‘Funny Cow’ Maxine Peake Triumphs in this Bleakly Hilarious Slice of Northern Comedy
Funny Cow is most definitely a dark comedy. The film tells the story of “Funny Cow” a woman who has a funny bone instead of a backbone. She uses comedy to overcome an incredibly rough life of poverty, domestic abuse and belittlement. This definitely is not a heart-warming story about one woman’s triumph over adversity as Funny Cow herself is an extraordinarily strange character. She’s introduced in her childhood chasing her bullies with a dog turd in her hand whilst laughing maniacally and changes little in her subsequent years.
Maxine Peake is incredible in the lead role. She is unquestionably natural, and devastatingly emotive. Her crazed clown act is truly compelling. She’s supported in her role by a host of comedic talent. Paddy Considine is her intellectually inclined lover, who is perfectly ignorant of his subtle condescension. Stephen Graham has a duel role as Funny Cow’s terrifying father and cowardly brother. Alun Armstrong is profoundly emotional as the failed comedian who still drags his carcass around the comedy clubs. We also get memorable cameos from Kevin Eldon, Jim Moir (AKA Vic Reeves), Diane Morgan, and John Bishop. It’s fascinating to see so many comedians appear in such a bleak film.
When the film goes dark it goes very dark. Scenes of her being berated by her father or first husband are terrifying and spectacularly grim in the way that only Northern British drama can be. There’s something so harsh about the word “fuck” when said in a Liverpudlian accent. This tangible darkness makes the comedy very surreal. There’s a horrifying quality to watching a woman muttering rubbish one liners to herself
Yet the film is undeniably funny. Peake is naturally hilarious and has wonderful physicality. Her act at the beginning of the film is genuinely funny as are her wonderful flights of silliness throughout the film. A spontaneous dance number in a pub involving a serving tray is filmed in one take and is undeniable charming and funny.
However the actual jokes told as part of the act of both her and Lenny are very typical of 70s gentlemen club comedy. That is to say often crude, racist, homophobic one liners. This isn’t decried or even really commentated on by the film. It is a matter of fact that this is the comedy of the time, as made popular by comedians like Jim Davidson and Bernhard Manning. I’m reminded of Manning’s defense of his material that often relied on stereotypes, “”I tell jokes. You never take a joke seriously.” Whatever the case, there is something undeniable thrilling about seeing Peake’s Funny Cow delivering this material and using it to win over a largely male crowd. It’s empowering?
Funny Cow is a very dark comedy which mixes a genuinely sweet story about a fascinating woman with domestic abuse, suicide, alcoholism and stand up. It’s well worth a watch even if it is a little uncomfortable at times.
4 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.