Hysterical: Comedian Panel Discuss Guilt in Comedy

Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser and Jessica Kirson perform together at NY’s Comedy Cellar in HYSTERICAL, from director Andrea Nevins, about boundary-breaking women changing the face of stand-up comedy. Coming to FX and FX on Hulu in 2021.. Photo credit: Courtesy of FX.

A number of comedians from Hysterical participated in a virtual press conference ahead of the documentary’s premiere on FX and Hulu.

Hysterical director Andrea Nevins participated in the panel alongside comedians Jessica Kirson, Kelly Bachman, Marina Franklin, Judy Gold, Carmen Lynch, Bonnie McFarlane, and Sherri Shepherd. In addition to the aforementioned comedians, Hysterical includes Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Lampanelli, Wendy Liebman, and Iliza Shlesinger. Hysterical just made its world premiere during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

I was the second journalist to ask a question during the Hysterical press conference. Earlier in the week, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno apologized for decades of anti-Asian jokes. Naturally, I asked the comedians whether they had delivered any jokes in the past that they feel guilty about after looking at what’s happened over the past few years.

Hysterical on FX
Hysterical on FX.

Judy Gold: Guilty? I mean — I don’t want to monopolize, but I feel like—

Bonnie McFarlane: But you are the one who should feel guilty, Judy.

Judy Gold: Yeah, I feel guilty about everything. But, again, you are asking a question which is — the mindset you were in then is different than the mindset you are in now. I mean, it’s a fine line.

Bonnie McFarlane: I think everybody has jokes that you feel guilty. I have a joke where I say “tranny,” and it still gets played on Sirius, and it makes me cringe so hard.

Judy Gold: Right.

Bonnie McFarlane: But it wasn’t, like, negative in that way, but it’s still using a word that I would never use now. So, we learn. We grow. It’s, like, comedy—

Judy Gold: Right.

Bonnie McFarlane: —is not evergreen. It’s like you are making jokes about the times that you are living in, and that’s all you can do. You can’t see into the future about what’s, you know—maybe there will be a time where we are not allowed to make fun of dogs. I don’t know.

Sherri Shepherd: I mean, what I find is very hard is, in the past—you know, it’s always an evolution of being a stand-up comic, and in the past, you said what you said in the past because that’s where you were then. What I find very troubling now for comics is we are not allowed to say anything. You get on that stage, and that was the thing. With comics, we were the one that told the emperor that he was not wearing any clothes, and we were the ones that were allowed to get on stage and say something. Like Judy said, as long as it was funny, go ahead and put it out there. But now, as a comic, getting on stage, what I am tired of dealing with is “Oh my gosh. That was offensive to me.” “Oh my gosh. You said this.” Look, I’m a comic. The way we view the world is in a very skewed — through a very skewed filter. That’s what makes us get on this frickin’ stage every night and say what we say. So that’s what I find troubling for us in what we do today in this world, that if you say something, you’ve got to be scared that now you are not going to get booked or that TV show is going to come on, and you are going to go, “yeah, you know, you offended three people, and now they are writing letters.”

Judy Gold: Yeah. But it’s also that everyone has an opinion. And I’m sorry, Jessica. Go ahead.

Jessica Kirson: It’s okay. I’m used to it. This is how my family is.

Judy Gold: It’s your turn.

Jessica Kirson: I’m used to being bulled over.

Marina Franklin: Can I just say I have never been guilty of anything ever.


Judy Gold: Yes. Except your glasses are a little crooked. That’s the only thing.

Jessica Kirson: I want to just say that I don’t feel guilty for material I’ve done in the past because I know it always has come from a loving place and because, at the time, I felt like it was okay. And there’s things I don’t do now or say now because I 5 don’t feel it’s right and it feels wrong, and I don’t do it anymore. There’s times when I’ve said stuff to audience members where I felt guilty because I felt like I was too harsh or said things that I regret, but I’ve said things at the time that I felt were appropriate. And, again, there’s things I sensor myself with now because, in my gut, it feels wrong to say them.

Sherri Shepherd: You know, Jessica, it’s one — oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to interrupt.

Judy Gold: No. Go ahead. I don’t shut up.

Sherri Shepherd: It’s like when you deal with — I do a lot of Black comedy clubs. You get a lot of hecklers, and the thing about that is, when you deal with hecklers, you go at them with everything you’ve got because you’ve got to diminish them in such a way that they are—especially with women because they want to keep talking. So, you’ve got to use everything in your power to make them feel scared to come back at you.

Jessica Kirson: Yes.

Sherri Shepherd: And frequently — this is what gets me. Frequently, if you are of a different race, if you are different, I’m using everything because I need you to shut the fuck up.

Judy Gold: Also—

Jessica Kirson: You know how I feel.

Sherri Shepherd: So, it’s hard. Yeah.

Bonnie McFarlane: So, what you are saying is only heckle if you are a white man.

Sherri Shepherd: And even white men are getting mad. Now white men are getting defensive.

Bonnie McFarlane: Oh, I know. That’s true, too. The most sensitive group of all, it turns out.

Judy Gold: It’s also the fact that we have now taken intent, context, and nuance out of everyone’s material—

Jessica Kirson: Yeah.

Judy Gold: —and decided that we are going to make a comment about it. A person who commits a homicide, their sentence is determined by their intent. What did they mean? What were they 6 thinking? And yet we don’t give the same consideration to a comedian telling jokes. And if you get offended, that’s your problem. That is your personal—

Jessica Kirson: Yes.

Judy Gold: —feeling. It’s what you do with it. You say, “Oh, I got offended. Okay. I’m going to move on,” or “I got offended. That person should never be able to tell another joke again.”

Kelly Bachman: Right.

Carmen Lynch: But it’s very frustrating to have certain jokes that worked for a very long time, and as time goes by, you start to hear the boos, you know. And those jokes killed for a long time, but the surroundings have changed, and now it’s a big “boo,” and you can’t do it anymore.

Judy Gold: It happened after 9/11. We were all, like, “What are we going to talk about?” you know, because everyone loves George W. Bush now, for some reason. Yes, it happens all the time.

Marina Franklin:: I’ve just never been offensive ever. I don’t know. I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I can’t relate. I’ve just been perfect pretty much this whole time.

Hysterical airs April 2 at 9 PM ET/PT on FX and will be available the next day on Hulu.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.