Derry Girls is the proof that local comedy can travel around the world. Creator and writer Lisa McGee talks to DQ about what inspired her to create the series and how she sees comedy progressing in the future.
Having grown up in Londonderry herself, it’s not difficult to imagine what inspired Lisa McGee to write Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls, the story of five school friends tackling the problems of being a teenager in the 1990s.
In 2013, she was working on another comedy for the UK broadcaster – London Irish, about Northern Irish 20-somethings living in London – but when the show ended after one season, channel execs wanted her to produce something else, and she went back to basics.
“Initially, I wanted to write a Famous Five parody, where a group of teenagers solve crimes badly,” she reveals. “But then I started to focus more on the school aspect, writing characters based on my friends and family. A lot of the show is my own experience twisted out of shape to make it funnier.”
Derry Girls has had two seasons on C4 since 2018, with a third in the works. The show’s hyper-local and nostalgic focus made it an instant hit with domestic audiences, with McGee winning a British Screenwriters’ Award in 2018.
Global streamer Netflix then came knocking, picking up season one to show around the world. The platform recognised the show’s potential when it got hold of a pilot script, but held off commissioning it as an original. McGee says that, ultimately, this was good for the series.
“We have no direct dealings with Netflix, we just know they like the show,” she says. “I got to do the show I wanted to [with C4] and it then went on Netflix. If it hadn’t got that deal [the Netflix acquisition], though, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. It would have been as good in terms of quality, but I wouldn’t be getting letters from Mexico.”
McGee attributes the series’ success to the fact that Irish culture is present all over the world. The popularity of the show in the US, where people view it as an Irish rather than a UK series, is no coincidence. Viewers from Latin America have sent her photos of them watching Derry Girls in their crucifix-adorned living rooms, something McGee sees as profoundly Irish. When she was creating the show, however, international appeal was never something she had in mind. In fact, she feels Derry Girls’ local angle makes it what it is.
“If I had thought about how far the series could travel, it would have been crippling and the show wouldn’t have gone on to do what it has,” she says. “I wanted it to feel very specific for an Irish audience, which I think helped the global reach. I’d always work against international appeal being the starting point for a series. One of my favourite comedies of recent years has been [BBC mockumentary] This Country, and I had no idea that world existed in rural England. I didn’t understand everything they were saying but I got the jokes because the storytelling was so good.”
McGee has no intention of catering to an international audience for season three, either. For her to abandon her primary Northern Irish audience would be letting herself down.
“It’s such a personal show for me and I feel like it represents Northern Ireland on TV in a way that’s never been done before,” the writer continues. “Beyond that, I try not to think too much about who the audience is. I just try to remember that this was what I wanted to do and that’s why it worked.”
The Netflix deal a few years ago made the show globally popular, but McGee feels that events over the past year have only increased the show’s success. US viewers have been getting in touch with her to say how they’ve found the show during Covid-19 lockdowns and it’s given their day the boost it needed. McGee says this is due to the nostalgia and joy in the show, and also the fact it simply makes people laugh – something they have been needing more than ever lately. The pandemic, she feels, could bring about the return of the traditional carefree TV comedy.
The old adage about comedy is that it doesn’t travel, due to the need of comedy shows to reflect the everyday life of their viewers in order for them to relate. The exception is usually US comedy, with shows like Friends and Seinfeld still being shown all around the world, and which McGee grew up watching. McGee says that while Derry Girls is specific to Ireland, the comedy writing itself is inspired by US sitcoms, something she thinks has helped the show to find a global audience.
“Although Derry Girls seems like a mad show for US audiences to watch, it’s modelled on US shows from the 90s,” she says. “I love the storytelling in Seinfeld – you always have what I call a ‘pickle,’ i.e. something that gets out of hand that drives the plot. There’s very clear characterisation and the protagonists are a tight-knit group who have fast-paced dialogue. You could say it’s safe and traditional and everything’s OK in the end. I can see why US audiences would want to watch something like that – there’s a comfort there.”
The show has drawn praise from critics who group it with series like Fleabag as being at the vanguard of a wave of female-led content, especially in comedy. McGee feels this is just the beginning of the industry becoming more diverse.
“Shows like Fleabag, I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie are brilliant, but their writers have had to write three series that got knocked back before getting to make those. It’s tougher for women, and I feel we need to get to a point where it’s no longer groundbreaking for a show to have an all-female cast. There’s a lot happening that’s good, but we’re still a small percentage of the writers on TV in the UK.”
As well as Derry Girls season three, McGee has looked to diversify her work by writing a crime series, The Deceived, for Channel 5 with her husband Tobias Beer. The four-parter aired in August last year. She is also currently working on another crime show and is excited to be able to write the type of series she actually watches.
“The writing process was very different, as you’re sharing the workload with someone else,” she says of working with Beer. “It’s a whole different process of annoying things to work out. In comedy, you have to make people laugh all the time, which is really hard; in drama, though, you just have to keep them guessing.”