Improv comedian and writer Abby McEnany's new comedy, Work In Progress, is a Curb Your Enthusiasm and Shrill-style series that blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction. It’s grounded solidly in a world as specific as that of Larry David’s power-hungry, self-obsessed Hollywood In Curb, or Lindy West’s experiences of living in the modern United States where being fat is one of the 7 deadly sins in Shrill. Like Larry and Lindy, Abby has mined her personal experiences and unique point of view for some dramatically bizarre comedy that’s only funnier because someone actually lived through something much like that. The central story, about a queer older woman falling in love with a younger trans man, was inspired by a real relationship in Abby’s life. But so much more from her life has made it onto screen, too.
Welcome to my life
“There's certainly a lot of me there. There's so much. Anytime you see [the character] making a mistake, that's me. It's very much based on me,” says Abby. There are some major differences, though. “My therapist did not die in my session,” Abby admits. Although that’s something from the series that most viewers assume did happen! And she drew certain lines in what she was willing to share. “We're going to see [characters based on] some of my friends, we're going to see [characters based on] my family, we're going to have this love story with Chris (played by The Politician’s Theo Germaine, a trans and non-binary performer), who's based on a real ex-boyfriend of mine, but you don't want to give away your whole life. There's something lovely about anonymity and privacy. I'm not going to tell stories I don't want to tell. I don't have to share stuff I don't want to share. And while it is scary and vulnerable, it's also thought out, right? I didn't feel like I got hoodwinked into that. I'm very much in control,” Abby insists.
Abby (both as a writer and as the character in the show) lies outside a great many mainstream norms. She’s depressed and anxious. She’s an older woman (at age 45), she’s fat, she’s masculine-presenting, and she’s sexually attracted to women but not in that hot girl-on-girl way. “When guys dream of lesbians, they’re not thinking of me,” Abby jokes. And throughout her life, who she is has been constantly shifting.
As such, Abby chooses to describe both herself and the version of herself onscreen as a dyke, a slur that she’ll be taking back and repurposing, thank you very much. “The idea of gender fluidity, sexual fluidity, all that stuff. I think that's such a beautiful idea: Everything, you can be fluid. Things can change,” says Abby. “My identity, when I came out, of course, classic 22-year-old, ‘I'm a bisexual.’ I'm not against bisexuals. I just don't identify as one. Then I never felt like a lesbian-lesbian because I still was attracted to some men. Also, I think the word dyke is very powerful, and I feel like dykes can do whatever they want. Then I started dating a young trans man [named Alex, the character Chris is based on him]. If I was still referred to as a lesbian, I'd be totally negating his gender. Alex isn't a woman. Alex is a man. So, then I was like, ‘Okay, I'm queer. I'm dyke-identified. I made up ‘queer dyke’ for myself. It makes sense to me,” she explains.
Breaking the fat barrier
But none of the issues of gender identity and sexuality and ageing or mental health that Abby is dealing with really plague her the way that weight does. Abby herself as the creator of the show has had immense difficulty coming to terms with her body in this regard. Onscreen, it serves as the real stumbling block to Abby believing that a hottie like Chris would find her just as attractive. In fact, both the queer woman plus trans man apparent mismatch and the 20-year age gap seem like small potatoes in comparison to that.
“I have no shame about my mental illness or my gender or my sexuality. I have immense shame about being fat, immense, immense, immense. I look at Lindy West (writer and creator of Shrill) and Roxane Gay (author of the books “Bad Feminist” and “Hunger”) and Aidy Bryant (the actress and comedian who plays the character based on Lindy West in Shrill), they're so beautiful and so powerful and just so funny. I just wish I was like that, and I'm not. I know I'm doing a disservice by worrying about my fat. I'm just telling the truth, right? My goal is to hopefully show people out there struggling that there's a life without shame out there. I'm not saying I'm living it, but that's the goal, right?” says Abby.
Through her show, Abby wanted to prove that life can be embraced and lived, full of joy and weirdness, even when who you are and what you look like isn’t seen as “TV friendly”. “For middle America or whatever America, I’m not a palatable queer. I’m this fat, loud, grey-haired, masculine, queer dyke who’s a mess. But the goal of this show is, hopefully – for folks out there that feel isolated – to show that there’s a life out there without shame, and just stick in there,” says Abby.
All this therapy and comedy, too? Bring it on, Abby!
Watch Work In Progress S1 from Friday, 23 October on M-Net (DStv 101) at 22:30
How to watch Work In Progress online
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