“All good dramas are funny and all good comedies are sad,” Anna Dokoza proclaims.
She knows what she’s talking about. As a producer and director, Dokoza’s fingerprints are on some of the most acclaimed comedy series of recent years. Currently she’s in pre-production on the new series Three Busy Debras, on which she is showrunner and executive producer. Prior to that, she directed all of Ryan O’Connell’s Special for Netflix. Going further back, it’s a laundry list of cult comedy: Lady Dynamite, Insecure, Up All Night, Bored to Death, Flight of the Conchords, and more.
But it’s Shrill we’re here to talk about: the savagely sharp adaptation of Lindy West’s book of the same name that follow’s Aidy Bryant’s put-upon Annie Easton, a young journalist navigating life and love in modern day Portland.
The twist? She’s fat.
That’s not the whole point of the series, but it’s a central theme, and as the show refuses to shy away from the F-word, so we shouldn’t here. Annie is a big young woman with big problems, a lot of which revolve around how the world treats a woman who is overweight.
The series comes with quite a pedigree. Among its executive producers are Saturday Night Live mogul Lorne Michaels and actor and director Elizabeth Banks. Bryant herself is an SNL alumnus, and she shares the camera with British rising star Lolly Adefope (The Spy Who Dumped Me, Miracle Workers), Luka Jones (People of Earth), and veterans Daniel Stern (Home Alone), Julia Sweeney (Saturday Night Live) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch).
Dokoza, who directed episode two of the second season (watch it below), credits the cast with elevating the already excellent writing on the series.
“I have to say it was a real treat because you just have exceptional actors,” she says. “When you have a lot of actors that are stand-up, that are improv, that work on things like Saturday Night Live, you know that when they get a script they can bring it to the next level. There’s the writing, there’s the script, but the actors can completely elevate that kind of comedy.”
As for her own comedic sensibilities, Dokoza tends towards black humour. “I like my comedy really dark, so there’s a world in which things are funny even if you don’t laugh. I like that sort of slow-burn comedy where you may not necessarily laugh, but you still think about it and it might make you laugh at some point. I like things definitely with a layer of dark in them, and that’s the best combination.”
That sensibility comes, at least in part, from being an Australian operating in the American industry, and bringing with her comedic instincts shaped by a weird gestalt of influences. “When you’re an Australian you’re influenced by a lot of different things. When you’re American, you’re influenced by American comedy. As an Australian, I was influenced by Australian comedy, by British comedy, and by American comedy. I think Australia has a combination of British and American sensibilities with a lot of taking the piss out of everything.”
Plus, the scarcity of material in the dark days of the pre-internet age meant that good comedy was hoarded and re-watched. “You were looking for comedy anywhere. I feel like today you can Google any weird clip or comedy thing, but when I was growing up you had to wait to watch it on TV or you’d have a VHS or DVD copy of some stand-up that you’d watch over and over again – it wasn’t that accessible.”
Much like her work on Special, directing Shrill meant finding a way to give shape to someone else’s comedic voice – a process she takes very seriously. “I think comedy and finding comedy voices that gel is like finding a pace – it’s like a rhythm of a song. And if you follow the same song and you have the same rhythm as your actors, your creator and your writers, then we’re all singing the same song and it really makes sense to us, you know?
“That’s the thing about comedy – you’ve got to find the song that works for you. Because things I think are funny might not be the things another director thinks are funny, but we can both be funny at the same time, you know? It’s relative.”
Seasons 1 and 2 of Shrill are now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Watch ‘Kevin’, the Dokoza-directed season 2 episode 2:
Ben and Fiona are back to talk 'Little Women', and 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood', both of which have been overlooked in the Best Director category of the Oscars. Fiona then interviews Marielle Heller, director of the latter, about celebrating the legacy of a childhood icon, and about the industry's bias against movies directed by women in awards season ("I guess I can't ignore how blatant this is").