With her hour-and-a-half long FX documentary Hysterical, director Andrea Nevins attempts the impossible: To craft a single shared experience of womanhood from the perspectives of more than a dozen contemporary female stand-up comedians. Through talking heads and archival footage, Nevins (Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie) surveys an ambitious range of topics, including sexism, racism, cancer, depression, insecurity, sexual harassment and more. The film is sleek and colorful, but not overly probing. Whereas some documentarians might choose to frame this kind of behind-the-scenes project as “raw” or “visceral,” Nevins instead hopes her film will serve as a nourishing broth extracted from the wisdom of veteran comics and newcomers alike. Frankly, though, I wanted something a little meatier.
You can sense Hysterical‘s “we’re all in this together!” earnestness right away, as Nevins launches the film with the actual dictionary definition of its own double-entendre title. A series of these snarky dictionary entry interstitials carve up the film into mini-vignettes on themes like chauvinism and femininity [“‘Ladylike’ (adj) \ lad-e-lik 1. appropriate for a well-bred woman or girl. 2. dainty, opinionless, knows when to shut up.”] These chapter headings are obviously meant to amuse, but I couldn’t help but see them as infantilizing. Trust your audience; don’t explain the joke.
Nevins and her team interview a number of comediennes, some with decades of experience, such as Judy Gold, Sherri Shepherd and Margaret Cho, and others with just a few years under their belts, like Kelly Bachman, who went viral in 2019 for confronting Harvey Weinstein at one of her shows. We also hear from a few rising stars in the field, including Fortune Feimster, Iliza Shlesinger, Nikki Glaser and others. Many more modern big wigs like Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Sarah Silverman and Hannah Gadsby appear only in performance clips.
The film is pleasant and watchable, a cheerleading effort to rally support for a purported stand-up sisterhood, but I kept waiting for the personal revelations that would drop my jaw. There’s sexual harassment in the industry? You don’t say. People presume women aren’t funny? Color me shocked. In trying to encompass so many varying stories and viewpoints, Nevins doesn’t actually know when to let her most eye-popping moments breathe.
At one point, Cho haltingly shares that someone she was working with once locked her in a dressing room. With gnawing vulnerability and blistering wit, she discloses, “And he came for me…but he was half my size. That’s really stupid and insulting. When somebody tries to rape you and they’re half your size.” Rather than letting us sit with Cho’s gallows humor truth-telling, Nevins swiftly layers this admission onto another subject’s dejected anecdote, rendering the moving moment mere montage filler.
With truly bracing confessionals few and far between, the editing leans on some tired gender essentialist “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” bons mots. “Women have an advantage in stand-up comedy,” declares one comedian off screen during the film’s intro sequence. “Because we’ve been dabbling in our feelings for far longer than men have.” Many of the comedians acknowledge their drive to make people laugh emerged from childhood unhappiness, though we’re privy to few details. (The subjects seem to fall into two camps: those who pursued comedy due to their enduring repression and those who became addicted to attention early on.)
Because I’d heard these types of explanations before from comedians across the gender spectrum, I nodded along and didn’t think too hard about the lack of specificity between the featured women. The producers’ sororal agenda is noble enough, but I’m not sure if I learned anything new.
Scope may be Nevins’ most conspicuous weakness here. In wanting to capture “women in comedy” as a cultural monolith, she ends up erasing the individualized voices and personae that help these women stand out in their industry. She even includes a mini history lesson on the foremothers of stand-up comedy, which ends up further diluting her narrative.
While the subjects delve into some of their most haunting professional traumas, from groping and stalking male fans to attempted sexual assault, others divulge their deepest doubts and crushed self-esteem. In one of the documentary’s more insightful reveals, Kathy Griffin admits she’s earned roughly 75 million dollars over the course of her career. “Believe it or not, it’s still, for real, like a tenth of what my male counterparts have earned. I have to be honest about that.”
I craved more of these discrete biographical details. What I mostly got, though, was rah-rah, sis, boom bah.
Director: Andrea Nevins
Executive producers: Andrea Nevins, Ross Girard, Jim Serpico, Jessica Kirson
Premieres: Friday, April 2, at 9 p.m. (FX)