“Hysterical” has come to mean something that causes fits of uncontrollable laughter. The word is derived from “hysteria,” which in old-timey days was a psychological disorder specific to women. Basically, women who displayed strong emotions or opinions were seen as mentally ill.
The stories shared by female comedians in the new FX documentary special Hysterical (Friday, April 2, at 9pm ET/PT) reveal that society hasn’t completely shed these outmoded ideas. The male-dominated world of stand-up comedy is cutthroat, and it’s especially unforgiving for female comics who face double standards in how they’re valued by the industry and how their material is received by audiences.
Director Andrea Nevins (Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie) followed several female comics backstage at clubs and conducted interviews with many of comedy’s biggest names to discuss how difficult it is to smash stand-up’s glass ceiling. What they reveal is often funny, sometimes heartbreaking and always eye-opening:
Judy Gold: “Way too often, I would hear, ‘Oh, we had a woman here three months ago. She didn’t do well, so we’re not booking women at this time.’”
Marina Franklin: “There’s the dream, there’s the fantasy and then there’s the reality check. I had never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.”
Sherri Shepherd: “It was never an even playing field. It was so hard to get stage time. As a Black woman, I had to fight. I really, really had to fight for my spots. And I really, really had to prove to the other comics that I was funny.”
Rachel Feinstein: “It’s tricky, because when somebody asks you to go on the road, you don’t always know why. Does this guy really respect my act or is he going to be just strange and gross and lascivious all weekend?”
Kathy Griffin: “For anyone out there — including the women — that are saying, ‘Oh, couldn’t she have been more ladylike? Couldn’t she have said it in a softer tone?’ I go, ‘Omigosh, we’re still hearing that stuff!’”
Iliza Shlesinger: “I still have Facebook messages from, like, 2010. Like, ‘Women aren’t funny, but I think you are.’ And I’m like, ‘Thanks, Mom.’”