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In the film ‘Hysterical,’ female comics shine a light on some dark places

From left, Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser, and Jessica Kirson perform together at New York's Comedy Cellar in "Hysterical."
From left, Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser, and Jessica Kirson perform together at New York's Comedy Cellar in "Hysterical."FX

Kelly Bachman is the least established, least known of 15 comedians featured in “Hysterical,” the documentary about women who perform stand-up, premiering Friday on FX. In fact, she was a last-minute addition to the film. Yet her appearance speaks volumes about the road traveled by women comedians, who still face chauvinism and outright misogyny at almost every level of their male-dominated field.

In the fall of 2019, Bachman learned that film producer Harvey Weinstein was lounging in a VIP booth in the New York comedy club where she was about to perform. When she went onstage, Bachman called out the sex abuser, telling the audience she couldn’t ignore “the elephant in the room” and dryly commenting, “I didn’t know we had to bring our own Mace and rape whistles.” While women cheered her on, men in the crowd started booing, but Bachman didn’t back down and the video went viral.

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“Hysterical” director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins quickly added Bachman to the movie she was working on, but also interviewed veteran headliners including Nikki Glaser and Margaret Cho, who said they admired Bachman’s resolve.

“That’s feminism,” actress and comedian Judy Gold says in the film, referring to her peers getting onstage and talking about rape. “Women have been silent about this for thousands of years.”

Nevins, whose 2018 film “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” used Barbie dolls as an entry point for examining the past 60 years of the women’s movement, turned to women comedians because she felt there was more to say about feminism. “I wanted to explore what it’s like to feel vulnerable in that space, standing onstage alone as a woman and having to go on the road to practice your craft. It was a little bit shocking to think it’s still dangerous.”

Comedian Jessica Kirson, who initially brought the film idea to FX, served with Nevins as executive producer. “I spent a lot of time really picking her brain about whether I was getting it right,” Nevins says, since she has never — and will never — get up onstage herself. “Absolutely not. I’m a shy person. These women are superheroes — they turn themselves inside out and can weave their lives into a story and have an audience walk away laughing and with life revelations.”

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Comedian Sherri Shepherd (left) and "Hysterical" director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins.
Comedian Sherri Shepherd (left) and "Hysterical" director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins.FX

Equally important was that Kirson is trusted and respected by her fellow comics. “Everybody’s worried about trusting their story to a stranger. But Jessica opened the doors,” Nevins says.

In addition to Cho, Glaser, and Gold, the comedians featured in “Hysterical” include Kathy Griffin, Lisa Lampanelli, Iliza Shlesinger, and Fortune Feimster. They address the issues they face from fans, male comics, and bookers and club owners. Experts who study women’s issues appeared in an early cut of the film, but Nevins says that as smart as they were, “they felt pedantic and bookish” next to the comics. “These women have a lot to say and it’s all first-hand.”

In one scene showing a group of male and female comics eating together at the Comedy Cellar in New York, Marina Franklin tells a male comedian that a motel he’d recommended to her in Seattle had been horrible and dangerous. He had mostly remembered that you could get good pancakes there, prompting Rachel Feinstein to chime in that men “have a different set of priorities — he’s thinking about where he can get food and [have sex]. We’re thinking about safety.”

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The women all have tales of being stalked and groped by fans and assaulted by male comics. Nevins makes it difficult to dismiss these comments as exaggeration by showing how male comics have long generated cheap laughs with jokes about acts of violence against women. Among a collection of clips by big stars like Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, and Bill Burr, Burr yells at an audience member, “I’m talking about hitting women, sweetheart, and I think you just added another reason” as the crowd roars in laughter.

“These women are angry about the situation, but it’s not an angry movie or a piece that bashes men,” Nevins says, explaining that the women are attacking unfairness and bad behavior.

And the movie never loses its sense of humor, with plenty of performance clips, like one in which Glaser acknowledges she should not send naked pictures over her phone — “the cloud is not secure . . . but neither am I” — or confessing that she was a legitimately ugly child. “I was diagnosed as one at the age of 11 by a caricature artist at a Six Flags, so I have the documentation.”

Marina Franklin is among the comics featured in "Hysterical."
Marina Franklin is among the comics featured in "Hysterical."FX

Nevins says one reason she amassed a large group of comics instead of focusing on one or two was strength in numbers. She hopes that having so many talented women speak in the film helps change attitudes of men — those who sit in audiences and those who have power in the industry. “Hopefully people will be more open-minded and open-hearted, and I think if you see this, you can’t help but be.”

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She also feels some hope because of the camaraderie she found among the women, noting that as they have gained clout their competitiveness has faded, with comics supporting each other and helping the next generation.

“The only people who have given me amazing career boosts were women,” Gold said during a press event on Zoom to promote the film. Sherri Shepherd added, “I tell every young [comic], ‘If you need me, call me,’ because I don’t want them to have to go through all the [expletive] that we all have had to experience with these male comics and all of this.”

Nevins hopes the growing number of established women comedians, combined with #MeToo and a change of tone in the post-Trump era, can foster change. She hopes bookers and club owners watch the film and reflect on the industry’s institutionalized sexism. “It’s very hard to undo,” Nevins says, “but I hope this film and the talent of all these women will help open doors and get people to take these issues into consideration.”

Stuart Miller can be reached at stuartmiller5186@gmail.com.

HYSTERICAL

On FX, April 2 at 9 p.m. Streams on Hulu beginning April 3.