FX's new documentary Hysterical offers an honest look at what it’s like to be a woman stand-up comedian. The truth is, while the women in the comedy scene are thriving, it’s a tough gig. Women standups are still fighting for equal pay, opportunities, and respect from those who think women just aren’t funny. Unfortunately, this is still a talking point in 2021; luckily, the film, premiering April 2 on FX (streaming on FX on Hulu April 3), doesn’t entertain such a ridiculous notion. However, the gender inequality in stand-up comedy is something the doc directed by Andrea Nevins (Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie) can’t ignore.
In the film, Marina Franklin, a Black stand-up who appeared in Trainwreck and Inside Amy Schumer, admit, she “had never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.” The most infuriating example of this may be the unsafe lodging that women comics encounter while on tour.
As Judy Gold, a stand-up vet who made her debut in the ’80s, explains in the film, taking one's act on the road offers more exposure than slots at bigger comedy clubs in New York or Los Angeles. At smaller clubs in smaller cities, up and coming comedians are given more time on stage, which allows them to perfect their act. Not to mention, these gigs usually pay better. But it comes at a price since, as Hysterical points out, going on the road is “lonely, repetitive, [and] riskier for a woman.” That risk includes overnight accommodations, which are often handled by the clubs. And according to the women in the film, the housing is subpar at best, dangerous at worst.
In the doc, Gold explains how some of the clubs own “comedy condos,” nearby condominiums where performers can stay during their gigs. As a young woman, she remembers staying with two male comics she didn’t know for a week in one of the condos. “And they’d bring home waitresses,” she says in the film. “I’m sitting there, in my room, with the locked door, reading a book with Pauly Shore’s cum on the fucking comforter.”
While Jessica Kirson, a veteran comic and producer of Hysterical, told Refinery29 over email that the condos are mostly a thing of the past, Franklin said they still exist for some comedy club chains. “I had a club that stopped booking me because I did not want to stay in their comedy condo,” Franklin wrote in an email to Refinery29. “They used an excuse, ‘We have to wait until it is a better tax year before we can find better accommodations.’ And this was after I offered to pay for my own lodging. They never worked with me at their comedy chain ever again.”
In her stand-up, Rachel Feinstein jokes that no one cares about comedians on the road, which is why clubs will send “any sex offender to get us from the airport.” The bit, which shows up in Hysterical, has her recounting a conversation she had with a driver in Alabama who told her she’s the “first Jewish” he had ever met. “Which, I guess, is better than being his last Jewish,” she says. The crowd roars with laughter, but the dangers of the road are very real. Especially, when women are opening for men. “It’s tricky,” Feinstein tells the camera, “because when somebody asks you out on the road you don’t know why. Does this guy really respect my act or is he going to be strange and gross and lascivious all weekend?”
The conversations we are having in the documentary will reveal what still exists with many comedy clubs today.
comedian Marina Franklin
In the film, longtime stand-ups Margaret Cho and Sherri Shepherd talk about being sexually assaulted by men comedians. What we now know is that these incidences are all too common. In the age of #MeToo, women stand-ups have spoken out about the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of men comics. In 2016, female comedians in L.A. started private Facebook groups to protect one another from predatory men comics within the scene, only to be accused of starting a “witch hunt” for taking things into their own hands. For years, women had accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct, but it wasn’t until 2017 that their claims were taken seriously. It helped that he admitted the allegations were true.
“If this was a normal office where, on your first day, someone higher up than you goes: ‘Here’s a list of guys in the office who might rape you,’ you would go straight to HR,” Laura Duddy, an up-and-coming British comedian, told The Guardian last year. “But there’s no HR – there’s nowhere we can go to say this is happening,”
The lack of protections for women comedians has led to scary run-ins with fans, too. In Hysterical, Iliza Shlesinger says a fan once licked her, which led her to always have security on hand. While Feinstein says it was not unusual to have men follow her into the bathroom after a set. “It goes on and on,” she says of the scary moments she’s had with fans. Bonnie McFarlane, a stand-up and co-host of the podcast My Wife Hates Me with her comedian husband Rich Vos, recalled having a fan follow her to her hotel. “Somehow he knew my room, I don’t know how he did, and was banging on the door.” She had to call the cops.
Beyond comedy not having an HR department, another problem may be the differences in how men and women think about personal safety. “They don’t know the feeling of physically not being as big as someone,” Shlesinger says in the film. For women, she adds, “No matter how much smarter or funnier you are, at the end of the day if [a man] wants to hurt you, they can.”
In one Hysterical scene, Franklin confronts comedian Sam Morril, asking him why he raved about a Seattle motel that she says was absolutely awful. While he now admits it was a terrible place to stay, he says he was “used to abuse at that time in his career” so he didn’t realize just how bad the place really was. How bad? Moments later he recalls a “meth addict” passing out against his motel room’s window.
Feinstein jokes that he wasn’t offended by the motel because his priorities were so different from Franklin’s. He’s thinking about “where he can get food and get laid,” she says in the scene. “We’re thinking about, you know, safety.” But having to think about, you know, safety, shouldn’t be a woman thing. Everyone in comedy should be pushing for a safer workplace where everyone is protected. Too often, women, especially women of color, are not. And without support from those in the business — bookers, club owners, fellow comedians, specifically male ones — they’re forced to choose between gigs and their well-being.
In a FX press conference for Hysterical, Franklin said, that after feeling unsafe while staying in a comedy condo, she moved to a nearby hotel. She had to pay for it herself because the owner of the club would not accommodate her concerns. “I lost my earnings that week,” she said. The experience led her to never go back to that club, an incalculable loss. “I will never forget how [the comedy club owner] made me feel when I was just asking for my safety,” she said.
That feeling could lead other women to stay silent or worse, Franklin tells Refinery29. They could be punished for speaking out. “The conversations we are having in the documentary will reveal what still exists with many comedy clubs today,” she wrote over email. “They will most likely, secretly, label a comic too difficult to work with and not book the comedienne.”
Kirson believes that things are becoming safer for women stand-ups on the road. “Most of us are put up in hotels,” she says over email. “They will usually have the manager of the club pick us up and drive us home.” But there are still things, she says, that comedy clubs should do to protect their performers like restricting green room access and keeping a closer eye on fans. “The audience members have too much access to us after the shows,” she writes. “It would be great if there was more security and they could stay with us until the crowd has left and/or we have left the premises.”
Franklin agrees that adding security would help. Not to mention, “exposing the ridiculousness of having a female comic in a condo with male strangers” so that comedy condos disappear all together. But, more importantly, comedians, and not just women ones, need to “hold the club owners accountable for lack of safety and ability to provide safe lodging,” she says. Extra security and doing away with comedy condos seem like small asks, but after listening to the women of Hysterical, it’s clear what a big difference it would make on their ability to do their jobs.
Hysterical hits FX and Hulu on April 2.