In recent weeks, I’ve been on a quest to delve into the disparities in representation within the stand-up comedy community. With no shortage of stand-up specials constantly being released across every platform, it seems only fitting to dig deeper into a behind-the-scenes look at how certain advantages and disadvantages take their toll on diverse joke-telling. Last week, my search brought me to Women Aren’t Funny, a documentary by comedians Bonnie McFarlane and her husband, Rich Vos. In my review, I noted that the mark was just slightly missed on the opportunity to disprove society’s theory on female comedians, as well as to inform on where that debilitating stereotype comes from.
My research on that film led me here: to Hysterical. An FX documentary currently streaming on Hulu. Discussing the same topic, Hysterical lends a much more modern feminist lens to the bias, as well as its subsequent consequences. Calling on the most notable women in comedy to offer their perspectives and personal experiences- I am delighted to say that this film hits all the right notes, and I could not be happier about it. So let’s dive in:
Every aspect of this film, technical and otherwise, is thoughtfully and carefully considered- accumulating to form an impactful piece on how women, including queer women and women of colour, are disproportionately affected by bias in the world of stand-up comedy. Representation is top of mind as the doc opens, citing how important it is for diverse voices to be heard- Margaret Cho admits that she never considered stardom as an option for herself because she had never seen Asian or female stars on comedy stages. Similarly, Marina Franklin attests her confidence as an up-and-coming black comedienne to watching Wanda Sykes rise to the top of her field.
The documentary poignantly addresses sexism in comedy at every turn, never failing to hit the nail right on the head. This is accomplished by way of interviews with the boisterous, astute and intelligent women of comedy. A huge takeaway for me was the acknowledgement amongst these women that men are not miraculously born with superior humour genetics. The stigma of men being the funnier sex has little to do with god-given talent, and more to do with the fact that men have always had the opportunity for their voices to be heard first. Men’s long-standing reputation in comedy doesn’t make them funnier by nature, just more advantageous. As obvious as that may seem, the effects of this unfair predisposition is still being felt to this day. The interviewees discuss how even the way a female act is introduced to the stage will affect the audience’s perception of their performance- or how one bad set from a female comedian at a club will make it nearly impossible for future women to get work months, if not years later. I appreciate the unique angles that this film fearlessly pursues. It is all made possible by the dedication of the comediennes interviewed and their commitment to this important discussion.
Heartbreakingly, the film also examines the ways in which female comedians are pitted against one another- backing them into a corner to choose between elevating their careers or forming bonds with the other strong women with which they surround themselves. The structure of comedy booking has made it so difficult for a female act to earn a spot in a lineup, that they are all forced to compete much more than their male counterparts. The toxicity this system breeds within the community of women- who all desperately want to support each other - is still explored in a hopeful and heartening way. The flux of how information is presented in this film has the viewer on a constant rollercoaster of discouragement to cheerleading- always amazed at how this community comes out swinging, they are an inspiring group that are a pleasure to follow through the 87 minute runtime of this documentary.
Another avenue that I deeply appreciate being explored in this narrative is how unsafe this business is for women in general. Every interviewee has a story for how they conduct themselves as professionals while operating in a constant state of fear for their well-being as they do what is necessary to climb the ranks as a touring comedian. I would be surprised if this perspective was top of mind for viewers going into this film, but I do hope that it serves as a reminder that these talented women are brave for sticking with their passions the next time an ignorant voice pipes up, robbing them of their well-deserved accolades.
Right when I thought this film had covered it all- a new perspective was unearthed for me to sink my teeth into: my state of satisfaction was consistently being up-ended with every new subject broached, exposing aspects of their struggles and successes that I never would have considered otherwise. Expertly integrating specific scenarios that shook the careers of these women to their cores, as well as universal truths among them, I am still in awe of the film’s ability to peak my interest so acutely, and transcend every notion I had for what I wanted from a film analyzing this topic. My personal favourite moment of the film is towards the end, a portion that re-opens the wounds on the film’s namesake, the label of the “hysterical” woman, had me in tears.
This film is validating, inclusive, and inspiring. Watching these women dedicate themselves to their craft, and pursuing its excellence despite the odds being stacked against them, was a gratifying as well as educational experience. I am delighted to hand out my first perfect score to Hysterical.