Biweekly Binge: Alice Fraser’s Savage - The importance of being sad
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Alice Fraser's Savage, streaming on Amazon Prime
Alice Fraser's Savage – her comedy special on Amazon Prime – is about the imperfections that we refuse to engage with. Savage even kicks off with such a moment of awkwardness, Fraser not walking in from backstage but through the cramped space between the stage and the first row as she steps on a toe or two and apologises her way to the middle of the stage, finally relieved to have made it. And then she does what every stand-up comedian does - remove the mic from the stand and leave it aside. Most do it as a style check, to loosen up, but not Alice Fraser. She keeps going back to the stand, using it like a support, a crutch, she leans on to it or holds it close in case her knees buckle. Savage can do that for that's the sort of thing it is about.
We've had such specials before (Savage has been doing the rounds since 2015 but is available widely only now, so there is a case to be made that this came long before the more famous ones) where laughter punctuates the difficult parts of a personal life. In Savage, Fraser talks mainly about her mother's struggle with MS and later, cancer, a struggle she's been part of since she was a child. It's Fraser not just coming to terms with the painful journey but also making us question something we normally don't - "Why there is no room for sadness in a civilized society."
This can come across as counter-intuitive in the time of COVID-19 with indefinite lockdowns, social distancing, and the way the pandemic has exposed the disastrous state of public health in most countries. There is enough despair in the world – maybe for the next couple of years’ worth – so why not go for the feel-good, the content that promises to make you smile? But equally relevant is the cynical-but-not-really question of what's there to smile about when the world is burning down. Alice Fraser grapples with these sorts of challenges in her show and she does so with a panache that combines her loss, her sense of humour and a – let's say it – cynicism that comes from an honest place. It is that healthy brand of cynicism that people lack today, something that helps in questioning everything from bad, problematic art to state leaders. Throughout the show, we get audio recordings of Fraser interviewing her mother in the hospital, which are touching and life affirming all the same. At one point, she goes, "Everybody is dying but some people are dying more than the others," and if that's not germane to the pandemic, I don't know what is.
Savage deals with how everyone is bent on making everything 'fun'. Fraser says she decided at the last minute to make the show about things that are sad. She talks about a "fun funeral" she attended where bubble blowers and balloons were the rage and about a self-defeating paper towel dispenser, at the hospital, that was fixed right above the motion sensor tap. She calls it a perfect product of a self-sustaining capitalist economy and you'd get this if you have seen Instagram influencers selling designer masks because the idea is, hey, if we are in a pandemic, we might as well have some fun! As someone who's seen her mother regress over 35 years of battling the forces within her body, Fraser seems well placed to be posing these questions. She wonders about our collective lack of confrontation with sadness. Savage is a treatise on that very problem, why everything must look good, taste good, feel good and "not have any hair on it." Fraser rejects the idea of modern feminism being all about feeling good about oneself and if she doesn't instagram-love her body, she is just fine with it.
Savage situates itself somewhere in that midpoint between happiness and sadness, feel-good and feel-defeated. It is about giving space to the organic reaction of the mind and body to a major event. Fraser pleads with us to take cognizance of that in-between emotion where there is much to harvest in terms of reason, debate and clarity. She wants to break the notion that only a clear head and an impassioned heart will be able to engage with an experience. Most of all, Savage calls for empathy.
The show itself stands as a reaction to one of Fraser's running partners' insensitive words. When she told him about her mother's health, his deadpan reply was, "I believe God heals," after which Fraser turned and walked away. Savage stands like a sculpture carefully erected as a repartee to this lack of empathy and how it made Alice Fraser feel. She builds it with some comedy and an introduction to her mother's innermost thoughts, talks about how taking care of her mother felt like, and slowly, the show turns into the most graceful channelling of anger that I've seen from any individual. Savage begins to question faith, not the belief itself but what it can take away from an otherwise nice human being, and how it can blind us to things that aren't visible to the naked eye but are important, nonetheless. Savage is that trenchant monument to one's true, immediate thoughts and feelings that either we push away ourselves or others sweep away for us, only to make us fall for the false pretences of a spotless mind.