‘I felt a responsibility to do it right’: The male stand-ups use pranks to cope with miscarriage | Comedy

lIn 2019, comedian Jacob Hawley was in his mid-twenties and thinking about the future. He had dedicated the Edinburgh show that year to his partner Alannah. She had helped him through a rough patch and their relationship grew stronger, but one day she wanted children while he wasn’t sure. He started writing a show about the big question. However, the decision was taken from them when she unexpectedly became pregnant. He was scared. But before he had a chance to process the impending life change, Allah miscarried.

“If you think a big change is coming and it isn’t, then you feel empty,” he says in Bump, the show that would emerge from their experiences. “It hit us hard. I didn’t realize how many times it was.”

Alannah became pregnant again in late 2019 and Hawley is now father to a two-year-old daughter. In Bump, he charts his journey from fear of parenthood, to guilt about these feelings, to joy and satisfaction with his new role.

Jacob Hawley.
Jacob Hawley. Photo: Oli Bolland

Hawley jokes about selling old shoes to online foot fetishists to help support his daughter, disturbing signs that he might be embracing a middle-class lifestyle, and a funny, tender retelling of the moment his girlfriend found out she was pregnant. Above all, the complicated emotions Hawley experienced during his journey to fatherhood was something he wanted to explore openly onstage, not least because Alannah suffered another miscarriage this year. “This is the most honest show I’ve ever done,” he says. “With the first miscarriage, I was almost – almost – relieved because I was so scared. Just left in April that was the first time I ever wanted a pregnancy and it was taken away. So it was completely different. It was difficult. Really difficult.”

This honesty has resonated with the public. “A lot of people came to me after the show, but mostly guys,” he says. “They really relate to what I’m talking about: first being afraid of getting older, then having a miscarriage, and then suddenly being in a situation where you go, ‘That thing I thought I didn’t want has been taken away. ‘”

According to the Miscarriage Association, more than one in five pregnancies in the UK end in miscarriage – about a quarter of a million a year. It can happen to anyone and most people will never know the cause. Despite it being so common, many who experience it feel unprepared, lacking the knowledge that would have helped them feel less alone.

Most of the few mainstream representations of pregnancy loss in comedy have come through women like American stand-up Ali Wong or in series two of Fleabag, when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character encounters her sister who has a miscarriage in a restaurant toilet. But this year, Hawley and other male comics are using humor to break the silence among men that still surrounds miscarriage.

Comedian Will Duggan had no intention of writing a show for Edinburgh this year. He thought he would welcome his first child this summer. But in January, his partner had a miscarriage. “I was sorry it happened. But I was angry [too],” he says. “I don’t think it’s right that there’s something so common and devastating that you just don’t know anything about.”

He took a moment to mourn, but soon felt ready to write about it. “I use comedy as a coping mechanism,” Duggan says. “I like to take something really ugly and turn it into something positive.”

He put his experience of miscarriage on a show about anger, making fun of the everyday things that made him furious, before revealing the big event that evoked this emotion. Anger is “misunderstood,” he says; “Anger can be violent and destructive and aggressive, but we should all be angrier about certain things.”

Will Duggan.
Will Duggan. Photo: Edward Moore

This was especially evident to Duggan in the still-widespread practice of keeping pregnancy a secret until 12 weeks have passed — the time period when about 80% of miscarriages occur. “It was around 12 weeks when it happened to us,” he says. “Then your friends say, ‘Why are you sad?’ Oh, well, we were pregnant, but we’re not anymore.” If you could tell people sooner, he says, “if something bad happens, you have your support network.”

“When the second miscarriage happened,” he says, “we were honestly so grateful that we told so many people we were pregnant because they all took care of us.”

Hawley’s show also addresses the lack of proper mental health care, and the resulting pressure men exert to work through trauma with friends. “Share your feelings with the boys!” he sings like a football chant on his show, poking fun at the style of mental health ads targeting men. “We were told to go to the pub and talk about it, but I did,” Hawley says. “All that happens is you drink too much and end up crying at a cafe table.”

He got in touch with Sands Utd FC – a network of soccer teams for men who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy or baby – and saw how they offer support. He hopes turning his experience into comedy can help men who aren’t ready to talk. “Making art over it can create something interesting,” Hawley says. “Having a shared experience where you can be around people but not be pressured to have a really difficult and vulnerable conversation is another way to help people.”

However, turning this subject into a comedy was not necessarily easy. “It still feels like a really hard thing to tackle,” Hawley says. “I felt a real responsibility to do it right.”

Hawley made his first attempts to joke about his experience just before the lockdown in 2020. His past shows (about family, class and mental health), and even his BBC podcasts where he discusses drugs and love, have always been personal. But this topic felt more challenging: “I was in the middle of it, me and my partner were really struggling and I was trying to make it funny. If you’re wrong, you’re really fucking wrong. I didn’t process it and it wasn’t funny – it was just someone who was clearly struggling.”

The pandemic gave Hawley the distance to discuss miscarriage, pregnancy and fatherhood beyond the initial, visceral emotions, providing a clear picture of how common miscarriage is and how it affected him.

Duggan also felt the weight of the subject on his show. While there are plenty of fun, light-hearted detours—about his fear that hair loss means people will mistake him for a Joe Rogan fan, or the story of an audition to play a train conductor gone horribly wrong—there were days during his Edinburgh run when the emotions come up again. Both he and Hawley witnessed men in the audience who broke down in tears when they talked about a miscarriage. “It got pretty sad a few times,” Duggan says. “There were a few days when I finished the show and I felt drained. But it was cathartic.”

He remembers switching between crying and laughing in the days following the miscarriage; he and his girlfriend find dark humor — like miscarriage jokes that are statistically more likely than finding a warm Greggs sausage roll — to help each other through. “There’s comedy in everything. Even the worst things,” he says. They discussed the heaviness that permeates conversations with others after the miscarriage, and the fact that a constant somber tone isn’t always what you need. An audience member told him it was refreshing to trauma and laughter.”We can all take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes,” he says.

Both men are quick to recognize the even greater impact on their partners. Duggan walked past his girlfriend, Becky, on the last show: “It really touched us both. But it definitely affected her more because it’s her body. It’s something I can never experience.”

Hawley says, “I don’t want to speak on behalf of Alannah or any woman going through this. For her it was something she had wanted all her life, her body had begun to change to prepare her for motherhood. That was then removed. I only have a small perspective on that.”

They both hope that sharing knowledge can help other men support their partners and friends when the worst happens. “It’s just a conversation that’s not really happening. People who see the show may know someone who has had a miscarriage and can more easily have that conversation with them,” Hawley says.

Hawley’s show ends with an uplifting surprise. He and his partner are now expecting their second child. “I don’t want to make it sound like a fucking Disney story,” he says. Because there are things that are more difficult than I ever imagined.” Still, he is excited that his family is growing and wants to share that on stage.

When the first miscarriage happened, “I didn’t know who to talk to about it,” Hawley says. “After shows, I’ve had guys come up to me and say, ‘That happened to me and I’ve never talked about it with my friends.’ It’s connected to people in a way that I’m really proud of.”

Jacob Hawley will tour the UK in 2023. Will Duggan will perform Iceberg in the UK this fall and early 2023.

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