Though occasional appearances in American feature films (Muppet Treasure Island, Shrek 2) and sitcoms (Roseanne) highlight her resumé, the hyperkinetic and overmodulated British comedian Jennifer Saunders is indelibly associated with two English series programs: the sketch comedy/variety show French & Saunders and the wild sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, which skewers mercilessly the decadent pretension of British haute couture.
Born July 6, 1958, in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, England, to a father stationed in the RAF, Saunders, like many children of military families, acquired and honed a sharp sense of humor at a tender age, perhaps as a way to cope psychologically with being constantly shuttled from town to town. In the late '70s, Saunders enrolled as a student in London's Central School of Speech and Drama, where she met and befriended lifelong collaborator Dawn French while studying to become a drama teacher. French suggested that they respond to an advertisement placed in Stage magazine for aspiring comedians, and the success of that audition yielded a regular on-stage sketch-comedy gig at The Comic Strip Club -- alongside Peter Richardson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, and many other established talents. As this list suggests, the preponderance of comedians at that time were male, which set French and Saunders apart from the pack and placed them in Britain's then-burgeoning "alternative comedy" niche. When the Comic Strip team graduated their skits to the eponymously titled BBC program The Comic Strip Presents... in 1982, French and Saunders moved with them; the original run of that program lasted until 1988, with four- and three-year revivals in 1990 and 1998, respectively.
Over the next several years, Saunders co-starred in a number of BBC television series comedies, including Happy Families (1985), Girls on Top (which placed her alongside the legendary Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax), and -- in occasional cameos -- The Young Ones (1982). Then, in 1987, the BBC granted Saunders and French their own sketch comedy program, aptly titled French & Saunders. That program debuted in 1987 and not only broke untold ground for up-and-coming British comediennes but became a massive hit and ran indefinitely. The pair scripted episodes and starred in them.
A sketch in the third season of French & Saunders -- done by Saunders during French's brief sabbatical from the program -- inspired Saunders to create a character for a new series: that of the pill-popping, booze-swilling, outrageously vulgar '60s has-been-turned-PR mogul Edina Monsoon -- played by Saunders herself. Entitled Absolutely Fabulous (and done sans French), the program paired Monsoon with best friend Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), the inhabitant of a liquor store and a magazine editor. Episodes found Edina not only contending with the vicissitudes of a debauched lifestyle, but grappling her way through tumultuous relationships with her teenage daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha), and naïve mom, known only as Mother and Gran (June Whitfield). The program scored as a massive hit not only in Britain, but on American cable stations. Yet its run was surprisingly short given this popularity; it aired from 1992 to 1993, then resurfaced briefly in 1996, and came around for a third go between 2001 and 2003.
As mentioned, Saunders provided one of the voices in 2004's CG-animated Shrek 2 (that of the Fairy Godmother); she also voiced Miss Spink in directors Henry Selick and Michael Cachuela's stop-motion animated fantasy Coraline (2009).