Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the meaning of cool

“Does this mean we’re cool?”

That was my wife’s question after reading a review — she couldn’t find the link afterward and neither could I — of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” one-woman show that referred to the audience as “hipsters.”

Since we were going to see it at Soho Playhouse in New York, she wanted to know if that made us cool by proxy.

That is, of course, if you think hipsters are cool, and not (as we do) the living and now scientifically proven embodiment of “You laugh at me because I’m different. I laugh at you because you’re all the same.”

Other than perhaps that The Fonz is, there’s no universal standard of what makes a person “cool.”

The Merrian-Webster definition of the attribute — “excellent,” “fashionable,” “hip” — doesn’t shed a lot of light, so I guess it’s basically whatever someone thinks it is.

A recent New York Times profile of Rick Steves even referred to him as “miraculously untouched by the need to look cool, which of course makes him sneakily cool,” which I wish had existed pretty much my entire life.

Instead, I was just a dork, and not a “legendary PBS superdork” — the likes of Steves, Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.

But when my wife and I told my brother at Christmas that we had seen Mumford & Sons, he looked at me like “Hmmmm … dorky older brother did something cool.” Meanwhile, we had described the Mumford crowd as “basic white girls and their boyfriends,” or husbands in my case.

For the uninitiated, “Fleabag” is the one-woman show that launched Waller-Bridge from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to a TV adaptation of the same name, which begat her developing “Killing Eve,” a tremendous show that everyone should watch. (Her other TV series, “Crashing,” is also really good.)

Waller-Bridge has one foot in the door of stardom, and the heel of her back foot is off the ground. Unless she decides to keep doing it, her days of playing 175-seat theaters off-Broadway are about to end.

But we got to see her do it.

”Fleabag” is raunchy, dark, wildly inappropriate and absolutely hilarious. You laugh as Fleabag talks about the series of self-inflicted car wrecks that is her life in one moment and feel awful in the next.

And as you laugh or cringe, you empathize with the character, because as horrible as she can be (and make no mistake, she can be horrible), you hope, somehow, she figures it out.

If I had to guess, the audience — which, by the way, didn’t include nearly as many hipsters as we saw walking through Chelsea Market — had already seen the TV version of “Fleabag,” for which the stage show served as the bones, with one notable exception that I won’t get into here.

So on the one hand, everyone may have been grading on a curve, since they were all fans. On the other, since everyone knew all the punchlines, it could have been a greater challenge to make us laugh.

No matter. We all laughed, and seeing her perform the basis of six, half-hour shows in about an hour, with only a chair and off-stage sound to accompany her, was both entertaining and fascinating to watch.

“And the fact is, the majority of people who accuse bands of selling out are just irate at the fact that their music is no longer exclusive to them and the niche audience that they can brag about being a part of.”

— From an Urban Dictionary definition of “selling out”

Make no mistake … Phoebe Waller-Bridge is cool, and unless fame has a bad effect on her, she’s going to still be cool.

But there’s a subsection of fandom who only think someone’s cool if they can get on the ground floor with them, or at least before the elevator reaches the top floor.

Once they’re not “cult favorites,” they’re not favorites anymore.

Which says more about the person doing the judging than the person they’re judging.

For them, seeing Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a 175-seat way-off-Broadway theater that looked like it had apartments over the stage — whether anyone was actually in them was another matter — won’t just be something to brag about when they see her at the Oscars or Emmys or on magazine covers, it will be something to brag about with a dismissive air.


Although it had been a beautiful day, it had gotten cooler by the time the show ended at 10:15 or so, and the buildings on the narrow street tunneled the wind to make it seem even colder.

Eight to 10 of us were outside the theater,  partaking in the stage-door tradition that I find so interesting and so odd. (I’m not going to stand outside the Yankees clubhouse waiting for Aaron Judge to emerge shortly after the game ends so I can tell him I’m a fan.)

When Waller-Bridge eventually came down the stairs of the theater, something very weird happened.

I got tongue-tied. Write down the date … Saturday, March 30, 2019.

I shook her hand, told her the show was great, and then basically shut up. I had even thought about asking for a picture, but decided not to.

My wife then talked to her for a couple minutes — they practically seemed like old chums by the end — and then we left. Other people were waiting to see her, including a woman patiently waiting with something for her to sign.


With one exception who I won’t name because he was less rude and had more of an air of “been there, done that,” we’ve been really lucky with actors we’ve met at stage door.

Both Killian Donnelly the numerous times we’ve seen him or Hugh Skinner in a bar at the Young Vic were not just friendly out of obligation, but gratitude. Waller-Bridge was the same way.

It’s impressive.

And it’s cool.


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