Finding Joy: Making a sitcom with Amy Huberman and Aisling Bea

The quips fly on and off camera during the filming of Finding Joy, RTÉ’s new comedy

“I’m a big narcissist. I’m in every scene.” Amy Huberman during filming of Finding Joy. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I’m a big narcissist. I’m in every scene.” Amy Huberman during filming of Finding Joy. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

At a south Dublin hotel dozens of people are dancing and having fake fun for a bunch of television cameras. This is part of a fictional awards ceremony in the middle of a comedic TV show, Finding Joy, written by and starring Amy Huberman. As they prep for the next shot, Huberman is propping up the bar beside her fictional but also actual friend, the actor and comedian, Aisling Bea.

Huberman is curious about what I’ve been told about the show. “Tell me what you know,” she says urgently. “What do you know?”

I tell her what I know: that her hapless character, Joy, gets bounced into presenting an online vlog that involves testing self-help fads after its real host (Laura Whitmore) is laid low by a plastic surgery mishap.

There are so many ‘nos’, so many rejections. So when you’re writing something, you’re going, ‘I don’t know if this will ever get made’

Huberman looks fascinated by this. “This is brilliant because you’re reminding me,” she says.

“You’ve forgotten?” asks Bea, and then she leans in to whisper to me, “She’s actually 89 but she really looks after herself.”

“This is the end of our fourth week,” explains Huberman. “We’ve had a ker-azy schedule. It’s been great crack, but sometimes my brain shuts down a tiny little bit.”

She’s just thrilled the show is in production, she says. “There are so many ‘nos’,” she says. “So many rejections, and keeping the momentum of hope alive for yourself … So when you’re writing something, [you’re] going, ‘I don’t know if this will ever get made.’ ”

“Nobody comes and does stories about the things that don’t work,” says Bea with a sigh. “All the auditions you didn’t get … Neither of us are 21 any more.”

“What?! We’re not?”

Amy joked in her classic jokey way,” narrates Bea, leaning into my Dictaphone.

Though she’s written two novels, this is Huberman’s first TV script. Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan, currently “feeling underdressed” in a roomful of snappily attired extras, has wanted to work with Huberman since meeting her on the set of John Butler’s film The Stag. They discussed adapting one of Huberman’s books and they also worked on developing a film script together, but it didn’t really go anywhere.

“We had been talking about how alternative therapies in post-Catholic Ireland had become a ‘man’s search for meaning’ type of thing,” says O’Flanagan, “and we thought it would be a funny idea to have someone exploring all these different alternative ideas.”

And so they came up with the idea of a vlogger doing so as her life spiralled out of control. “We found really quickly that Amy’s voice was well suited to TV,” she says. “She’s a smart writer and a very funny writer and she had this voice people already knew from Twitter and Instagram. ”

Aisling Bea: “You sort of expect people to be knobheads [on a set].” Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Aisling Bea: “You sort of expect people to be knobheads [on a set].” Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Painless process

After securing funding and undergoing a relatively painless writing process, here they all are, making six episodes of television that involve 54 speaking roles, Aisling Bea, Laura Whitmore, a dog called “Aidan” and, for the first episode, Huberman abseiling down the Aviva building.

“What we always say initially is, ‘Don’t write to budget, write to what you want it to be’,” says O’Flanagan and she laughs. “Amy took us at our word on that.”

Up at the bar I ask Huberman what role Bea plays. “Flatmate,” says Huberman.

Bea leans into my Dictaphone again. “Sexy flatmate,” she says.

Huberman continues, “I just said I needed a really sexy, deadly…”

“Slim,” adds Bea.

“Slim, hilarious,” continues Huberman.

“Slim,” says Bea again.

“Slim, sexy, girl,” continues Huberman.

“She then went to a trades list of actors and I was the only one who was able to do it, unfortunately,” says Bea.

What’s their dynamic like? “Very bad,” says Bea. “Very bad.” She pauses. “Do you mean personally?”

On screen. “Oh, on screen it’s very good,” says Bea.

“We’re great actors,” says Huberman.

Did Bea auditions for her role? She does a sort of weird, twirly dance thing. “That’s all I did,” she says. Seeing my confusion, she decides to describe what she just did into my Dictaphone: “An amazing hip-hop dance that turned me on as a journalist and a man.”

They are, in fact, friends. “I wanted her to be in this but I didn’t know if she’d be available, and it’s a weird thing when you ask your friends,” says Huberman.

Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan: “We found really quickly that Amy’s voice was well suited to TV.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan: “We found really quickly that Amy’s voice was well suited to TV.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Happy set

Bea talks about how many people wanted to be in the show simply because they like working with Huberman. “Amy is very beloved in this industry,” she says. “It’s a very happy set to walk on to … Everyone has got such joy and I think that does trickle down from the top.

“The crew, it would warm your heart,” says Huberman. “It’s like a cheerleading squad … Most times before a take, they do a ‘woohoo’.” She acknowledges that this might not be appropriate “before a sex scene”.

Then Bea decides she’s being too nice and tries to hype up some conflict. During a previous scene, she says, Huberman “literally flipped the table, screamed, ran out and punched someone.” She shakes her head. “Classic Hubes.”

Eventually the stage is set for the next scene. Are both Bea and Huberman in this one? “We are this scene,” says Bea. “We bloody are this scene.”

“I’m a big narcissist,” says Huberman. “I’m in every scene.”

It all begins with the cast and extras arranged at round tables while Winning Streak’s Sinéad Kennedy, playing herself, distributes awards to fake shows with titles like The Truth about Turnips. Then Joy (Huberman) bashfully enters the auditorium, deeply embarrassed after fainting at a “hot yoga” session in a previous episode. According to O’Flanagan, Finding Joy features a “series of humiliations” for Huberman’s character.

There’s an almost festive atmosphere on set. A lighting man announces with mock grandiosity that he wishes to “paint with light”. A hairstylist delays a take to fix Laura Whitmore’s hair and the cast and crew chant her name. I take a seat beside RTÉ’s executive producer for comedy, Justin Healy, at the monitors after I’m informed that where I was standing I would be in shot. “Someone wants a cameo,” sings Bea.

Amy Huberman: “I was afraid that I’d be in too much of a tizzy about having a panoramic view of it but I’ve loved every single day.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Amy Huberman: “I was afraid that I’d be in too much of a tizzy about having a panoramic view of it but I’ve loved every single day.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Repetitive work

Making television involves a lot of repetition and a lot of waiting around. The same scenario is enacted over and over again until, at 4pm, they break for lunch.

“Did someone say buffet?” say Bea, who soon has a white fluffy dressing gown thrown over her fancy dress.

Huberman dons a hoodie over hers. “I feel like I’m coming back from my debs,” she says.

It seems very relaxed on set, I observe to director Kieron J Walsh. “If you were here yesterday you’d be writing something completely different,” he says. That day, he tells me, there were issues with the location that required some creative improvisation. They are shooting six episodes in five weeks, which is, I gather, quite ambitious. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I say.

He laughs and says, “I don’t know about that.”

He goes on to agree about how good the atmosphere is and how important it is to get the tone right when it comes to comedy productions. “Amy couldn’t be more pleasant to work with,” says Walsh. “And she knew Aisling Bea and got her involved and she knew other comedians we could bring in and there were a few I could bring in.”

I was afraid I’d be in too much of a tizzy about having a panoramic view of it, but I’ve loved every single day. I think I might crash and burn on the other side of it

I join some of the cast members as they eat their lunch. Paul Reid plays Joy’s cameraman, Stan, who has a crush on Joy and is, he attests, “probably the best-looking guy in it”.

“There’s great make-up, in fairness,” says Mark Huberman, Amy’s brother, who plays another colleague of Joy’s.

“It’s very relaxed,” says Reid “and that comes from the top down. It’s just fun.”

British co-star Jenny Rainsford thinks that shows created by actor-writers “have a real integrity” you don’t always get with other productions. She should know, having worked on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. When she is back in the UK between her shooting days, Reid sends her photos from the set.

A little earlier, Bea noted that being on such a nice set shouldn’t be so remarkable. “It should only be remarkable when someone is a knobhead,” she says. “You sort of expect people to be knobheads.”

‘Jesus, am I Joy?’

Huberman sits down with me in the hotel lobby after lunch. “John Butler, who’s a really good friend of mine, sent me a lovely message,” she says: “ ‘Just try and enjoy it.’ I was afraid that I’d be in too much of a tizzy about having a panoramic view of it … but I’ve loved every single day ... I think I might crash and burn on the other side of it.”

It all comes with a certain amount of relief. She began writing episodes before filming the UK TV show Cold Feet, followed swiftly by the Irish TV show Striking Out, and she barely had time to think. She was worried she wouldn’t have time to complete it. Ultimately, however, she has found writing Finding Joy to be the most rewarding writing experience she has had.

Does seeing all these people working on the characters she created make her feel all-powerful? She laughs. “I’m the master of these people! The real joy is watching other people do what they do and maybe what trips me up sometimes is that I’m so enjoying what someone else is doing, I kind of forget I have to answer them back.”

She thinks it’s a good time for female-led comedy and she’s hoping we’ve reached a point where “we don’t have to convince audiences that it’s okay to watch female-led stuff. [It just] becomes about whether the stuff is good or not.”

She’s also clear that Joy, “an introvert and a loner,” is very different from her. Although, once, when Kieron Walsh asked, “‘Would someone really do that?’ I said, “‘Yeah, I would,’ and then thought, ‘Jesus, am I Joy?’ ”

Finding Joy starts at 9.35pm on Wednesday, October 10th, on RTÉ One

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