‘Hysterical’ Tells the Truth About Women in Comedy

More female comics are thriving than ever, but the playing field is still uneven

The new FX documentary Hysterical, directed by Andrea Nevins, is an exploration of what it means to be a woman in stand-up comedy, both historically and now. It was not that long ago that bookers told women, “We’ve already got a vagina in the line-up, we don’t need another one,” as if all femme comics would be telling the same jokes or coming from the same perspective. This attitude created competition between a small number of women for an even smaller number of spots. Everyone had to feel comfortable at the boys’ table, and incur any abuse while sitting there.

The world has evolved…somewhat, and more and more women in comedy are thriving, but Hysterical shows us how uneven the playing field is, and how women are still held to a very different standard than their male counterparts. 

When Margaret Cho got her own sitcom, television executives hounded her about her weight, something that’s probably never happened to Kevin James or Tracy Morgan. The media demonized Kathy Griffin for a photo of her holding Trump’s fake severed head, even though male comics have done similar and far worse things and no one has asked them to publicly apologize.

Shifting from interview to interview with Nikki Glaser, Griffin, Cho, Sherri Shepherd, Judy Gold, Iliza Shlesinger, Marina Franklin, and Fortune Feimster, among others, Hysterical illustrates the way female comedians have been shut out and the ways they have banded together. While comics often get more stage time when they go on the road–which is an essential piece of growing one’s material–going on the road has many dangers for women. Tours often find comedians in cheap motels in bad neighborhoods. Audience members sometimes follow women comics back to their hotel/motel. On the road and at home, fellow comedians and club managers often sexually harass female comics. A segment of the film on comedian Kelly Bachman demonstrates that even the stage is a place of vulnerability and risk. 

Bachman is the young comic who famously confronted a not-yet-convicted Harvey Weinstein in a small New York venue. Nevins interviews Bachman about the experience in the film, but even more interesting is the impact that viral video had on other comics in the documentary. By attacking a powerful man in the room, Bachman crossed a line that no one had yet crossed, and now everyone is ready to follow suit. Women in comedy have crossed many lines. Tig Notaro talked about her breast cancer diagnosis during a performance. Hannah Gadsby worked her trauma into her revolutionary and hilarious special Nanette. 

Nevins breaks the film into sections that she presents with the literal and colloquial definitions of certain words and phrases, like Hysterical and Childhood, “When girls learn what they can’t do.” It’s a delicate framing device that gives shape to a variety of interviews and clips of women who have very different styles and stories.

A daunting experience

In an industry where everyone is their own product and women don’t often perform in the same line-up, it’s heartening to see the ways the women in Hysterical have come together to support one another. My time doing stand-up comedy gave me first-hand experience of this camaraderie, and it’s encouraging to see it happening further up the success chain.

In Chicago, where I live, there have been a variety of all-femme open mics and showcases, as well as all-femme stand-up comedy classes offered by The Feminine Comique and The Kates University. I began my stand-up adventure with two classes at the Feminine Comique with the amazing Cameron Esposito. She recommended we go to open mics with other women so there would be someone to laugh at our jokes. This was good advice. 

The significant piece missing from Hysterical is how daunting it is for anyone to get up on stage that first time, and how exponentially less welcoming the scene is for women.

Picture the dim, backroom of a bar at 9pm. Mostly 20-something men pace around, bump fists, jot in notebooks, and appear to be talking to themselves as their nervous sweat and energy blends with the already funky scent of the environs. 

A single microphone is on a makeshift stage, a harsh light illuminating a wannabe comic testing out some jokes to a crowd of other wannabe comics that are only interested in their own turn on stage. The air is heavy with testosterone and self-loathing. The jokes are about dicks, poop, masturbation, failed relationships, marijuana, bad sex, terrible roommates, and if someone is really pushing the envelope; rape. These 20-something guys, mostly white, don’t have a lot of lived experience to draw from. 

A few of them are genuinely funny. Most of them are overcome with anxiety, as if every three-to-five minute slot at the mic is an audition for the Comedy Central special they so desperately think they want. They all seem wholly miserable.

Enter: a woman. An OLD woman. So old that she’s 40 and she’s a mom. She gets up on stage and tells jokes about breastfeeding and pregnancy. The 20-somethings meet her with awkward silence because the subject matter confuses them and makes them uncomfortable. These young men are not the audience the lady comic intends for the jokes, but this is the audience she has. She pushes through with the material, hoping that practice will provide some benefit to this uncomfortable exercise. 

This was my experience ten years ago, before caring for my kid and my dying mother consumed the back end of my 40s. I found mixed gender open mics to be uncomfortable, depressing, and breeding grounds for alcoholism. I almost always performed in all-women showcases and line-ups. If those opportunities hadn’t been available to me, I’m not sure I would have lasted very long.

If you’ve not thought much about stand-up comedy and the people who perform it, this film will offer some compelling insight to that world. If you’re a comedy lover or performer, you will appreciate the candid revelations and the promise of an ever-improving environment where women’s stories can thrive in stand-up.

There’s something inherently demoralizing about Hysterical, because there’s no denying that women still have a long way to go, not just in comedy, but in all of society. And women of color have even more obstacles. But there’s no denying that women are rewriting the rules and redefining the parameters of comedy, and that’s something to celebrate. 


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Mia McCullough

Mia McCullough is a playwright and filmmaker. Her plays have been seen around the country at various theatres including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Red Fern Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, and Chicago Dramatists. Season One of her web series The Haven is available on OTV/ www.weareo.tv and her book Transforming Reality, on the creative writing process, is available on www.lulu.com.

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