Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Ilana Glazer’s “Babes” Joins a Lineage of Pregnancy Comedies

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Some Hollywood clichés are so well understood that they become shorthand for improbable events in the real world. Among pregnant women, the expression “Hollywood birth” is often thrown around to refer to instances of childbirth that follow the tidy trajectory seen in movies and TV shows: A woman feels a dramatic gush of fluid between her legs, screams vigorously en route to a hospital, yells profanities at her husband, and, with a few Lamaze-style breaths, pushes out a healthy baby. (Sometimes there is a threat of delivery in the car.) Although childbirth is always momentous, the reality of it—an unwieldy and unpredictable process that often unfolds in the course of many days, and with varying degrees of medical intervention—does not fit neatly into most screenplays.

As with childbirth, the humdrum or unpleasant realities of pregnancy are often smoothed over in popular culture. “She runs to the bathroom, she throws up once, and then, in the next scene, she’s in overalls painting a barn, like, ‘Yay! I can’t wait to meet you!’ ” Amy Schumer joked in her Netflix special “Growing,” from 2019.

That special was filmed when Schumer was pregnant and suffering from an extreme and poorly understood version of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum. Though the pregnancy debilitated Schumer physically, it ignited her creatively. As she toured the material for “Growing,” she was also filming a three-part documentary series for HBO, titled “Expecting Amy.” The experience of gestation and hyperemesis had such an impact on Schumer that she continued to explore it in her work, even after giving birth to her son. The second season of her Hulu series, “Life & Beth,” which was released earlier this year, is a loosely autobiographical chronicle of Schumer’s pregnancy and her marriage to the chef Chris Fischer. In the season finale, Beth (played by Schumer) and her husband (played by Michael Cera) head to a hospital with the calm, distinctly un-Hollywood air of the overly prepared: Beth is having a scheduled Cesarean section.

Schumer is just one of the many female comics who have reëxamined pregnancy on the stage or screen in the past decade. In 2016, Ali Wong had her breakout moment with “Baby Cobra,” a special filmed during the third trimester of her first pregnancy. In the performance, Wong skewered the progressive gender ideals of her generation with raunch and candor. “Bitch, shut up!” she said of feminists who paved the way for women to enter the workforce instead of staying home and watching “Ellen.” “They ruined it for us!” At one point, Wong jokes about miscarriage with a shrug. When she lost a child, she explained, she used the experience to extract generosity from her husband. “He took me to see Beyoncé. He bought me a bike off of Craigslist,” she said. “That’s my miscarriage bike.” “Baby Cobra” transformed Wong into a star not just because of its content and her shrewd jokes but because of her physicality. Seeing a large baby bump proudly displayed in a bold print, body-con minidress, rather than concealed, felt like a revelation. When she released her next special, “Hard Knock Wife,” Wong had a built-in callback available, and a sight gag; she was pregnant with her second child.

In a 2016 New Yorker profile of Wong, Ariel Levy described pregnancy as “the last taboo of female sexuality.” In facing the subject head on, “Baby Cobra” was seen as a watershed moment in comedy, ushering forth a new wave of artists for whom pregnancy and childbirth were not professional liabilities but platforms on which to build new material. Pregnancy proved to be an excellent vehicle for frank body humor, and also a lens on class and social mores. Millennial women are armed with more information and reproductive technology than any previous generation. They were—and are—having children later in life, and are ready to discuss the experience openly. A 2021 standup special from Ester Steinberg was even billed as a “postpartum special,” filmed just six weeks after she gave birth. Pregnancy was still fresh in her mind, and she likened her unborn baby to a guy who was catfishing her. “There’s this guy . . . I have these two really blurry pictures of him, and I’m ready to rearrange my entire life,” she joked.

The actress and comic Jenny Slate, ten years after starring in an indie rom-com about a romance that blossoms in the wake of an abortion (“Obvious Child”), recently released a standup special, “Seasoned Professional,” which centers largely on pregnancy and labor. Like Steinberg, Slate saw the raunchy potential in the birth process, which she describes as “exploding a baby out of my vagina.” The pop-culture images of pregnancy of these comics’ adolescence were those of young women saddled with unexpected pregnancies, like the protagonists of “Juno” and “Knocked Up.” For Wong, Slate, and their cohort, pregnancy was a carefully considered choice, and the focus of these projects is on the destabilizing experience of bearing that choice. (Perhaps comics of the post-Roe era will contend with the diminished choices available to so many women.) Moments after giving birth, Slate jokes that she immediately wanted to watch “Paddington 2,” one of her favorite movies. “I wasn’t allowed to watch it right away because they were, like, ‘You have something else to do right now,’ ” she jokes. “ which is, you know, what parenthood is—it’s not all about you.”

Few have spent more time pregnant onscreen in this era than the comic actress Ilana Glazer. Best known for playing a younger version of herself in the New York City buddy-comedy series “Broad City,” Glazer made her name as a roguish stoner who was allergic to adult responsibilities. She may have surprised “Broad City” fans, then, when she announced that she was pregnant in 2021. The subject had long been on her mind: She’d been working on the screenplay for a horror film called “False Positive,” a kind of “Rosemary’s Baby” for the I.V.F. class. Glazer, who was pregnant during the film’s rollout, played a professionally ambitious and reproductively challenged woman named Lucy. With the help of a fertility Svengali named Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), Lucy becomes pregnant with triplets. In “False Positive,” the minute-to-minute body horrors of pregnancy are overshadowed by a ghastly and somewhat muddled portrayal of the medical establishment’s mistreatment of women. Lucy’s fertility doctor has impregnated her with his own sperm—with the approval of her husband—in an attempt to fulfill his own perverted God complex.

The mood is lighter in “Babes,” a new film co-written by Glazer and directed by Pamela Adlon, the force behind the FX show “Better Things.” In the movie, Glazer returns to a familiar mode, playing a hapless single woman named Eden, who teaches yoga in her fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Queens. Like Ilana in “Broad City,” she is hopelessly attached to her longtime female best friend, Dawn (played by Michelle Buteau), and she pines for their adolescent dynamic. Dawn, however, has a husband, a toddler, and a newborn to care for. An unexpected pregnancy resulting from a one-night stand brings Eden’s path closer to Dawn’s, but it also underscores the chasm that exists between the life of a pregnant person and that of a woman raising children. Eden lives in a world of anticipation and imagination; she still has the free time to make an elaborate scrapbook outlining her birth plan, with an accompanying playlist. Dawn, meanwhile, is forced to be a tactician, living her life from one breast-pump session to the next.

As a document of adult female friendship, the film brings to mind the dynamics explored by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in “Bridesmaids.” In that movie, two lifelong best friends come to a crossroads when one (Rudolph) is ready to move forward in life and get married, while the other (Wiig) is suffering from arrested development. But, although “Bridesmaids” was an antic, slapstick comedy, “Babes” is comparatively understated, playing out more like a series of vignettes and half-finished thoughts. Adlon, whose show “Better Things” featured a single mom named Sam Fox raising three teen-age daughters, has a subtle, indie touch that she applies to “Babes.” The film does not reach for any broader lessons about pregnancy or early motherhood, except to suggest that they’re muddier than previous depictions have led us to believe. Eden’s experience is strained by her status as a single parent-to-be, but we also see that Dawn, who is well off and happily married, is full of turmoil and confusion, too.

The humor of the quiet “Babes” emerges in small moments of absurdity, like when Dawn trips on mushrooms and says she “feels like she could breast-feed the Knicks,” or when Eden interviews a male doula. The film is openly aware of the lineage of pregnancy onscreen. “In the movies, it’s like this whoosh,” Dawn says in the movie’s opening scene, as her water breaks. “But this is just a light pussy drizzle.” Later, when Eden reunites with her distanced father on the day of a crucial prenatal appointment, he tells her, “I know this would be, like, a great time for this to turn into, like, a Nora Ephron movie, and for me to come to all your appointments”

It’s a tough task, it turns out, trying to say anything new or interesting about such a universal experience. And pregnancy is a tricky experience to render onscreen: It is long, often dull, and full of private discomforts and epiphanies. “The days ticked inexorably past,” the novelist Anne Enright wrote in “Making Babies,” her memoir about motherhood. “I did not feel like an animal, I felt like a clock, one made of blood and bone, that you could neither hurry nor delay.” Much of the acting Schumer does in “Life & Beth” is wincing from the ambient unpleasantness of her growing belly.

Pregnancy, at any stage of life or time in history, is an experience of cognitive dissonance—a purgatory between a former life and a future one. Slate, for her part, deftly describes how surreal this can be, in her recent special. “I had a baby, I’m not trying to skirt the issue. . . . But, like, it does still feel, like, it was me? Like, I did it?” she wonders. “I was pregnant for a long time, and I understood that I was, but, like, even on the way to the hospital . . . I was just, like, kind of feels like someone else is going to sub in here, though. . . . It’s just such an extreme experience . . . It just doesn’t feel like something I would do.” ♦



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