There is a lot to take away from the official SXSW selection, Hysterical, a documentary feature directed by Andrea Nevins, which examines the culture of women in stand-up comedy. Just to set the scene, I am a straight, white male reviewing this film. Thus, there are undoubtedly some particular perspectives on these matters that individuals of other genders, races, and sexualities could provide that I am simply incapable of contributing based on my life experiences. That being said, I was thoroughly entertained, moved, and inspired by the stories of the women displayed in Nevins’s documentary.
One question in point, delivered by an interviewer to comedienne Fortune Feimster: “What is it that beats inside the heart and soul of a comedian that makes you want to make people laugh, that makes you want to stand upstage alone?”
Feimster instantly responds with “Damage,” before laughing and continuing to say, “Yeah, there’s probably a little piece of a lot of us that is filling some sort of void, right?”
Another quote from Iliza Shlesinger that goes along the same lines: “At its core, we all want love, we all want to feel seen. We all want to feel acknowledged. Nobody wants to feel bad about themselves. Everybody wants to be heard.”
These individuals speak of a nagging ache of emptiness and loneliness at their core, which is something to which countless people from all backgrounds can relate. However, what is truly admirable about these women is that they are seeking to fill that void in an industry that is already slanted against them, with its deep roots in sexism and misogyny. The world in general is, unfortunately, already plagued with these ills, but these discriminatory practices in the comedy scene are elevated to an even higher degree. Also taking into account that many of these female comics are POC, their courage is incredible. These women face inexcusable sexism and racism, and abuses of a verbal, physical, or sexual nature, even from their own colleagues. Yet, they still get up on stage and try to find a way to laugh at the chaos of the world. This documentary does a fantastic job capturing the layers and nuances of what drives these women to continue marching forward against the grain.
The invisible lines in the world of comedy that determine whether or not a joke is “too far” are a tricky business to navigate. Sadly, it does not come as a surprise that men are given much more leeway in this realm than women. So much of comedy is inherently subjective and is up to the interpretation of each individual audience member, but if a female makes an edgy joke at another person’s expense, they are looked at with harsh judgment. One aspect of this phenomenon that was referenced in Hysterical was the controversial Kathy Griffin photoshoot from 2017, in which she posed with a prop severed head in the likeness of Donald Trump. Again, whether or not this crosses a line is not necessarily a binary question with a singularly “correct” answer, but this documentary does make note of other instances in which male entertainers were cut more slack for anti-Trump imagery that is just as graphic and gruesome as the display by Kathy Griffin. The sexism deeply ingrained in the industry is undeniable.
The beautiful diversity of the voices and stories that are shared in the documentary are all exceptionally unique, but there is also an interconnectedness in their lives and the exploration of their respective identities. They are all women on the comedy scene, a bond that brings shared experiences and related ordeals between them. Each of their personal narratives string together to form a rich, resonant tapestry, depicting the broader story of women in comedy.
The sheer fearlessness and tenacity demonstrated by these female comedy artists in their roles as social critics is astonishing. Consider Kelly Bachman’s stand-up set at a New York City bar in October 2019, with Harvey Weinstein sitting in the audience. Bachman, herself a survivor of sexual assault, made it a point to call out, the “elephant in the room.” This brought jeers and boos from certain audience members, but Bachman committed to the path and finished her set in the midst of a hostile environment. To just sit and witness this show of strength and “badassery” — a term used in the documentary itself, the use of which I am inclined to agree — left me thinking about it for a long time after the credits rolled.
The archived footage that is used as B-roll for Hysterical ranges from family home video to old still photographs to talk show segments from decades in the past. There is a great variety to the visuals and imagery that assist in the storytelling of this documentary. Another interesting aspect I noticed about the cinematography concerns the interviews with comedians including the likes of Margaret Cho, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Nikki Glaser, among many others. The majority of the interviews were obviously filmed in a studio setting, with high quality cameras and audio recording equipment. Yet, others were conducted through Zoom or a similar video-chat software. I assume that production was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the directors and producers to work with limited resources on the back end of filming. The team that made this finished product possible deserves credit for finding a way to overcome these adversities.
Still, there were times where Hysterical lacked focus as a general, overarching narrative. The female comic industry has so much story to be told, but it might have been better fit as a roughly 4-hour docuseries, with each episode focusing on a different aspect of this culture. For reference, this feature-length documentary stands at roughly 90 minutes. There is a lot of valuable information and entertainment contained within that hour and a half, but an extended, more slowly paced series digging deep into the minutiae of the business could have been more effective. All in all, however, this is my biggest gripe with the film, and it did not have a detrimental impact on my viewing experience as a whole.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival March 16th, 2021.
Premiering on FX Network April 2nd, 2021.
Available on Hulu April 3rd, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.