COMEDY: Following two characters on the fringes of New York City's stand up circuit, Hysterical depicts personalities who may very well be more peculiar than their acts.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: July 7, 2019


Paul Higbie and Seth Pompi

Paul Higbie and Seth Pompi


We live in interesting times. The rebellion, traditionally associated with the political left, has been taken over by the new populist right. The left, in order to defend the ideas of social justice, rule of law, or to respond to the problems of global warming, is introducing ever-new rules, procedures, and limits. The right-wing populists are the ones who dare to speak up and challenge established structures, be it the media, European bureaucracy, or the deep state. Disregard for social norms is sold out as courageous transgression, so one can, for example, insult a person claiming their right to do so in the name of «freedom of speech». But what if this happens in the context of comedy? If, at open mic nights, a person walks in, takes the microphone, and «delivers pure filth. Not filthy jokes, just filth»?

30 Rock

Hysterical is a documentary about two former stand-up comedians, Gary Marinoff and Alan Shain, made by two former stand-up comedians, Paul Higbie and Seth Pompi. It is not autobiographical, but the symmetry is evident. As the directors put it in a radio show shortly after the film’s premiere, «The way we started, we were the same as them. We were just two guys at an open mic, Gary even had a status over us, at least he was an extra in 30 Rock.»

As a fine example of independent cinema, it makes visible what would otherwise remain hidden to the outsiders’ eye.

30 Rock was an American satirical television sitcom created by Tina Fey that ran on NBC from 2006 to 2013. It took place behind the scenes of a fictional live sketch comedy show depicted as airing on NBC. The series’ name refers to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, the address of the NBC Studios. Initially designed as a sitcom about cable news, it uses surreal humor to parody the complex corporate structure of NBC, the oldest major broadcast network in the United States. NBC and other major film and broadcasting studios have survived a series of new technological advancements that have brought video closer to aspiring authors, from cable to satellite technology to VHS tapes to digital media to Netflix. They did so by, among other ways, integrating these authors and their aspirations into their programs. Thus, one of the films’ heroes, Gary Marinoff, does not only talk about the prospects of working with Tina Fey again, when he decides to actually do something to get a job, he distributes posters around town announcing: «To my fellow New York’s, something big is coming to NBC next fall Gary! That is Gary Marinoff of 30 Rock…» Written exactly in this way.

Hysterical, a film by Paul Higbie and Seth Pompi

Independent cinema

Hysterical received an award at the 2019 New York City Independent Film Festival. As a fine example of independent cinema, it makes visible what would otherwise remain hidden to the outsiders’ eye. The authors, themselves participating at the NYC’s open mic comedy scene, were fascinated by «a kind of comedian that you never see anywhere else (…) all incredibly, effortlessly interesting, always so fascinating, (we were) wondering why they do comedy». So they decided to make a film, taking over than 5 years to complete. «We had to buy every single piece of equipment (..) We had to learn how to use it and it was this huge crazy mass of files on our computers for years. To finally have it in the theatres, it was like Cinderella». The directors also explained how they identified with their subjects from the start and the film is full of love for them. They followed them every night as they performed – or tried to perform ­– at open mics, from 9 pm until 2 in the morning. They followed them in their private lives, recording narrations about their families, early childhood, and previous jobs.

It is a film about the margins: of standup comedy, of metropolitan New York, and of the global media industry

Blasphemy and offense

Hysterical can be seen as a thorough anthropological study of the dark underbelly of the standup comedy scene and of outsider figures living in a metropolitan city, their hopes and dreams. However you look at it, it is a film about the margins: of standup comedy, of metropolitan New York, and of the global media industry. But it also documents the paradox of our times well, when vulgarity and hatred are expressions of libertarianism and signs of rebellion against social conventions, while to protect cultural empathy and social concern for the other requires ever more limits and rules. Blasphemy and offense have always been part of comedy. Crossing the line is its constitutive element because it plays with what is on the other side. On the wall in Alan’s apartment, there is a poster for a work by Wolf Vostell, a European conceptual artist, the pioneer of Happening and Fluxus. The viewer, however, will more likely notice the piles of cables, computer with a flat screen monitor, vinyl records, VHS tapes, DVDs with porn films, and the cockroach walking on his remote controls while he watches his own performance on his smartphone. His private life will not explain his work. But it will surely complicate the look to the other side.

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