There have been several documentaries, both large and small, focused on the history of women in stand-up comedy. The short take is that, much like every industry in the world, being a woman in a man’s world sucked. But Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ upcoming FX documentary, “Hysterical,” does something different.
It really leans into that fact, not just by reminding us that yes, women had a hard time breaking into the industry, but also how often men — even friends of the female comics themselves — didn’t really see anything wrong with it. Nevins’ documentary is a fierce, frustrating, and utterly amazing look at the strength of these women comics, and how they weaponized their trauma to make us (and themselves) laugh through their tears.
Kicking things off with Billie Eilish’s “Therefore I Am” over the opening credits, “Hysterical” shows pictures of the comic subjects as little girls, introducing the knowledge that the belief women are less than men starts young. Each of the women interviewed for the documentary discusses being the odd duck and trying to make people laugh as a means of fitting in. Unfortunately, while they all found a community in the stand-up world that they felt understood them, it became quickly apparent that it wasn’t exactly welcoming to women.
The usual elements of a documentary of this type are there: the reminder that if a female comic bombed, none were ever considered at a club again. But Nevins gives plenty of proof to the misogyny historically found with regards to women in general, let alone women in stand-up comedy. One triggering montage involves male comics like Sam Kinison, Bill Burr, and Chris Rock making jokes about beating and choking women. A later discussion is about how male MCs introduce women comics, jokingly calling them “little lady” or reiterating that the comic “is a woman AND she’s funny!”
What’s fascinating to see is how these women discuss the elements of paying their dues as comics and how it’s almost like being in the military; women are expected to do the same things as men, but men fail to acknowledge how the experiences are societally more dangerous for women. Case in point, comics going on the road and often bunking up together. Numerous female comics discuss being the lone woman staying in an out-of-state hotel room with a group of male comics.
In one pointed discussion the camera is left on comic Marina Franklin and a male colleague. She reminds him that the hotel he advocated she stay in was “great,” mainly because he saw it as an easy hotel to bring women back to. The male comic later explains that he had a meth addict sitting outside his window, only to wait for a beat and say maybe it wasn’t as safe as he’d thought. It is these moments that are so beautifully rendered and necessary to show as it extends outside the world of stand-up. As we continue to see on the news, being in a place as a woman is far different — and men are being regularly reminded that they live their lives differently.
Each of the women included in this documentary have a unique and compelling story to tell, and where “Hysterical” hits all the right notes is these women’s ability to turn their hurt into art. Nearly every subject interviewed has a story about being raped, set as a heartbreaking Zoom montage where women like Sherri Shepard, Margaret Cho, and other admit to being assaulted by fellow male comics. Cho is especially adept at showcasing how women turn their pain into humor, bringing up how she was more angered that her rapist was half her size.
And if you think the documentary’s point is to show how things have improved, Nevins reminds everyone that there are still massive issues. Towards the last third of the feature comedienne Kelly Bachman is interviewed about telling jokes about Harvey Weinstein as he sat in a bar. Seeing the video of her set is hard, especially as men yell at her to “shut up,” but there’s an added discussion of how even men we know are predators still get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to being mocked.
An additional discussion focuses on the lack of Black women in stand-up. Marina Franklin’s story is especially poignant, with the camera documenting her battle with breast cancer. But the movie leaves the discussion about the decline of Black women in the industry to the very end, asking the question of why — but never properly exploring it. Maybe it necessitates its own documentary, but when the predominate voices in the documentary are white women, it’s hard not to urge a discussion of white feminism.
“Hysterical” is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, moving and entertaining. The documentary reminds you of the history of humorous women, and how they were often the ones blazing a trail while trying their hardest to live up to impossible standards. This is a movie I want to see again, laughing and crying all the way.
“Hysterical” premieres on FX on April 2.
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