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Women leaving them in stitches

Cable comedies are showcasing today's funny ladies.

August 09, 2003|Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn | Special to The Times

Three black nuns in habits are strolling down the streets of London, each chugging a 40-ounce bottle of Guinness beer. Sound like the beginning of a joke? It is.

And the punch line is caught on hidden camera as it pans the faces of the surprised Brits passing by.

Welcome to the world of the "3 Non-Blondes," BBC America's bawdy fast-paced hidden camera show debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday. In it, three black female comedians, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Ninia Benjamin and Tameka Empson, take turns approaching unsuspecting people throughout the U.K. with wacky requests or putting on outrageous acts.

It's not as vile as "Jackass" or as mean-spirited as "Trigger Happy TV" but is nonetheless outrageous. And it's not alone. It joins Oxygen's soon-to-return "Girls Behaving Badly" and Sci-Fi Channel's "Scare Tactics," starring Shannen Doherty, as part of a wave of new comedies offering a decidedly female answer to "Da Ali G Show" or Ashton Kutcher's "Punk'd," to say nothing of generations of the Funt family's "Candid Camera."

Originating from Britain's edgier, youth-oriented BBC 3, the "Non-Blondes" are already the toast of the telly over there, described by one U.K. magazine as "dirty in a whole new female, but-not-female, strand of dirtiness."

Shamelessly uninhibited, the tone is akin to sketch comedy, with members of the public unknowingly participating with characters like the African tourist who asks for directions in cow-lengths, rather than kilometers. ("If I lay my cows this way, how many cows will it take me to get there?") Surprisingly, there's a real answer given every time. "It's not so much that we're making a fool out of the person," Empson said. "We're acting the fool to see how they react and interact with us."

For example, Empson, in long fake fingernails, has no problem getting an elderly gent to undo her pants so she can use a public toilet. And Jee Esien almost gets away with robbery, attempting to hypnotize a store clerk. (When she runs back to find her spell didn't work, she gives back the goods.) The look on the clerk's face when she leaves -- priceless.

"It's almost like a play," Jee Esien said. "If you see the same character scene after scene in different episodes, they grow. Once the character has nowhere else to go, then we drop the character. We don't start with the stunt first, we start with the character."

Producer Gary Reich, who saw a dearth of comedies on British television featuring black women, brought the comics together. He had a hunch that black women could "get away" with more in hidden camera comedy because "in London there is a sense of political correctness and a desire not to offend," Reich said. "So in that format, they were able to go a lot further because people were prepared to play along more."

With undercover capers a male-dominated sport, "there wasn't this consciousness that this kind of comedy was being done by women," Reich added.

Had he looked across the pond, there already was a gang of young women unleashing their comic trickery on an unsuspecting public. The heirs to the Mae West ideology that good may be very, very good, but bad is better, Oxygen's hidden-camera prank show, "Girls Behaving Badly," derives its humor from unsuspecting men who fall prey to unassuming female comics.

But they're not the girls next door. In one setup, a stripper hired for a bachelor party brings her 9-year-old son who keeps butting into the act. In another, a woman prances down the street with high-rise thong underwear peeking from her low-slung jeans catching the attention of passersby.

"In the nursery rhyme about girls being 'sugar and spice and everything nice,' you never really saw the 'spice' except in a really dirty way," said Barry Poznick of Zoo Productions, who created the series with partner John Stevens. "We follow the theory that girls can be just as funny or just as wild and crazy as guys and not alienate anybody."

"Girls Behaving Badly," starring Chelsea Handler, Melissa Howard, Shondrella Avery and Kira Soltanovich, has become the network's signature series -- one the 3-year-old cable network hopes will cement its reputation as an edgy alternative to Lifetime and Women's Entertainment. And celebrities like Joan and Melissa Rivers are joining in the precocious girlie games.

It's created such hoopla that its third season, beginning Oct. 17, it will anchor Oxygen's new Friday night lineup of original comedies at 8 and 9 p.m. (The show currently airs in reruns at 9 p.m. Sundays.)

The series has become "very definitional," said Oxygen Chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, "about where we want to go and what we want to do with our humor. It gives women a chance not to shrink to fit ... a license to be physical comedians and make fools of themselves."

Unlike "3 Non-Blondes," the "Girls Behaving Badly" skits are partly scripted and the show solicits participation from viewers who want to poke fun at their friends or partners.

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