‘Hysterical’ Is a Devastating, yet Inspirational Documentary About Women in Stand-up Comedy

Growing up in the early 2000’s, I always knew that stand-up comedy was a largely male-dominated field, however; thanks to comics like Joan Rivers and Chelsea Handler, I also knew that women could do anything they set their minds to—even comedy. Unfortunately for many female comics, it hasn’t been easy. The FX documentary “Hysterical,” released on April 2, explores the sexism, scrutiny and impact that comes with being a female in the comedy industry. The documentary features exclusive, vulnerable interviews with female comedians of multiple generations as well as entertaining clips from their performances and specials.

During the interviews, the comedians bring up times they had been sexually assaulted by or felt uncomfortable around fans or other comics on the road. Nikki Glaser, for example, addresses the many times her male fans have touched her inappropriately. She says it has just become normal and doesn’t want to make a fuss about it, especially if their wives are there. Bonnie McFarlane talked about an incident where a fan followed her back to her hotel room one night after a show and made her feel unsafe. Sherri Shepherd said she has “been in so many situations” and was once assaulted by another comic.

Kelly Bachman recalls doing a show in which Harvey Weinstein was in the audience. She took this as an opportunity to make some off-the-cuff jokes regarding his past consisting of sexual assault and harassment. Bachman ended up being booed by several audience members who took offense to her commentary on the subject. I think that most comedians wouldn’t have had the guts to do this and face the consequences, but that is what made it so special. By doing this, she opened the door for a broader discussion.

Another issue touched on in the documentary is the lack of stage time given to female comics in the industry. Marina Franklin says, “I had never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.” The comics talk about how in the early days of their careers, they were only allotted little stage time in comparison to their male counterparts. Emmy-winning writer and comedian Judy Gold added that as a woman, “you’re lucky if you get stage time in New York.” 

Aside from being slighted on stage-time, there has also been evidence of a gender pay gap as well. For example, Netflix has been known to offer up substantially larger amounts of money to male comedians. The discrepancy could be up to $100 million. Comedian Kathy Griffin tells the interviewers that she has probably earned about one tenth of the money her male counterparts have earned in their careers. Thankfully in recent years, the women have begun to fight back and demand equal pay from venues and streaming platforms—while there is still work to do, the gap is slowly closing in.

Marina Franklin performing. Courtesy of FX.

At this point in time, it is widely known that many of the world’s most successful comedians have been fueled by their hardships, traumas and often mental illness. Women are not the exception to this. In the documentary, the women discuss how their trauma, from childhood and beyond, has greatly influenced them as comics. Sherri Shepherd acknowledges her upbringing as a black woman in the suburbs of Chicago, being called the N-word all the time, and how that has affected her. Nikki Glaser told the story of her first ever open mic performance, during her battle with anorexia. Fortune Feimster recalls growing up, feeling out of place as a gay Christian in the South.

“We’re just trying to fill this hole and get the attention that we have always wanted, but can’t get,” says Jessica Kerson. “It really all goes back to childhood and just always wanting to be seen and heard and not feeling acknowledged.” 

While “Hysterical” certainly brings attention to the difficult obstacles and experiences female comics have to face, it also has its moments of positivity. Every comedian featured in the documentary has achieved the unachievable and that is certainly something to celebrate. They take time to discuss how grateful they are for the other women who work alongside them in the industry as well as those who came before. Bonnie MacFarlane says they are “all fueling each other and it’s becoming something bigger.” 

The comics also take time to mention how special it is to be able to do what they do and why comedy is so important to them. Many of them brought up the fact that it finally gave them a voice they didn’t have before. So many of them have dealt with tragedy or trauma that comedy helped them overcome. Rachel Feinstein speaks about comedy and says, “I’m in control,” Nikki Glaser mentions that comedy was how she found her identity. This is something I believe any artist or storyteller can deeply relate to.

Stand-up comedy, like so many other art forms, is about telling your story and getting your voice out there—it just so happens to also make people laugh. These comics certainly use their voices in this documentary. “Hysterical” can teach you a lot if you take the time to watch, enjoy and listen.

“Hysterical” is available to stream on Hulu.

By Blair Krassen

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