SXSW Online 2021 Review: “Hysterical”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 1 hour 27 minutes
Director: Andrea Blaugrund Nevins
Starring: Iliza Shlesinger, Fortune Feimster, Sherri Shepherd, Nikki Glaser, Kelly Bachman, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, Rachel Feinstein, Judy Gold, Lisa Lampanelli, Marina Franklin, Bonnie MacFarlane

By Joan Amenn

After three seasons of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” we now have the documentary “Hysterical” to show us real women comedians in their natural habitat: poorly lit stages typically located in dank urban basements. Director Andrea Blaugrund Nevins ( “Tiny Shoulders, Rethinking Barbie”) retreads many stigmas and stereotypes these women had to overcome, but she also creates a refreshing intimacy as they share their bond with each other forged by their common battles.

“Hysterical” presents early pioneers of women stand-up comics such as Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, and of course, Joan Rivers in all their irreverent glory.  Mitzi Shore, who co-founded the Comedy Store with her husband, is strangely not mentioned, even though she was a huge supporter of new comics and the venue is legendary. From the vantage point of history, the documentary gives great context of how far women have come but also doesn’t shy away from their more recent struggles.

The bravery of the women in this film cannot be understated, particularly Kelly Bachman, who took on Harvey Weinstein, and of course, Kathy Griffin, who watched her career disintegrate within hours of brutally mocking Donald Trump. Poking fun at the powerful is certainly not a new concept, and laughing at the establishment is a comedic rite of passage. However, while George Carlin won his day in court over seven words that he defiantly said, “Hysterical” reminds us that women are still often pressured to be silent for what they want to say.

The film shows how women have changed the tone of stand-up by making it more intimate and more personal as they lay bare their lives on stage. It’s an exhilarating ride to watch them work an audience and then meet up together afterward to bask in their success. As one of the women points out, comedy is for those who didn’t get enough attention when they were younger. Whatever the reason, there are many funny women out in the world who are standing on stages night after night, making people laugh. Nevins has crafted an honest and often inspiring look at women comics as a sisterhood who are having too much fun to ever step away from their microphones. More power to them.

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