I took a risk last week on a new comedy. It sounded like something I might not really get, a life too far removed from mine, so I wondered would the jokes make sense to me? Documentaries are different – that’s information presented as learning. Comedy needs to sit on some mutual ground, a shared understanding, a reference we’re all in on – otherwise it’s a series of in-jokes interspersed by apologies “You had to be there”.
This was Chewing Gum (E4) written, staring and based on the life of Michaela Coel. This six-part series started life as a one-woman theatre show called Chewing Gum Dreams and it’s about Tracey, a young black working-class woman, growing up on an estate in Tower Hamlets, London. She’s surrounded by a cast of dodgy characters but remains largely innocent of any naughtiness or criminality because of her evangelist Christian Mum. She’s been ‘life-partnered’ with a nice middle-class boy called Ronald for years (who turns out to be a snobbish shit). They’ve never even kissed because they want to remain pure, but Tracey has wicked and sinful thoughts and decides to find out if there’s more to life than playing board games with her sister and waiting for marriage.
I’ve made this show sound very serious, and I suppose it does deal with serious issues of identity, religion and feminism, but it’s not serious at all. It’s a properly hilarious series of embarrassing encounters and crazy situations. The slightly scuzzy characters (Connor’s Mum asking her to take sexy photos of her to put online) are wise and philosophical, at least compared to Tracey. They remind me of the visitors to Moz’s flat in Ideal. The shame and embarrassment of teenage sexual encounters, the honesty of human bodily functions (Diet Coke and Anusol instead of the morning-after pill, sitting in a recycling bin listening to romantic poetry) reminds me of the awkwardness of The Inbetweeners. And Michaela Coel has the art of the aside to camera, checking in and explaining her world directly to the audience, as Mark and Jeremy famously did in Peep Show. In those especially you can really appreciate Coel’s theatre training. All these comparisons are very good things indeed.
I’ve seen two episodes and loved them both. Like the best comedy written by women (or anyone really) it’s warm and tender-hearted. She loves her characters and their home, despite their faults. And she’s more than happy to reveal all to make you laugh, however silly, embarrassing or awkward. Even if you’re not now nor never have been a young black Christian woman growing up on an estate you should definitely be watching. It’s hilarious.