Last night, FX debuted a new documentary Hysterical after screening at the virtual SXSW back in March. The film examines what it’s like to be a woman in stand-up comedy, and we truly hope it finally puts an end to the arbitrary and bullsh*t “question” of whether or not women are funny that insecure men have been asking for years. The answer has always been painfully obvious, at least to us of course they are.
The film, directed by Andrea Nevins, rounds up a pretty stellar list of some of the funniest women in comedy today. Comedians included Kelly Bachman, Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Nikki Glaser, Judy Gold, Kathy Griffin, Jessica Kirson, Lisa Lampanelli, Wendy Liebman, Carmen Lynch, Bonnie McFarlane, Sherri Shepherd, and Iliza Shlesinger. Kirson also served as the executive producer.
As the documentary begins, you discover despite these comedians coming from different backgrounds and upbringings, there is a similar pull that brought them to stand-up. The idea of needing to compensate for something in their childhood or perhaps having a less-than-ideal upbringing. It’s akin to hearing two people who served in the army during two different periods of time share their experiences and realizing just how similar they were. This is followed by what they all described as life changing experiences once they eventually grabbed the mic for the first time.
Predictably, the film also hones in on some struggles that women endure in the male dominated field. Some of these struggles include condescending intros as they walk onstage (Rachel Feinstein compares to being introduced as if she’s a “whacky experiment”), being fondled and sexually harassed by “fans” and fellow comics, fighting for stage time and being told that “we just booked a woman last month”, Bonnie McFarlane recalls that men would actually put their head down on the table as she walked onstage, and of course the famous back-handed praise “I usually don’t like female comics, but you…”.
These struggles are hardly new occurrences as the film highlights Joan Rivers appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show through a montage of the introductions for her including words like “dafty,” “pixie,” and “little friend.” Hardly the adjectives that warm a crowd up, right? That just what would happen in front of the cameras, highlighting on of the reasons so few female comedians got breaks during her time and it certainly wasn’t due to a shortage of funny deserving women.
The film also sings the praises of those who walked before them. Names you’ve probably heard before such as Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Moms Mabley, and Lawanda Page and possibly some you haven’t like Jean Carroll, Belle Barth, and Sophie Tucker. If you’re a fan of the subjects of Hysterical, take a dive into the work of these other artists and familiarize yourself.
Some standout moments arrive in the second half of the doc. One being when Marina Franklin walks to the comics table in The Comedy Cellar and informs her peers that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer (this part of the film is assisted by an emotional Franklin looking back on the experience). After getting some love from her fellow comics, Franklin takes the stage to talk about her diagnosis for the first time. It’s a fascinating look into how a comedian can take a tragedy that is so raw as they’re living in that moment, and still manage to find a way to turn it into a bit.
The doc also covers the backlash Kathy Griffin received after the controversial 2017 Tyler Shields photo of her holding a (fake) bloodied Donald Trump head. The film is quick to point out the hypocrisy that male artists making similar statements received not a second glance as Griffin lost virtually everything in a day’s time. While the media slammed Griffin, her fellow female comedians rallied to show their support. Then later how the effect that #MeToo has had on the scene, framed around relative newcomer Kelly Bachman and her calling out Harvey Weinstein who was in the audience at one of her shows, using the moment to tell her own story of sexual abuse, the support from fans they received, and the close bond women have in comedy today.
Yes, there are some clear omissions from the film but the overall message is resoundingly clear. It delivers on its purpose to provide a look into the stand-up culture and show just how well women ultimately fit into it. But instead of turning into a negative, us vs. them narrative it easily could’ve gone, in the end it opted to go in the opposite direction, Empowerment.