This Hysterical review contains only mild spoilers about the documentary.
Hysterical, the new FX documentary directed by Andrea Nevins (Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie), strives to answer a question that has plagued women in comedy for decades: “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy?” Hysterical’s answer? Well, it’s hard.
The documentary features interviews from heavy-hitters like Margaret Cho, Nikki Glaser, Fortune Feimster, Marina Franklin, Iliza Schlesinger, Judy Gold, and more, plus archival footage from Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, and Joan Rivers, among others. Some prominent female comedians are notably absent from both the interviews and the extended archival footage. Instead, they appear appear in snippets — Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen Degeneres, Sarah Silverman, and Mo’Nique, whose only other appearance comes in the form a news headline about her discrimination lawsuit against Netflix. Perhaps the absence of Degeneres and Silverman is an attempt to avoid the controversy attached to both performers, but why didn’t the rest of those comedians make the cut? It seems that Hysterical didn’t feel the need to represent those women because Hysterical isn’t about “women in comedy” at all — it’s about the obstacles that women face in a male-dominated field. Those obstacles are worth exposing, but Hysterical’s depiction of those obstacles lacks specificity. And when we’re talking about oppression, specificity is critical.
The interviewees tackle the struggle to get stage time, the vast comedy wage gap, and the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault committed by male comics and audience members. Their stories reveal how women in comedy today face constant threats to their safety as well as a level of misogyny that hearkens back to the 1950s. It’s heartbreaking, and as a sort-of-woman in comedy, it’s familiar. I say “sort-of-woman” because while I don’t ascribe to a particular gender identity, comedy culture puts my assigned-female-at-birth body squarely in the woman box. I’ve had male audience members tell me that they didn’t think women were funny, but they “actually liked” my set. I’ve had male comedians tell me that I write too many “jokes for women” and that I won’t get booked if I talk about being queer. On more than one occasion, I’ve been the only non-dude on a lineup of fifteen or more comics. I’ve also had male audience members assume that I’d be down for a threesome because I talked about sex on stage. These instances have been frustrating, but as a white, masc-leaning person, I’m protected from some of the worst forms of misogyny and violence in the comedy scene. I know that my experiences with marginalization in comedy will never hold a candle to the experiences of comedians who are women of color and/or femme and/or trans. In Hysterical, those distinctions don’t seem to exist.
Hysterical operates under the assumption that the experiences of women in comedy are universal. But in a documentary that overwhelmingly features white cis women, there’s little room left to explore what comedy is like for women who hold multiple marginalized identities. The documentary briefly touches on Marina Franklin’s experience as a Black woman in comedy, but we mostly hear about race through clips of comedians’ jokes. Transgender women are left out of the film entirely. Without the voices of trans comedians like Robin Tran, Alison Grillo, Julia Scotti, or Autostraddle favorite Patti Harrison, viewers are left uninformed about the specific safety concerns that trans women in comedy have to shoulder. Thanks to the documentary’s attempt to represent a “universal woman-in-comedy” experience, the women who are represented in the film feel flattened. They’re filtered through their jokes and they’re distilled down to their struggles. They don’t quite feel like real, complex individuals, and as a result, audiences miss an opportunity to get to know some of comedy’s most celebrated performers.
Despite its flaws, Hysterical makes a few smart moves. The names of male sexual predators in comedy are rarely uttered aside from a slide show of headlines exposing their misdeeds. This choice throws focus away from the abusers and towards the interviewees, whose vulnerability is palpable, especially in a montage of Zoom interviewees about sexual assault and harassment. The documentary provides a brief, but important background on women in comedy, tracing our history back to the Black, openly-queer comedian Moms Mabley. And we get a few peeks behind the curtain into the lives of Hysterical’s subjects. We witness a conversation between Judy Gold and rising star Rosebud Baker that exemplifies how women in comedy lift each other up. We watch Marina Franklin explain to a male comedian why she felt unsafe at a motel he’d raved about. At one point during a Zoom interview, Bonnie McFarlane takes a break to soothe her one-month-old baby. In those scenes, these women come to life, I wish that Hysterical offered more moments like that.