‘Complete Joy’ Is a Hilariously Grim, Worthy Follow-Up to ‘The Complete Woman’
Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
The 2015 cult mini-series The Complete Woman introduced listeners to self-help author Marabel May, a gently narcotized 1960s housewife who has the curious distinction of being the hero, anti-heroine and villain of her own story. As performed with the perfect combination of barely suppressed perpetual rage and toxic passive aggression by Amanda Lund, May is a fascinating monster who has internalized the poisonous social programming of the era to the point where she hates women, and herself, even more than the culture around her does. This is no mean feat, considering that society at the time was built upon vicious, pervasive, institutional sexism and self-hatred.
Things haven’t changed that much in the last half century in that regard, as evidenced by the recent election of the Pussy Grabber in Chief over a woman who was almost comically overqualified for the job she sought, yet was still defeated by an awful rich white man who was, and remains, comically (as well as tragically) unsuited for the gig.
In the tradition of the best satire, the pitch-perfect, lovingly assembled The Complete Woman used the egregious sexism of the past to comment upon the just as egregious sexism of the present. But it also used its 1962 setting to take malicious delight in the way the culture of the 1950s and 1960s brainwashed women into becoming vacant, dead-eyed automatons, perfect on the outside, but dead on the inside.
Well, fans of terrible advice and perversely specific, non-commercial social satire: Marabel May is back! She experienced a little “attitude re-adjustment” via a trip to the “Saint Monica’s Sanitarium for Tired Women,” some electro-shock therapy and a whole lot of tranquilizers, but she’s clearly learned absolutely nothing from the experience and is ready to share her tragic lack of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, with the world.
Complete Joy is the follow-up to The Complete Woman. It takes place in 1965 and while the world outside is changing and evolving, Marabel remains defiantly, stubbornly trapped in the past, forever intent on angrily enforcing society’s impossible and sadistic standards, for herself and every women she encounters.
Even if she wasn’t so uncharacteristically candid about her restorative stay at the Saint Monica’s Sanitarium for Tired Women, it would still be evident that May is what can charitably be deemed a little off and less sensitively described crazier than a shithouse rat. May’s depression is her most humanizing and sympathetic quality. There are times throughout Complete Joy where the host’s intense, crippling loneliness and self-doubt are both hilarious and melancholy, like when she has an animated conversation with one of her most important companions/judges: a scale voiced by Andy Daly.
Complete Joy further develops the achingly sad, tragicomic world of Marabel May and her ongoing efforts to hurt women under the guise of helping them. It’s a world defined not by joy but by a pervasive joylessness. When May encounters a woman who has defied society’s conditioning and loves and values herself and her life independent of her relationship to men it so violently defies Marabel’s worldview that she can barely process their existence. They are as foreign to her as space aliens.
The Complete Woman and Complete Joy are about sexism, but more pointedly, they are about self-hatred and the way it poisons the way that we see ourselves, the world and our role in it. In one of Complete Woman’s most surreal and inspired running jokes, Marabel May, who has been strongly cautioned to stop talking to her appliances by men in white coats, has many of her most intense, poignant, and emotionally loaded conversations with herself.
May is a self-help guru whose tips seem designed to never help anyone who is not a dude and whose sense of self is tragically lacking. In some ways, The Complete Woman and Complete Joy remind me of Todd Haynes’ brilliant and unsparing Safe. That film is a brilliant, unsparing character study and psychodrama about a woman (Julianne Moore in her best performance) driven to a dark and despairing place by the internal and external need to be perfect.
Complete Joy is similarly about the awful damage women do to themselves in the name of perfection but it has the bonus of being very, very funny, even when it is agonizing sad, which is to say much of the time. The mini-series ends on a particularly powerful note, with May finally achieving a (musical) moment of freedom and liberation too freeing and wonderful to be real.
This extension of writer-star Amanda Lund’s brilliant exploration of the violently repressed angst of the 1960s housewife is surprisingly poignant and suggests there’s plenty more life left in the character and her suffocating world. It would be neat if we had an opportunity to check in on Marabel May every couple of years, Mad Men-style, so that we can continuously track just how little she learns and grows through the decades.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.