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‘Three Busy Debras’ finds work for idle hands with absurdist sitcom

| Thursday, April 16, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

In the first episode of David Lynch’s series “Twin Peaks,” prom queen Laura Palmer is D.O.A. She’s beauty, she’s grace and she’s wrapped in a plastic bag, blue in the face. It’s a horror comedy that kills off its protagonist as a catalyst for the absurdity that follows. But, is it so absurd to see a woman murdered? 

What’s truly absurd is three women named Debra killing their way through Mainstreet U.S.A. — and all for the sake of comedy. For fans of surrealist, oddball comedy, “Three Busy Debras” is your new summer show to stay up late for.

Much like “Twin Peaks,” the Debras do much of their killing within the first episode. In “A Very Debra Christmas,” they smash the body of a pool boy between two Escalades and chuckle at their misfortune in losing another pool boy.

Who are the Debras? Well, there’s Debra, and Debra, and that other one over there is Debra. Really, the Debras are folkloric heroines contrived by some of the greatest alternative comedians of the last decade — although, you may have never heard about them, despite their voluminous resumes. Mitra Jouhari is a writer for “High Maintenance,” “Miracle Workers” and even the Netflix cult classic “Big Mouth.” The other Debras are played by revered comedians Sandy Honig and Alyssa Stonoha. Before adapting it for TV, “Three Busy Debras” was a traveling sketch show that included some of the same surrealist bits and even some fake blood. 

The show is narrated by popular alternative comedian Catherine Cohen, who has taken New York City by storm with her cabaret-style comedy performances. Cohen has even performed on popular talk shows like “Late Night with Seth Meyers” — an opportunity coveted by stand-up comedians across the country. 

And if you’re not hip to alternative comedians (you should be), then you will at least appreciate the name of one of the producers on the show: Amy Poehler, who has also produced such female-driven comedy gems as “Broad City.” That should be enough to convince you to watch this show, but I’m going to continue because I like the sound of my own typing.

Back to the Debras. The first episode introduces us to the Debras as quintessential suburban housewives with a thirst for the finer things in life. They all dress in white, live in white mansions, drive white cars and kill their pool boys without fretting about the police because of their (white) privilege.

While the show pantomimes white fragility and white privilege, “Three Busy Debras” purposefully casts a diverse array of actors and actresses, including actors of color and transgender performers such as Peter Smith.

The absurdist humor seems born out of a frustration at the state of the horror genre. Women are always at the forefront of horror, but they’re usually either the victim or the “final girl,” a popular term referencing the last surviving female in a horror movie who either defeats or eludes the killer at the end of the movie. Even though the final girl seems empowered, she herself has become a sort of trope in horror movies. Whiteness has also become a trope in many horror movies.

To paraphrase the extraordinary horror documentary “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror,” as white flight moved white people from the city to “safer” suburban neighborhoods, new horrors had to be created in order to shake up the status quo. For example, iconic movie killers like Michael Myers were invented to bring the horror to the otherwise safe suburban neighborhood of Haddonfield, Illinois.

“Three Busy Debras” is a nod to this disturbia. Set in the fictionally perfect Lemoncurd, Connecticut, everyone in the town has everything they could ever want. Cue the dysfunction, horror and mayhem. If you married “I Love Lucy” with “Girl, Interrupted,” you’d get “Three Busy Debras.”

In my favorite episode so far, “Sleepover!” takes girlish naivete and turns its head around. Jouhari’s Debra invites the other Debras over for a sleepover, complete with face masks (paper masks of their faces) and girl talk (incoherent weeping). The transcendent humor comes from the “horror” that Jouhari’s Debra is trying to invoke: getting the Debras to talk about their feelings. The other Debras fear Debra’s unconditional love of her friends as she chases them around trying to get them to vent. As any good “mom friend” knows, supporting, listening and encouraging your friends is a full-time job, and it sometimes makes you the bad guy. 

It’s little skits like that which make me grateful for female-driven comedy. Sure, the concept of a mom friend is not inherently engendered, but “Three Busy Debras” hijacks the boy’s clubs of late-night comedy and horror spoofs by delivering us an absurdist wonderland of femininity, armpit hair and brunch. 

“Three Busy Debras” is a fever dream stoked by three hysterical women who have all the time in the world and a penchant for chaos. The Debras are fiercely funny, maniacally murderous and semi-independent. If you can’t stand their heat, you should get out of the kitchen. 


Created by: Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari, Alyssa Stonoha

Where to Watch: Adult Swim, Sundays at midnight

Favorite Episode: “Sleepover!”

If You Like: “Los Espookys,” “Twin Peaks”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

Contact Gina