Directed by Andrea Nevins, the documentary “Hysterical” (FX) takes a serious look at a select group of women in comedy.
The doc features 15 stand-up comics (four of whom; Judy Gold, Jessica Kirson, Fortune Feimster and Margaret Cho are members of the LGBT community), who have been making us laugh through good times and bad.
A heartfelt celebration of female friendship, camaraderie and support, "Hysterical" has its share of laughs. Each of the featured comics’ talents are on display in both vintage and recent performance clips. Additionally, comedy predecessors including Joan Rivers, Moms Mabley, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller, LaWanda Page, Totie Fields and Sophie Tucker are all given their due, cited for their groundbreaking work at a time when female comics were more of a rarity.
However, “Hysterical” isn’t all laughs. In some cases, punchlines are replaced with gut punches. The doc is divided into sections ranging from childhood as a source of comedic material and what is “ladylike” (dealing with the idea of femininity in comedy), to confidence, being on the road, and changing the narrative and finding the right tag line in comedy and life. “Hysterical” doesn’t shy away from meaningful topics including the challenges of getting stage time, sexism, competition, finding a voice, paying dues, dealing with harassment (including stalkers and assault), self-esteem, feminism, holding up a mirror to society, and what men can get away with in comedy that women can’t.
“Hysterical” highlights an especially poignant example of just how challenging it is to be a woman in stand-up, as compared to being a man, with the backlash against Kathy Griffin. After photos surfaced of Griffin holding up a mock-severed Trump head in late March 2017, within 12 hours the comedy legend, and longtime ally of the LGBT community, lost everything.
Among the 15 featured comics, there are some who’ve been at it for more than 40 years (Kathy Griffin and Judy Gold). Others have been doing stand-up for more than 30 years (Cho, Wendy Liebman and the recently retired Lisa Lampanelli) and more than 20 years (Bonnie McFarlane, Sherri Shepherd, Marina Franklin, Jessica Kirson, Rachel Feinstein, Carmen Lynch). Relative newcomers such as Nikki Glaser, Iliza Schlesinger, Fortune Feimster and Kelly Bachman (best known for confronting Harvey Weinstein at a show at which she was booed by some male audience members) have also successfully made their mark in the challenging field.
While “Hysterical” offers a small cross-section of some of the funniest women in comedy, there are countless other stories that deserve to be told. Nevertheless, for providing insight and possible inspiration for others considering a comedy career, “Hysterical” should be seen and applauded.
Rating: B- [Premieres April 2 on FX and runs on Hulu thereafter.]
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.