“Eve, is your door open? Those birds sounds like they’re on crack.”
“Oh, gosh, sorry!” Eve Palmer exclaims as she goes to shut the door to her Christchurch home, taking her sister Grace and me with her (via Zoom). “Quiet guys, I’m working!” she jokes to the birds, before settling back down at her desk.
The fact that so many meetings and interviews now take place remotely has been a shift in working styles for much of the world. However for sisters Grace and Eve, this has been how much of their work in creating Good Grief, the new TVNZ comedy series, has gone. Grace, Eve and their writing partner Nick Schaedel have been in different parts of the world for so long, they estimate only a couple of their hundreds of working sessions have taken place in the same room. “Lockdowns didn’t change our work dynamic at all,” Eve jokes. “We were used to getting a cup of tea, jumping on Skype and then knocking out a couple of hours of work.”
The result is Good Grief, a dark comedy set about two sisters who end up being the unlikely owners of their family funeral home. The two real-life sisters have strong TV backgrounds – Grace on Shortland Street and Home & Away and Eve as the co-host of The Adam and Eve Show – and had been looking for a writing project to do together for a long time. Somewhere along the way, they’re not too sure when, they decided it would be about funeral directors. “Death is one of those things that is absolutely inevitable for everyone and yet no-one talks about it,” Grace says. “We had heard so many funny stories over the years from various people about this and that happening… we saw lots of opportunities for stories within that space.”
“There are so many human moments – funny and sad and desperate and poignant, all of those emotions happen around death,” Eve agrees. “To be able to explore that through these different characters, who each have very different personalities, was very fun.”
When they first told their family members they were writing a comedy, Eve says they were very excited to know what it was about. “When we said, ‘Well, it’s set in a funeral home…’” she laughs. “All of a sudden they were like… ‘what is wrong with you guys?!’ But there are funny moments in and around all of that tragedy as well. That’s life – it’s a big mix of everything.”
They did a lot of research into finding out about the funeral industry, including talking to Gary Taylor, the President of the Funeral Director’s Association in New Zealand. The pair were worried that their comedy ideas might have been too outlandish, too far from reality. They needn’t have worried. “We would pose a scenario to him and ask ‘Is this crazy? Is this unrealistic?’ and then he would tell us a story that made us think we’d played it safe,” Eve laughs.
The sisters estimate it took two years from beginning to plan out the series to being able to film it. Grace says when it came to getting funding for a female-led-and-written comedy series, they were very lucky that it was just at the time that Fleabag, the dark comedy series starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also starred in it. “We’ve loved and admired Phoebe Waller-Bridge for forever, she’s amazing,” Grace says. “I think she opened up a lot of doors in that sense of being the writer and actor, as well as proving that female-driven comedy is funny, and that we need to see more of it – particularly where the females are self-deprecating.”
“And flawed!” Eve adds. “That they can be flawed and still [she makes air quotes] ‘likeable.’ We grappled with that a bit – how likeable do these people we need to be. And we settled on the fact that they need to be human and relatable but not necessarily likeable.”
Having women lead – and write – a comedy show may seem like more of a regular occurrence these days, with shows like Sis, Insecure, Broad City, The Mindy Project and Fleabag, but it’s easy to forget that the landscape for comedy was very different not too long ago. “I remember being at university with Bridesmaids came out and one of my best friends at uni was a guy, who I thought was pretty progressive, who swore that women were just not as funny as men,” Eve recalls. It was only after he saw Bridesmaids, she says, that he started thinking women could be funny. “And this was a genuine conversation I was having with a progressive, educated, sensitive guy… not that long ago! It was just a common belief that women aren’t that funny! I feel like the last 10 years have been major in having that change – and I hope it just gets better and better.”
Of course, on the flip side of the dark comedy is the very real presence of death in the show. It hasn’t so much changed their views on death, the sisters say, as it has made them realise how important it is to talk about funerals and end-of-life wishes while we’ve got the chance. “We need to be having these conversations while we’re alive, because as much as we all like to pretend death isn’t coming for us, it would be really helpful for our families if we had these discussions,” Eve says. “When you lose someone, it’s already difficult because you’re grieving and then on top of that, there’s the stress of guessing what that person would have wanted. Actually” – she starts laughing – “You’ve just reminded me that I need to do my will.”
It might sound a bit grim as a conversation topic but Eve thinks we just need to lean into it. “Turn it into a party – have people round for tacos and margaritas and say ‘We’re going to talk about funerals today; let’s make some plans!’”
Good Grief is available now to stream on TVNZOnDemand