausting when all women's work is read through a political lens. It would be nice if we were allowed to be just as careless as men are – and in that sense, sometimes a woman making a joke can be a radical act in itself.