Did you hear the one about the happy-go-lucky woman comedian? Didn’t think so.
This is not to say there aren’t laughs galore in “Hysterical,” the new FX documentary on the history of women in stand-up comedy. With a cast of interviewees that includes Margaret Cho, Sherri Shepherd and Kathy Griffin, how could there not be laughs?
But as it looks at the many challenges facing women who want to tell jokes for a living, “Hysterical” will leave you both infuriated and inspired.
You will be infuriated because in addition to putting up with showbiz prejudices (like the long-held notion that women just aren’t funny), female comedians also have to deal with the many physical, emotional and financial challenges of being women.
You will be inspired because they are doing it anyway.
“When you have the mic, it’s your turn,” Rachel Feinstein says. “I’m a storyteller, so I get to tell my tale.”
And boy, does this documentary have some tales to tell.
Directed with wit and insight by Andrea Nevins (who did an equally fine job with 2018’s “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie”), “Hysterical” packs a lot into its densely populated 87 minutes.
There is history, as Nevins pays tribute to such pioneers as Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and pioneering Black comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, all of whom had to use some sort of deflection device — fat jokes, ugly jokes, funny clothes — to make people feel comfortable enough to laugh.
“She had to dress like an old woman so people would accept what she had to say,” Shepherd says of Mabley, whose bucket hat and shapeless house dresses were audience-friendly camouflage for a cutting, merciless wit.
There is psychology, as interviewees look at what drove them to pursue this crazy career in the first place. Shepherd and Iliza Shlesinger used humor to deal with being the perpetual new kid at school. (Shlesinger had the added fun of wearing an eye patch.) Being funny helped Marina Franklin cope with being a Black girl in suburban Chicago, and laughter got Lisa Lampanelli through her mom’s rage-fests.
Nevins also gives us quite the tutorial in gender studies, starting with how girls are expected to be quiet and amenable and how women should not even bother speaking up, much less expect a piece of the stand-up action.
“I’m not going to guide any lady through comedy,” Canadian comedian Norm Macdonald says in a 2009 Howard Stern interview. “First of all, I would have to figure out how a lady could do comedy.”
And yet, the funny ladies persisted. Even as club owners insisted they couldn’t book more than one woman per show, male comedians harassed and/or assaulted them, and popular wisdom was stuck on the idea that funny women are intimidating, groundbreakers like Diller and Rivers and the women who came after them did not give up.
“It never occurred to me to me that, as a girl, I can’t get up there,” Shlesinger says.
A-ha moments abound. Franklin remembers seeing Wanda Sykes in college and thinking, “I can do this.” Nikki Glaser did her first open mic and told her dad, “This is what I want to do.” Judy Gold saw the very brash, very opinionated Joan Rivers reducing Johnny Carson to a helpless puddle of laughter and thought, “That’s what I want to be.” As hard as it is, comedy is liberating. And who needs liberation more than a woman with something to say?
Thanks to the lineup of articulate, straight-talking interviewees and the generous collection of performance clips, “Hysterical” does a tremendous job of both taking on the many hurdles female stand-ups have to clear and celebrating the comedic gold they are able to mine along the way.
There’s Sykes, pondering the hypothetical joys of leaving your lady parts at home so you can take a nighttime jog in peace. There’s Franklin, turning her recent breast cancer diagnosis into a seriously funny routine. There’s Kelly Bachman, daring to call out Harvey Weinstein when she spotted the accused sexual harasser and assaulter in the audience during a 2019 fundraiser. There is Ali Wong, engaged in the revolutionary act of doing stand-up while pregnant.
And in the end, there is Shlesinger, dreaming of the day when documentarians like Nevins can train their sharp eyes on something else.