‘I felt a responsibility to get it right’: the male standups using jokes to cope with miscarriage

‘I felt a responsibility to get it right’: the male standups using jokes to cope with miscarriage

Even though it affects one in five pregnancies, the loss of a baby is rarely talked about, especially among men. But standups Jacob Hawley and Will Duggan are using comedy to break that taboo

Illustration Andrea Ucini.

In 2019, the comedian Jacob Hawley was in his mid-20s and thinking about the future. He had dedicated that year’s Edinburgh show to his partner, Alannah. She had helped him through a rocky period, and their relationship was growing ever stronger, but she wanted children one day while he wasn’t sure. He started writing a show about the big question. However, the decision was taken out of their hands when she unexpectedly became pregnant. He was scared. But before he had a chance to process the impending life change, Allanah experienced a miscarriage.

“When you think a big change is coming and it doesn’t, it leaves you feeling empty,” he says in Bump, the show that would unfold from their experiences. “It hit us hard. I didn’t realise how common it was.”

Alannah became pregnant again in late 2019, and Hawley is now father to a two-year-old daughter. In Bump he charts his journey from fear of parenthood, to guilt over these feelings, to joy and contentment with his new role.

Jacob Hawley.

Hawley jokes about selling old shoes to online foot fetishists to help support his daughter, worrying signs that he might be embracing a middle-class lifestyle, and a funny, tender retelling of the moment his girlfriend found out she was pregnant. Above all, the complicated emotions heHawley experienced during his journey to fatherhood are something he wanted to explore openly on stage, not least because Alannah experienced another miscarriage this year. “This is the most honest show I’ve done about anything,” he says. “With the first miscarriage I was almost – almost – relieved because I was so scared. In April just gone, that was the first time I’d ever wanted a pregnancy and it was taken away. So it was completely different. It was hard. Really hard.”

This honesty has resonated with audiences. “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after the show, but especially guys,” he says. “They really relate to what I’m talking about: initially being frightened of becoming a parent, then miscarriage, and then suddenly being in a situation where you go: ‘That thing that I thought I didn’t want has been taken away.’”

According to the Miscarriage Association, more than one in five pregnancies in the UK end in miscarriage – around a quarter of a million a year. It can happen to anyone, and most people will never know the cause. Despite it being so common, many who experience it feel unprepared, lacking the knowledge that might have helped them feel less alone.

Most of the few mainstream representations of pregnancy loss in comedy have come via women such as the US standup Ali Wong or in series two of Fleabag, when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character encounters her sister having a miscarriage in a restaurant toilet. But this year, Hawley and other male comics are using humour to cut through the silence among men that still exists around miscarriage.

Comedian Will Duggan had not planned to write a show for Edinburgh this year. He thought he would be welcoming his first child this summer. But in January, his partner experienced a miscarriage. “I was sad that it happened. But I was angry [too],” he says. “I don’t think it’s right that there’s something so common and devastating that you just don’t know about.”

He took some time out from work to mourn, but soon felt ready to write about it. “I use comedy as a coping mechanism,” says Duggan. “I love taking something quite ugly and turning it into something positive.”

He placed his experience of miscarriage within a show about anger, spinning jokes from the everyday things that enrage him before revealing the big event that prompted this emotion. Anger is “misunderstood”, he says; “anger can be violent and destructive and aggressive, but we should all be angrier about certain things”.

Will Duggan.

This was especially clear to Duggan in the still widespread practice of keeping pregnancy a secret until after 12 weeks have elapsed – the period during which about 80% of miscarriages occur. “It was around the 12-week mark when it happened to us,” he says. “Then your friends are like: ‘Why are you sad?’ Oh, well, we were pregnant, but we’re not any more.” If you could tell people earlier, he says, “when something bad happens, you’ve got your support network”.

“When the second miscarriage happened,” he says, “we honestly were so grateful that we had told so many people we were pregnant, because they all looked after us.”

Hawley’s show also addresses the lack of provision of proper mental health services, and the consequent pressure men are put under to work through trauma with friends. “Share your feelings with the lads!” he belts out as a football-style chant during his show, mocking the style of mental health adverts targeted at men. “We’re told to go down the pub and talk about it, but I’ve done that,” Hawley says. “All that happens is you drink too much and end up crying at a pub table.”

He did connect with Sands Utd FC – a network of football teams for men who’ve experienced the loss of a pregnancy or baby – and saw how they provide support. He hopes that turning his experience into comedy could help men who aren’t ready to talk. “Making art about it can do something interesting,” Hawley says. “Having a shared experience where you can be around people but having no pressure to actually engage in a really difficult and vulnerable conversation is another way of helping people.”

Turning this topic into comedy wasn’t necessarily easy, though. “It still feels like a really difficult thing to address,” Hawley says. “I felt a real responsibility to get it right.”

Hawley made his first attempts to joke about his experience just before lockdown in 2020. His previous shows (about family, class and mental health), and even his BBC podcasts where he discusses drugs and love, have always been personal. But this topic felt more challenging: “I was in the midst of it, me and my partner were really struggling, and I was trying to make it funny. When you get it wrong, you get it really fucking wrong. I hadn’t processed it and it wasn’t funny – it was just someone clearly struggling.”

The pandemic allowed Hawley the distance to discuss miscarriage, pregnancy and fatherhood beyond the initial, visceral emotions, giving aand create clear-headed account of how common miscarriage is and the way it affected him.

Duggan also felt the weight of the topic in his show. While there are plenty of fun, light detours, – about his fear that hair loss means people will mistake him for a Joe Rogan fan, or the story of an audition to play a train conductor that goes horribly awry – there were days during his Edinburgh run when emotions would resurface. Both he and Hawley witnessed men in the audience dissolve into tears when they mentioned miscarriage. “It did get quite sad a couple of times,” says Duggan. “There were a few days when I finished the show and I felt drained. But it was cathartic.”

He recalls flipping between crying and laughing in the days after the miscarriage; he and his girlfriend finding dark humour – such as jokes about a miscarriage being statistically more likely than finding a hot Greggs sausage roll – to help each other through. “There’s comedy in everything. Even the worst things,” he says. They discussed the heaviness that permeated conversations with others after the miscarriage, and the fact that a constant sombre tone isn’t always what you need. One audience member told him it was refreshing to see trauma meet laughter. “We all can take ourselves a bit too seriously sometimes,” he says.

Both men are quick to acknowledge the even greater impact on their partners. Duggan ran the final show past his girlfriend, Becky: “It affected us both terribly. But it definitely affected her more because it’s her body. It’s something that I can never experience.”

Hawley says: “I don’t want to speak on behalf of Alannah or any woman who goes through it. For her, it’s something she’d wanted her whole life, her body had started changing to prepare her for motherhood. Then that was taken away. I only have a tiny perspective on that.”

They both hope sharing knowledge could help other men support their partners and friends if the worst happens. “It is just a conversation that doesn’t really happen. People who see the show might know someone who experiences miscarriage and be able to more easily have that conversation with them,” says Hawley.

Hawley’s show ends with an uplifting surprise. He and his partner are now expecting their second child. “I don’t want to make it sound like a fucking Disney tale,” he says. Because there’s stuff that’s harder than I ever imagined.” Still, he’s delighted that his family is growing and wants to share that on stage.

When the first miscarriage happened, “I didn’t know who to talk to about it,” says Hawley. “After shows, I’ve had guys coming up to me saying: ‘That happened to me and I’ve never spoken to my mates about it.’ It’s connected with people in a way I’m really proud of.”

Jacob Hawley tours the UK in 2023. Will Duggan will be performing Iceberg around the UK this autumn and early 2023.