Review: ‘Hysterical’ (2021), starring Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Nikki Glaser, Iliza Shlesinger, Marina Franklin, Judy Gold and Sherri Shepherd

April 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser and Jessica Kirson in “Hysterical” (Photo courtesy of FX)

“Hysterical” (2021)

Directed by Andrea Nevins

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and various other U.S. cities, the documentary “Hysterical” features a group of well-known North American female stand-up comedians (who are mostly white, with a few African Americans, one Asian and one Latina) discussing their lives and careers.

Culture Clash: All of the women say that rampant sexism is the biggest problem with “gatekeepers” in stand-up comedy.

Culture Audience: “Hysterical” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a candid look at what it’s like to be a female stand-up comedian.

Marina Franklin in “Hysterical” (Photo courtesy of FX)

It’s no secret that stand-up comedy is a male-dominated business where men get paid much more than women overall, and men get the vast majority of jobs available at venues and media outlets that book stand-up comedians. And whenever there’s a documentary about stand-up comedians, women are also usually in the minority. The admirably insightful documentary film “Hysterical” puts women front and center, by having the entire movie be about well-known female stand-up comedians telling their stories through interviews, performances and some footage that follows them as they hang out with other comedians.

The comedians interviewed in the documentary represent multiple generations. There are those who started in stand-up comedy in the 1980s (Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman); the 1990s (Sherri Shepherd, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Bonnie McFarlane, Jessica Kirson and Lisa Lampanelli); the 2000s (Nikki Glaser, Carmen Lynch, Iliza Shlesinger and Fortune Feimster); and the 2010s (Kelly Bachman). They are all very different from each other but share a lot of similarities in their struggles and triumphs as female stand-up comedians. “Hysterical,” directed by Andrea Nevins, had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The documentary is raw, real and, of course, funny. But it also presents a brutally honest look at how society’s stereotypes of how women should act in public are entrenched in the sexism that withholds opportunities from female stand-up comedians and gives these opportunities to men instead. The movie also gives first-hand accounts about the dangerous realities of being a female stand-up comedian, whether it’s staying in unsafe areas while on tour, dealing with sexual harassment, or defending themselves from physically aggressive audience members and colleagues. These female comedians are not expecting pity when they tell their stories, but it’s clear that they want people to understand what they’ve been through to get to where they are.

Think about how people generally react when women curse out loud, compared to how people react when men say the same curse words, and you have an idea of how this double standard affects the careers of female stand-up comedians. Male comedians with an “angry” persona are generally more accepted than female comedians with an “angry” persona, which is why so many female stand-up comedians often smile during their stand-up act, even when they’re saying the angriest things. And because working stand-up comedians have to frequently travel, female stand-up comedians are judged more harshly if they’re parents away from home on tour, compared to male stand-up comedians who are parents away from home on tour.

“Hysterical” is a perfect title for this documentary because it has a double meaning: Hysterical can mean “hilarious,” or it can mean the word’s original definition of “someone losing control of their emotions or sanity,” which was a trait that originally (and unfairly) attributed to women in the days when this word was invented. (For example, the word “hysterectomy” is related to the word “hysterical.”) “Hilarious” and “crazy” are how most female comedians are described at some point if they want to be considered successful.

The “crazy” label is one that many of these comedians wear with a badge of honor when it suits them, but they also know it can come at a price. All of the women in the documentary say, in one way or another, that being a stand-up comedian is a line of work that you have to be a little crazy to want to do. It’s a profession where people of any gender constantly get rejections, low pay (or no pay) at the bottom of the career ladder, and exploitation from all kinds of people. However, the women in the documentary say they know (because they’ve have experienced it) that whatever negativity that the comedy industry can throw at people, women get it worse overall then men do.

Just like their male counterparts, female comedians were often bullied as kids, they come from dysfunctional families, and/or they’ve suffered some type of past trauma. Depression, addiction and divorce are very common among stand-up comedians. But the women in this documentary say that women are more likely to be stigmatized for these issues than men are, simply because there are too many people who expect more perfection from women than they expect from men.

Over and over, the women share eerily similar stories of feeling inadequate or feeling like misfits in their childhood and adolescence. (Almost all come from middle-class or working-class families.) Being funny gave these comedians a sense of purpose and an identity. And laughter from telling jokes helped these comedians feel accepted in some way.

Liebman says she has a history of being clinically depressed, and comments on her family dynamics: “It gave me an identity to be the funny one.” Kirson says that her parents had a very unhappy marriage, her father was very tough on her, and she was often bullied by boys. “I was not a happy kid,” she remembers.

Glaser, a recovering anorexic/bulimic who describes having lifelong insecurities about her physical appearance, says her decision to become a comedian came early in her childhood: “I realized I wasn’t as pretty as my sister, and the pretty girls were the ones getting the roles in the plays.” Instead of trying to be a glamorous actress like other girls were doing, Glaser decided to become a comedian first. In the documentary, Glaser admits that she still feels insecure when comparing herself to her sister.

Feinstein says that her she got bad grades in her childhood due to a learning disability. At 17, she moved to New York City and ended up pursuing stand-up comedy as a career. Shlesinger describes her childhood as growing up with a single mother in a Dallas suburb where they were Jews in a very Christian environment.

McFarlane, a Canadian who grew up on an Alberta farm with no running water, remembers that she felt out-of-place in her own family: “To my family, I was a very strange person. I liked things they didn’t like. I found humor in things they didn’t find funny.”

Lampanelli, who has retired from stand-up comedy, says that she grew up with an emotionally abusive mother: “My mother was a big yeller. She had a lot of rage … And I think I was that middle child who could make mom laugh to diffuse the tension in the house. I, as a comic, was doing jokes to shut everybody up before they got to me.” Lampanelli is shown in the documentary hanging out pleasantly with her mother, so it seems they’re in a good place now with their relationship.

Bachman found fame in 2019 through a viral video of her performing at the New York City club Downtime and did some ad-libbed heckling at someone she didn’t expect to be in the audience: disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was at the show the year before he went on trial and was convicted of rape. In “Hysterical,” Bachman says that she’s a rape survivor, and seeing Weinstein triggered her to make comments directed at him.

While Bachman was on stage during that show, she mentioned being a rape survivor, called Weinstein “the elephant in the room,” and then said about him being at the club: “I didn’t know we had to bring our own mace and rape whistles.” At first, she got some boos from male-sounding people, while one unidentified man in the audience shouted at Bachman to “shut up.” But Bachman continued by saying “fuck you” to all rapists. Anyone who disapproved of what she was saying was drowned out by mostly female cheers from the audience.

Bachman’s rebuke of Weinstein and all other rapists got a lot of media attention and was widely praised by other comedians. In the “Hysterical” documentary, Glaser comments on this defining moment for Bachman: “That was fearless. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” Griffin, who is no stranger to controversy, says with admiration about Bachman’s takedown of Weinstein and rapists: “That was nothing less than an act of civil disobedience.”

Just like some of the other comedians in the documentary, Bachman says comedy is a form of therapy for her: “Everyone in [my] family has touched trauma. It’s not something we talk about, so we chose to at funerals, we choose to laugh when somebody is getting divorced. Someone has the job to make thins funny. We look to that person, and it helps. And I made the choice to be that person in my family.”

Women of color have the added burden of dealing with racism. Franklin, Shepherd and Lynch (who is a Latina) all tell stories about experiencing racist bullying when they were children and other racism when they became adults. Lynch, who spent part of her childhood in Spain before her family moved to the U.S. , says she was often ridiculed because of her Spanish accent when she talked.

Franklin says of the racism she experienced in her childhood, “Back then, you had to learn how to live with it. And one of the ways I did was by being funny.” Shepherd comments on her career: “As a black woman, I had to fight for a spot. I really, really had to prove that I was funny.”

Cho repeats some of her well-known stories of how her Korean American heritage and her body size were used as reasons to demean her. A low point for her was when TV executives pressured her to lose a dangerous amount of weight when she starred on the 1994-1995 sitcom “All-American Girl.” Cho says of her experiences with being body-shamed: “I have achieved more peace in my body as I’ve gotten older, but it took a long time to get there.” She has also experienced a lot of prejudice from people who think all Asian women are supposed to be quiet and submissive.

Although female entertainers are often expected to look as attractive as possible, Cho says that female comedians have a double-edged sword because people often have this attitude about women in comedy: “Don’t be too pretty. A beautiful woman is a threat.” Glaser adds, “You can be very pretty and funny. The only requirement is that you feel ugly on the inside.”

Feimster, who identifies as a lesbian, also talks about what it’s like to be a female comedian who proudly doesn’t fit into a stereotypical mold of female gender conformity or body size. She admits there have been many times when she’s been insecure about it, but ultimately, her differences make her stand out from many other female stand-up comics. Much of her stand-up comedy act talks about these issues.

Gold, another openly lesbian comedian, says that the bullying and awkwardness that she experienced in her youth had a lot to do with her tall height (she’s 6’3″) and being a “tomboy” as a child. And when she started to become taller than most of her peers, she turned any insecurities about her height into eventual jokes that made their way into her stand-up comedy act.

Feimster also echoes what many people interviewed in the documentary say about their comedy material coming from a place of emotional “damage.” She laughs when she explains why women want to become stand-up comedians: “There’s probably a lot of us that’s filling some sort of void.”

Kirson says something similar in this comment: “I say this on stage: No matter how much you clap, you’ll never fill the hole. We’re just trying to fill this hole and get attention that we’ve always wanted and can’t get.”

Don’t mistake “Hysterical” for a non-stop whinefest. It’s not. The comedians also frequently say what they love about doing stand-up. That type of passion is what keeps them going in their toughest times. And there’s quite a bit of laugh-out-loud footage of all of the comedians doing what they do on stage as examples of why they’ve achieved a certain level of fame.

All of the comedians, in one way or another, say that doing stand-up comedy is not something they chose but something that chose them. For Shepherd, stand-up comedy is about “the joy I get from getting on stage and being able to take people on a journey to a place where they can forget what they’re going through.” Feinstein says what she gets out of stand-up: “I have control. I’m a storyteller. I get to tell my tale.”

Feimster comments, “The beauty of comedy is I have a voice, I have a microphone, and I can go out and do my thing.” Later in the documentary, Feimster says, “I was a cautious kid, so it’s weird that I ended up in this job that has such a lack of stability, and you’re having to take risks all the time.”

Cho adds, “It’s mostly people’s biggest fear to get up in front of others and try to make them laugh. But, for me, when I was very different and very young, I also had to convince people that I had something important to say.”

Franklin comments, “The best experience on stage is when the whole room is with you, and you feel like you’re truly sharing a story that you can connect with.” Shlesinger says that stand-up comedy has a unique rhythm like no other form of entertainment: “It’s almost melodic. It’s almost like singing, like you can just riff and knowing that you can take them [the audience] anywhere.” Lynch says, “The very first time I performed on stage was for two minutes. And right then, I felt like I’d just married and had a baby.”

Speaking of marriage and children, the documentary fortunately doesn’t seem preoccupied about asking details about what type of family planning these women might or might not have. It’s a line of questioning that female entertainers are asked a lot more than male entertainers. Shepherd and McFarlane talk briefly about the challenges of raising kids while being a traveling stand-up comedian. (McFarlane takes her daughter Rayna Lynn, who was born in 2007, on the road with her.)

The documentary also mentions the hazards of being an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who doesn’t have the luxury of security guards or other people as protection against crazy audience members, stalkers or other potential dangers to safety. Many female stand-up comedians travel alone from city to city. And sometimes, promoters will put them in the same hotel room or condo with other comedians (almost always male) whom the women do not know.

Franklin is shown having a conversation with a male comedian friend and telling him about a bad experience she had where she stayed at a hotel on his enthusiastic recommendation, but the hotel and the surrounding area turned out to be very unsafe. The more she described the unsafe conditions, the more the male comedian began to understand that from his perspective as a man, the place wasn’t so bad. But from a female perspective, it was not a good place to be alone.

Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault seem to be experienced by the majority of female stand-up comedians in relation to their job. Most of the women don’t go into details, but some of the women describe the derogatory comments, sexual groping without consent and other unwanted touching that they’ve experienced as stand-up comedians. The general attitude is that these degrading experiences come with the territory, but more women now are more likely to report misconduct than they were in the past.

The movie makes a passing mention of how female comedians are often put in tricky #MeToo situations by people who can later claim that their offensive comments or actions were “just a joke” that a comedian should be able to take. Some of the women interviewed in the documentary hint that they feel pressure to be like “one of the guys” and have “thick skin” when sexual degradation is in their presence. The documentary should have asked this question: Is a woman who has a lot of sexually explicit raunchiness in her stand-up comedy act more likely to be considered “fair game” to be targeted for sexually explicit offensiveness?

If the offender is a comedian, the documentary could have used more exploration of the complicated issue of how comedy is used as an excuse to justify offensive things that aren’t illegal. There also should have been some discussion of “cancel culture” and how far back in someone’s life should offensive comments or actions be used to “cancel” that person. There are no easy answers, but the documentary could have asked more of these questions to get the perspectives of these female comedians, many of whom have a lot of sexually explicit content in their comedy acts.

Being a stand-up comedian, regardless of gender, is hard on a stand-up comedian’s love life. Almost all of the women talk about their love lives as part of their stand-up comedy act. And there’s an appreciation for how far things have changed from the days when it was scandalous for female stand-up comedians to talk about sex. However, gender double standards remain. Comedians vary when it comes to how raunchy or politically outspoken they want to be in their stand-up comedy acts.

The documentary mentions the 2017 controversy over Griffin posing for a photo while holding up a fake, bloodied head of Donald Trump, who was president of the U.S. at the time. The backlash was swift and far-reaching: Griffin was blacklisted from performing in most of the U.S., and she was put on a government watch list. Griffin’s 2019 documentary: “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” chronicled this controversy and her comeback tour outside the United States. In “Hysterical,” Griffin doesn’t really say anything new that she didn’t already say in her own documentary about this subject.

“Hysterical” has a compilation of footage of male entertainers (such as the rock band Gwar) who depicted the beheading or mutilation of Trump as part of their stage acts but never got the type of backlash and career damage that Griffin did. Glaser says of the Griffin controversy: “It was all so much bullshit. She got so railroaded.” Cho adds, “They would never treat a male comedian that way.”

Even with gender double standards, many of the comedians in “Hysterical” say that stand-up comedy is still a form of entertainment where people have true freedom of expression. (However, comedians still face career consequences if their material is considered too offensive.) Glaser comments, “I used to feel like ‘ugh,’ when comedians would pat themselves on the back and say that we are the last bastions of free speech. It’s like we kind of are. When someone tells me I can’t talk about something, I want to do it more.”

“Hysterical” has a brief overview of influential female stand-up comedians over the years. Moms Mabley, Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, Bella Barth, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers are all mentioned as being pioneers in their own ways. Franklin mentions Wanda Sykes as being a personal inspiration to her when Franklin started out in stand-up comedy.

But for many of the women interviewed in this documentary, being a stand-up comedian was not something they were taught to believe was a realistic career choice for a woman. Schlesinger is the only one in the documentary who says that it never occurred to her that she couldn’t be a stand-up comedian because she was a woman. And almost all female stand-up comedians have had plenty of naysayers in their lives who told them that they shouldn’t be stand-up comedians.

On average, women tend to have shorter careers in stand-up comedy than men do, because they’re more likely to experience age discrimination and more likely to stop touring for family-related reasons. But regardless of where a female stand-up comedian is in her career, she’s more likely to lose out on job opportunities to men. And this gender discrimination causes a lot of women to get discouraged and give up.

A large part of this self-doubt and insecurity comes from long-held sexist practices of booking women in only one or two slots in a stand-up comedy lineup where men get not only the majority of the slots but also the best (headlining) slots in most cases. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary that female stand-up comedians have been so accustomed to these limited opportunities, it was hard to for them to feel camaraderie with female comedians because they saw each other as competition.

Griffin says of women trying to get booked into a lineup of comedians: “There was a time when it seemed like there really was only room for one.” McFarlane agrees: “It was hard to like another woman [comedian] because you felt threatened because only one person is going to get the job.”

That’s not to say that stand-up comedy is any less cutthroat for women. Nor does it mean that women are not immune to jealous rivalries. But nowadays, female comedians say they’re much more likely to reach out and support other female comedians. More venues and promoters are becoming open to booking more than just one woman in a comedy lineup. And a few places sometimes host all-female comedy lineups.

The female comedians in the documentary say that things have gradually improved as there’s slowly been progress in job opportunities for women in comedy. However, it’s up to women to join forces and create supportive networks for each other, which is something that male comedians have been informally doing for years. Franklin comments, “I never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.”

Shlesinger adds, “Men have always gotten to do things first, whether it’s owning property or freedom of speech or anything fun. By sheer numbers, men have been doing comedy for longer [than women have].” The general consensus that the female comedians have is that the best way to change the outdated mindset that men should always dominate in comedy is for the public to vote with their wallets and by making more requests for diverse lineups of talented comedians.

In the “Hysterical” documentary, Kirson mentions New York City venues such as Comedy Cellar and The Stand and Los Angeles venues such as The Comedy Store and The Improv as having welcoming communities for comedians of any gender: “There are certain clubs were people really become family and close and hang out.”

Feinstein, Glaser and Kirson are shown hanging out together at Comedy Cellar. There’s also some footage of Franklin spending time at Comedy Cellar with some comedian friends, including Jeff Ross. There’s also archival footage of comedians Amy Schumer, Glaser and Bridget Everett in a car and speaking words of support and encouragement to Griffin during Griffin’s scandal.

The support for each other isn’t all just lip service. Liebman produces a show for up-and-coming comedians called Locally Grown Comedy at the Los Angeles-area nightclub Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. The documentary includes footage from one of these shows. Liebman says that she personally looks out for young talent whom she can mentor, especially women, since she knows how much harder it is for women than men to break into stand-up comedy.

Some of the women in the documentary believe that the #MeToo movement is a major factor in this shift toward more female comedians having more solidarity with each other than in previous decades. Bachman says, “Once you stand up to power, the narrative changes.” Women in stand-up comedy are also starting to verbally push back, on stage and off, on certain people trying to dictate what beauty standards are, since these beauty standards can affect how people are treated in society.

One of the best and most emotionally touching parts of the documentary is how it covers Franklin’s journey in going public with having breast cancer. There’s footage of Franklin telling some of her comedian friends about it and revealing that she’s going to go on stage and try out some jokes about her cancer for the first time. After the friends get over the shock of Franklin having cancer and see her performance (which got a standing ovation from the audience), Franklin is shown being somewhat overwhelmed by all the love and support. And fortunately, she is now in remission from the cancer.

The women in “Hysterical” expose a lot of insecurities about themselves on stage and in the documentary. But they also show a lot more strength than they might give themselves credit for, because not too many people would have the courage to turn their personal pain into something that will make people laugh. By allowing these comedians to tell their stories, without “gatekeepers” (agents, managers, comedy promoters, talent bookers) and other talking heads interrupting and drowning out their voices, director Nevins gives each woman the chance to shine in her own way in the documentary. It’s a film that’s worth watching by anyone who enjoys talented stand-up comedians and people who speak their own truths unapologetically.

FX premiered “Hysterical” on April 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,’ starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo

February 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” (Photo by Cate Cameron/Lionsgate)

“Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar”

Directed by Josh Greenbaum

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the fictional U.S. cities of Taylorsville and Vista Del Mar, the comedy film “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Two middle-aged female best friends unwittingly get ensnared in a villain’s scheme to get deadly revenge on the residents of Vista Del Mar, Florida.

Culture Audience: “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who co-wrote 2011’s Oscar-nominated “Bridesmaids”), but “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a disappointing, uneven dud.

Jamie Dornan in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” (Photo by Cate Cameron/Lionsgate)

When close friends Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo first wrote a movie screenplay together, it was for 2011’s hilarious “Bridesmaids,” which garnered an Academy Award nomination for the duo, as well as a best supporting actress Oscar nod for “Bridesmaids” co-star Melissa McCarthy. Unfortunately, Wiig and Mumolo’s next screenplay collaboration is the messy and frequently unfunny “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” an awkward mishmash of repetitive jokes about being middle-aged women, with some sci-fi and musical theater elements that mostly fall flat. The movie definitely won’t be nominated for any awards, not even a Razzie, because “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is ultimately forgettable.

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a frequently unfocused movie that loses steam in the last third of the film. Greenbaum has a background in directing sitcoms, such “Fresh Off the Boat” and “New Girl.” And that TV comedy background shows up in the most annoying ways in this movie. The music score sounds like it was made for a sitcom, and the music volume is turned up to irritating levels because it interrupts the flow of the movie.

Unlike “Bridesmaids,” which was made for adults, “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” tries to be more family-friendly and therefore loses a lot of potential to have raunchy humor that’s genuinely funny. However, there are moments where the filmmakers tried to throw in some adult-themed content, such as drug-fueled partying that ends up with some of the main characters having a sexual threesome. But this very adult scenario doesn’t really work in this film, because the movie is too cutesy with its sexual innuendo, thereby making the tone of the movie look confused and ultimately ineffective. Imagine if 2009’s “The Hangover” or 2017’s “Girls Trip” held back on a lot of the things that happened in the stories because the filmmakers wanted to make these movies suitable for underage kids to watch.

In “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” Mumolo portrays widow Barb Quicksilver and Wiig portrays divorcée Star Testigivlio, two middle-aged best friends/housemates who talk in a Midwestern twang and embody every stereotype of being a very bland, sheltered and uptight middle-aged American woman. (The movie has a running joke about Barb and Star’s penchant for wearing culotte pants.) The movie doesn’t say which U.S. state Barb and Star live in, but their hometown is called Taylorsville, and it’s far enough away from Florida that they have to travel by plane to get to the Florida city of Vista Del Mar.

Barb and Star are motormouths who frequently talk over each other but don’t have much to say that’s meaningful. They obsess over trivial things, such as why they don’t want anyone to buy their favorite sofa at the Jennifer Convertibles furniture store where they work as sales clerks. They’re so attached to the sofa that they come up with excuses for customers not to buy it. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because one day their boss (played by Ian Gomez) calls Barb and Star into his office and tells them that they’re all losing their jobs because the company has gone out of business.

As Barb and Star leave the store in shock, a friend of theirs named Mickey Revelet (played by Wendi McLendon-Covey) sees them walking down the street and runs over to talk to them. Mickey raves to Barb and Star about just coming back in town from the vacation that she and her man Miguel took in Vista Del Mar, Florida. (It’s a fictional city in Florida. The movie was actually filmed in Mexico City and Cancun, Mexico.)

Mickey brags that not only did she have a lot of fun and get a splendid tan, but she also says that going to Vista Del Mar had this effect on her: “I feel like I got a soul douche.” That’s the type of dialogue in the movie that’s supposed to be funny. Before Mickey leaves, she hands Barb and Star a travel brochure for Vista Del Mar. McLendon-Covey was a scene-stealing character in “Bridesmaids,” but “Bridesmaids” fans will be disappointed that her role in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is really just a quick cameo, since she’s only in the movie for about five minutes.

Barb and Star’s idea of fun is getting together not with a book club but with a talk club, which consists of other boring women who are around the same age. The members of the talk club gather to discuss a single topic per meeting. Shortly after Barb and Star lose their jobs, they’re at a talk club meeting, which is led by a bossy snob named Debbie (played by Vanessa Bayer) at Debbie’s home. Three other women are also in attendance: Pinky (played by Fortune Feimster), Delores (played by Phyllis Smith) and Bev (played by Rose Abdoo), who all do whatever Debbie expects them to do.

The talk club has certain rules that Debbie is fanatical about enforcing. When one of the club members is one minute late, Debbie locks the door and won’t let her inside. And the three cardinal rules of the club are (1) No wearing of sneakers; (2) No swearing, except for the “f” word; and (3) No lying. When Debbie announces that this meeting topic will be jobs, Barb and Star look at each other with dread because they’re embarrassed to talk about how they’ve become recently unemployed.

As the members of the club go around the room to talk about their jobs, (pharmacist Debbie is ecstatic when she describes how much she loves shaking pills in bottles while listening to music), Barb and Star continue to act as if they still work at the furniture store. However, the guilt of lying gets to Star, who blurts out that she and Barb lied and they actually got laid off recently. A furious Debbie kicks Barb and Star out of the club.

With their social life in shambles, Barb and Star decide to follow Mickey’s advice and take a vacation in Vista Del Mar. On the plane, there’s a sequence that goes on for far too long where Barb and Star ramble on about what kind of lady would be an ideal friend to lots of other women. They call her Trish and imagine all sorts of scenarios and personality traits that this ideal woman would have. And as soon as this becomes the entire plane conversation in the movie, you just know that there will be a character named Trish that shows up at some point.

Now for the weird and clunky sci-fi part of the story. It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that underneath the quiet streets of suburban Taylorsville is a high-tech underground bunker where a villain lives named Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig), who wants to kill the people of Vista Del Mar for a revenge reason that’s revealed in the movie. (It’s the most obvious reason possible.) The only way to get to the bunk is through a secret entrance in a tree trunk. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Sharon has a skin condition that makes her look unusually pale and sensitive to being in sunlight. She always wears white clothing. And she wears her hair in a jet-black bob, which kind of makes her look like a cross between Gloria Vanderbilt and Tilda Swinton, if they wanted to look like a Goth who only wears white. Sharon has a bitter demeanor and she seems to have problems emotionally connecting to people.

Sharon has three people working for her: an unnamed elderly scientist (played by Patrick Bristow), a handsome henchman named Edgar Pagét (played by Jamie Dornan), and a precocious boy named Yoyo (played by Reyn Doi), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. In the movie’s opening scene, Yoyo is shown riding his bike while delivering newspapers and singing Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb’s 1980 hit “Guilty.” However, Yoyo is no mild-mannered paperboy.

The scientist tells Sharon that he’s found a way to genetically modify mosquitos so that one mosquito sting can kill a large animal in minutes. When the scientist finds out that Sharon wants to use these mosquitos to kill humans, he objects to this plan and then is on the receiving end of Sharon’s deadly wrath. Shortly after that, Sharon orders Yoyo to activate a remote control in an earring that he’s wearing. The remote control sets off a bomb that was in a newspaper that Yoyo delivered to someone’s front porch.

Sharon then dispatches Edgar to go to Vista Del Mar to let loose the lethal mosquitos on the city’s population. Edgar is infatuated with Sharon and there’s a not-very-believable subplot that Edgar wants to be her boyfriend, but she’s been resistant to the idea. Sharon has a dead personality, so it’s very far-fetched that someone like Edgar (who could have his pick of women) would be pining after someone who lacks charisma and is very self-absorbed. But maybe Edgar likes women who play very hard-to-get.

And so, when Edgar goes to Vista Del Mar and inevitably meets Barb and Star, it’s at a hotel bar. He’s pining over Sharon and distracted in thinking about her, while Barb and Star try to strike up a conversation with him. There are some shenanigans that happen between Barb, Star and Edgar that leads to a very cliché plot development in a movie about two female best friends: They end up competing with each other over a man. Take a wild guess who it is.

In addition to the sci-fi elements of the movie that are very poorly conceived (with tacky visual effects), “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” has some musical song-and-dance interludes that come out of nowhere. The first is when Barb and Star arrive at the Palm Vista Hotel, and all the people in the lobby break into a musical number to greet Barb and Star. Edgar also has an extensive musical number on the beach that involves an obvious stunt double.

There are also some other bizarre things in the movie that don’t work well either. For example, Star has a conversation with a talking crab named Morgan Freemond (voiced by Josh Robert Thompson), and the “joke” is that the crab sounds like Morgan Freeman and gives advice to the lovelorn Star. Damon Wayans Jr. has a useless role in the movie as a spy named Darlie Bunkle, who makes contact with Edgar. The running gag with Darlie is that he’s supposed to be undercover and always lectures Edgar to keep their communication “private,” but Darlie always bungles and reveals his own identity so that it’s out in the open and not “private” at all.

If the movie wasn’t trying so hard to appeal to underage audiences, it could’ve had more fun showing adults acting and talking like adults. Instead, by playing it too coy and too safe, the movie’s humor fails to be edgy or genuine. There’s a recurring character in the movie named Richard Cheese (played by Mark Jonathan Davis), who’s a singer/pianist in the hotel lounge. The joke is that Richard keeps singing about how much he loves women’s breasts, and he comes up with all sorts of ways to say the word “breasts.” It’s a mildly funny gag, but the humor is very juvenile, like 10-year-old boys giggling about saying slang words for this part of the female anatomy.

“Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is a story about two middle-aged single women who go on what’s supposed to be a fun-filled vacation together, but the movie is so watered down, that Barb and Star might as well have been teenagers. Barb and Star are sheltered women, but it would’ve been funnier to have them experience culture shock in a raunchier environment. “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” is one of those movies where the trailer makes the film look a lot funnier than it actually is.

Wiig and Mumolo (who are also two of the movie’s producers) are capable of doing much better work. Barb and Star are fairly one-note. And except for a brief mention of why they are single (Barb’s husband Ron died in an accident, while Star’s husband Carmine left her for another woman), there’s no backstory for these two central characters. It seems as if the filmmakers were trying to do a middle-aged version of 1997’s “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” (another movie about two sheltered best friends who travel somewhere to party), but “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” lacks a lot of the charm that made “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” a hit.

“Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” isn’t a completely terrible movie, because viewers can find some laughs here and there. (People who are under the influence of alcohol or other substances while watching are more likely to find this movie funny.) Wiig has better comedic timing than Mumolo, while Dornan has some deliberately campy moments that can’t save this embarrassing film. Andy Garcia and Reba McEntire have unremarkable cameos in the movie. Considering the level of talent involved in this movie, it’s a misfire in so many ways, and it will just make people appreciate “Bridesmaids” even more.

Lionsgate will release “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar” on VOD on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Soul,’ starring the voices of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Soul”

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Culture Representation: The animated film “Soul” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white, with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring jazz musician has a purgatory-like experience where he fights to save his life while encountering a cynical soul that doesn’t want to be born in any body.

Culture Audience: “Soul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in philosophical stories about the meaning of life that are wrapped in a bright and shiny package of a Disney/Pixar animated movie.

Counselor Jerry (voiced by Richard Ayoade), Counselor Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga), 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Terry (voiced by Rachel House) and Counselor Jerry (voiced by Fortune Feimster) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

Pixar Animation Studios has long been the gold standard for groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing movie animation, with several Oscars and blockbuster films to prove it. Pixar launched in 1986, and was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Pixar released its first movie with an African American as the lead character. That movie is “Soul,” which does what Pixar does best: blend stunning visuals with sentimental, family-friendly messages. However, the movie isn’t quite the innovative cultural breakthrough that it’s hyped up to be.

“Soul” (directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers) follows a lot of the same thematic tropes that are in a lot of Pixar movies: Someone has to cope with death and/or find a way back home. In order to reach that goal, the protagonist encounters someone who usually has an opposite personality. For any variety of reasons, the two opposite personalities are stuck together on a journey. And they spend most of the story bickering and/or trying to learn how to work together.

In “Soul,” the main protagonist is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged, aspiring jazz pianist in New York City who hasn’t been able to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional musician. Instead, to pay his bills, Joe has become a teacher of band music at a public middle school called M.S. 70, where almost all of the students in his class are less-than-talented at playing music. Joe isn’t particularly happy with how his life has turned out, but he hasn’t lost his passion for playing jazz. It’s a passion that almost no one else shares in his life.

Joe tells his students about the life-changing experience he had as a boy when his father took him to a nightclub to see jazz performed live for the first time. It was the first time that Joe understood the joy of turning a passion into something that can be shared with others. Joe describes to his students how he felt when he saw the jazz musicians expressing themselves in their performance: “I wanted to learn how to talk like that. That’s when I knew I was born to play.”

Joe then says to a student, “Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?” Connie (voiced by Cora Champommier) deadpans in response: “I’m 12.” This won’t be the last time Connie will be in the movie, since she represents whether or not Joe has made an impact on any of his students.

Joe, who is an only child, is somewhat of a disappointment to his widowed mother Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), who owns a custom tailor shop. Libba has grown tired of seeing Joe in a series of dead-end, part-time jobs that don’t pay very well. Joe’s father was also an aspiring musician, but he gave up his music dreams because of the financial obligations of raising a family. Joe is a bachelor with no children, so it’s been easier for him to not feel as much pressure to get a full-time job that pays well.

One day, M.S. 70’s Principal Arroyo (voiced by Jeannie Tirado) tells Joe that the school would like to offer him a full-time job as the band teacher. However, Joe isn’t all that excited about the offer, because it means that he’ll have less time to pursue what he really wants to be: a professional musician playing in a real band. Privately, he thinks about whether or not he should accept the offer.

When Joe tells Libba about this job offer, she thinks he’s crazy not to take the offer right away. Libba reminds Joe that a full-time job comes with insurance benefits and a retirement plan, which are things that she thinks Joe needs to have now that he’s reached a certain age. Joe reluctantly agrees to take the school’s full-time job offer.

But then, something unexpected happens that changes his life when he gets a chance to become a professional musician. A former student of his named Lamont “Curley” Baker (voiced by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, also known as Questlove) calls Joe and tells him that he’s now a drummer for the Dorothea Williams Quartet, a famous group that is in the city for a tour performance. Curley thanks Joe for his mentorship and excitedly mentions to Joe that the band’s regular pianist suddenly “skipped town” and can’t be found.

Curley says that Joe would be the perfect replacement for this pianist for the band’s show that will take place that evening at the Half Note, a popular jazz nightclub. Curley invites Joe to go to the nightclub for an audition. Curley says that if Dorothea Williams likes what she hears from Joe, then Joe could become the permanent pianist for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Needless to say, Joe is ecstatic but also nervous.

Dorothea (voiced by Angela Bassett) is a hard-to-please taskmaster. And she’s not impressed that Joe has been working as a school teacher, because she thinks it means he isn’t talented enough to be a professional musician. But once Dorothea hears Joe play, she changes her mind and says he can perform with the band that night. She keeps cool about it and doesn’t want to lavish too much praise on Joe.

Joe is so excited about this big break that he calls people on his phone to tell them the good news, while he’s walking down various streets. Joe is so distracted that he doesn’t notice several things that could get him injured. He narrowly misses getting hit by a car when he walks into traffic. He avoids getting hurt by construction work happening on a street where he walks.

But a misfortune that Joe literally falls into is a deep and open manhole that he doesn’t notice while he’s talking on the phone. Joe wakes up in a purgatory-like environment where he finds out that he “died” from this fall. His soul and other souls (which look like ghostly blue blobs) are headed to a place called the Great Beyond, which is implied to be heaven.

However, Joe doesn’t want to accept this fate, and he runs away and tries to hide. What he really wants to do is go back to Earth, have his soul reunited with his body, and recover from his injuries in time to make it to the Dorothea Williams Quartet performance. He believes that this performance is his only shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Joe tries to hide in the purgatory, but he’s quickly discovered by spirit-like entities called counselors that look like two-dimensional, bisected figures. Several of the counselors (with male and female voices) are named Counselor Jerry. Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade voice the two Counselor Jerry characters that have the most interaction with Joe. Braga’s Counselor Jerry character is empathetic and patient. Ayoade’s Counselor Jerry character is wisecracking and neurotic. Other actors who are the voices of Counselor Jerry characters include Fortune Feimster, Wes Studi and Zenobia Shroff.

Joe finds out that he hasn’t died yet, but his body is in a “holding pattern,” and he’s in a place called the Great Before, also known as the You Seminar. It’s a place where each soul is numbered and assigned a unique personality before being sent to Earth to inhabit a body. In addition to personality traits, each soul must have a “spark,” in order to be ready to be sent to Earth. In the You Seminar, each soul is assigned a mentor to inspire that spark. (The word “spark” in the movie is another way of saying a person’s biggest passion in life.)

Joe already knows what his spark is (playing music), but through a series of events, he ends up becoming the mentor for a soul whose name/number is 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is an especially difficult soul because she doesn’t want to be live in anybody on Earth and she wants to stay where she is. She’s very stubborn and likes to cause a lot of mischief. (Technically, 22 could be interpreted as having no gender, but since a woman was chosen to voice the character, 22 will be referred to as “she” and “her” in this review.)

Joe finds out that 22 has had several mentors who tried and failed to help 22 find her spark. The mentors include Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette, Nicolaus Copernicus and Muhammad Ali. There’s a brief montage sequence that shows how 22 aggravated and disappointed all of her famous mentors. And 22 is so insufferable, cynical and bratty that even Mother Teresa ran out of patience with her.

And so, the rest of the movie is about these two souls who have different agendas and have to find a way to work together. One soul desperately wants to go back to Earth to reunite with his body, while the other soul desperately does not want to go to Earth to avoid inhabiting any body. There’s also a running joke in the film about a very nitpicky, uptight spirit named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who works as an accountant in the purgatory and notices that a soul (Joe) is missing from the expected Great Beyond population. Terry goes on the hunt to find this missing soul.

“Soul” has a lot of metaphors not just about life after death but also about life on Earth. There’s a subplot about “lost souls” on Earth. And during Joe and 22’s time together, they encounter a soul who’s an aging hippie type named Moonwind (played by Graham Norton), who is the captain of a ship of souls.

What works very well in “Soul,” as is the case of almost every Pixar film, is how the film looks overall. When Joe describes the elation he felt the first time he discovered his passion for music, the screen lights up with an engaging vibrancy of sights and sounds. There are also some almost-psychedelic representations of what the You Seminar looks like that give “Soul” an immersive quality. The human characters look very lifelike. And it all adds up to a very memorable animated film.

“Soul” is not without flaws, however. The movie has a few plot holes that aren’t really explained. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where 22 tells Joe that souls without a body do not have the use of human senses, which is why 22 doesn’t know what it’s like to smell, taste or touch. However, it’s never explained why 22 (and other souls without bodies) have the senses of sight and hearing. Why bother saying that souls in this story cannot have human senses, when the souls can obviously see and hear?

Docter won an Oscar for the 2015 Pixar film “Inside Out,” another existential movie with a plot revolving around the concept that people are unique because of personalities and interests. “Soul” has lot of philosophies about what makes someone human and what a human being’s purpose is in life. Both movies can be enjoyed by people of different generations. However, the storyline of “Soul” is riskier and potentially more alienating.

“Soul” is not a religious movie, but it’s literally a spiritual movie. Its plot and characters are based on spiritual beliefs that when people die, their souls go to another place that can’t be seen by living humans, or souls could be stuck on Earth as “ghosts.” Therefore, what happens in “Soul” won’t have as much of an emotional impact on atheists or other people who believe that death is final and who think that there is no such thing as a soul that can leave a body.

There’s a reincarnation subplot to the “Soul” that isn’t as funny as it could have been, mainly because one of the characters is reincarnated as a cat. There have already been plenty of movies that have over-used the gimmick of a non-human animal that can talk and think like a human. The world has more than enough “talking animals” movies.

As for “Soul” being touted as a racial breakthrough in Pixar animation, the movie falls short of many expectations that Joe’s life as an African American musician would be in the movie more than it actually is. This part of Joe’s identity is only shown as “bookends,” in service of a story that’s really about how Joe can help redeem 22, so that she will want to become a fully formed person with a “spark.”

In fact, Joe’s quest to go back to becoming a living, breathing human being often takes a back seat to 22 and her shenanigans. Joe doesn’t become completely sidelined, since he’s still the main character who’s in almost every scene of the movie. But there are many moments in “Soul” where it feels like the filmmakers deliberately made 22 the scene stealer, while Joe passively reacts to whatever 22 does or wants.

These creative decisions are a bit problematic when Disney and Pixar seem to have a self-congratulatory attitude in promoting “Soul” as the first Pixar movie to celebrate African American culture. Well, it’s not exactly a celebration. It’s more of a polite acknowledgement, because for most of the movie, Joe isn’t even in his own body.

It should be noted that “Soul” was written by Docter (who is white), Powers (who is African American) and Mike Jones (who is white). The vast majority of people on the “Soul” creative team are also white, including producer Dana Murray and chief composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jonathan “Jon” Batiste,” who is African American, did the jazz compositions for “Soul,” but not the overall music score. The music of “Soul” is perfectly fine, but it just seems a bit “off” that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to hire any of the numerous qualified African Americans to be the chief composers for this movie about an African American musician. Make of that what you will, but that’s why people say that representation matters.

And it seems like such a waste for “Soul” to not feature the singing talents of Foxx, who plays a musician but not a singer in this movie. (Foxx is a piano player in real life too.) He does a very good job in the role, as do the other “Soul” cast members. However, Joe is at times written as a sidekick to 22, when 22 should be the sidekick throughout the entire time that Joe and 22 are together. It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of “Soul” that the Joe character reclaims the spot as the central focus of the story.

“Soul” certainly meets Pixar’s high standards of a visually compelling film that tackles heavy emotional issues in an entertaining way. The movie has a lot of musing about the meaning of life and positive messages about self-acceptance. These themes in “Soul” are, for the most part, handled well for a movie whose target audience includes a lot of kids who are too young to have deep, philosophical debates. Just don’t expect “Soul” to have major representation of African American culture in the way that Pixar’s “Coco” celebrated Mexican culture.

Disney+ premiered “Soul” on December 25, 2020. The movies was released in cinemas in countries where Disney+ is not available.

Review: ‘Chick Fight,’ starring Malin Akerman, Bella Thorne and Alec Baldwin

December 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bella Thorne and Malin Akerman in “Chick Fight” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“Chick Fight”

Directed by Paul Leyden

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Chick Fight” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s going through a financial crisis reluctantly gets involved in an underground all-female fight club.

Culture Audience: “Chick Fight” will appeal primarily to people who like dumb, crude and predictable movies.

Malin Akerman, Kevin Connolly and Dulcé Sloan in “Chick Fight” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

When a movie has a title like “Chick Fight,” you know going in that it’s already got some level of stupidity. Even with expectations lowered, “Chick Fight” still manages to be a time waster by being relentlessly vulgar in its pathetic attempts at comedy and completely unimaginative in its weak attempts at serious drama. It’s very possible for entertainment to have foul-mouthed comedy that actually works well if there’s some insight or wit to the comedy. That doesn’t apply to “Chick Fight,” which is just a tacky, dull mess.

Directed by Paul Leyden, “Chick Fight” has an entire plot built around a warped idea that women who beat each other up for fun are doing something admirable and that this type of demented bullying is supposed to be therapeutic for them. It’s all just an excuse to show women getting bloodied and injured while trying to pretend that this type of violence is not misogynistic at all. After all, the filmmakers seem to be saying, if men can have underground fight clubs, why can’t women?

The problem is that a movie like “Chick Fight” (written by Joseph Downey) still perpetuates unrealistic, sexist stereotypes that portray women who fight as not to be taken as seriously as male fighters. Movies about men who have underground fights usually depict the realistic, long-term physical and psychological harm that these fights can bring. In a moronic movie like “Chick Fight,” viewers are supposed to believe that these female fighters can just wipe off their bloodstains, put on their makeup, and go about their regular lives when the vicious fight is over. And that phoniness is not just insulting to the female characters but also to the viewers’ intelligence.

For example, the movie has a ridiculous plot development where the main character Anna Wyncomb (played by Malin Akerman, who is one of the producers of “Chick Fight”) is completely shocked to find out that her late mother Mary (played by Julie Michaels in flashback scenes) started an underground female-only fight club. Mary was one of the club’s top fighters for many years, starting from when Anna was a teenager. (Anna is now supposed to be in her late 30s or early 40s.)

And yet, Mary was able to kept this secret from Anna the entire time that Mary was alive. When this story begins, Mary has been dead for nine months and Anna found out this secret only after Mary dies. Viewers are supposed to believe that Anna, who was very close to her mother, never saw any of her mother’s fight injuries during all of those years that her mother was involved in the fight club.

Even in the flashback scenes, Mary looks too pristine to be a “legendary” underground fighter, who realistically would be more bashed-up and bruised than Mary is. It’s an example of how the filmmakers still don’t want to depict women as capable of getting as down and dirty as men when it comes to these fights. The lack of realism when it comes to physical injuries is one of the biggest of many big problems in “Chick Fight.”

“Chick Fight” takes place in an unnamed city that’s supposed to look like somewhere in a U.S. state with a lot of palm trees, but the movie was actually filmed in Puerto Rico. At the beginning of “Chick Fight,” Anna’s life has been going on a downward spiral. Anna owns a coffee shop that’s failing financially. She’s so heavily in debt that one day, she wakes up to find that her Prius is being repossessed.

Anna desperately pleads with the middle-aged tow-truck operator (played by Norman Grant) not to take her car. “I can show you my boobs,” she tells him. He replies, “Yes, you could, but unless you’ve got $1,000 attached to each nipple, I’ve still got to take the car.” That’s what’s supposed to pass as comedy in this movie.

The crass and unfunny jokes about female body parts continue throughout the film. And the filmmakers have Anna’s best friend Charleen (played by Dulcé Sloan), who happens to be a cop and a lesbian, as one of the worst offenders of objectifying women, by portraying Charleen as a borderline sexual predator. Charleen is also the epitome of the formulaic stereotype of a large-sized African American woman being a loudmouth sidekick.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Anna and Charleen (who are both single with no kids) are hanging out at Anna’s coffee shop and talking about their love lives. Anna says that she’s going through a “self-imposed abstinence,” while Charleen is scolding Anna for being celibate. Charleen ogles a pretty and innocent-looking barista at the coffee shop, who’s about 10 to 15 years younger than Charleen.

Charleen tells Anna: “I’m going to have her. I don’t even know if she’s straight or not, but I’m going to make that girl yell so loud, that only dogs are going to be able to hear her.” Charleen then sticks out her tongue, lecherously flicks it back and forth, and says to Anna: “See how fast I am with my tongue. I’m going to set her pubes on fire!” Anna doesn’t seem at all concerned that her best friend wants to sexually harass one of Anna’s employees.

That evening, Anna spends time with her widower father Ed (played by Kevin Nash) at his home. They’re seated in the backyard and talk a little bit about how much they miss Mary. Suddenly, Anna hears what sounds like someone in the house, even though Ed lives alone. She quickly figures out from Ed’s reaction that he’s got a new lover who’s in the house.

Ed admits it, but says that he’s not ready to introduce this person to Anna yet. However, Anna is too curious not to find out who it is. She walks quickly in the house, with a nervous Ed following her. And that’s when Anna meets her father’s new lover: a sassy man named Chuck (played by Alex Mapa), who looks young enough to be around Anna’s age. In addition to their age difference, Ed and Chuck have a height difference, since Ed is about eight inches taller than Chuck.

After Ed awkwardly introduces Chuck and Anna to each other, Ed tells Anna that although he loved his late wife Mary, he is pansexual and was in the closet about it during the marriage. With Mary’s passing, Ed says he can now feel free to express his true sexual identity. Anna is shocked, but she immediately accepts the situation and tells Ed and Chuck, “That’s great. I’m happy for you.”

Anna decides to make a hasty exit. But before she goes, she asks Ed and Chuck about their big height difference when it come to sex: “How does this even work?” Chuck replies, “Oh honey, it’s like a Great Dane trying to mount a Chihuahua.”

Although Anna has reacted with a friendly and very tolerant demeanor to what she’s discovered about her father, deep down she’s shaken to the core. She calls up Charleen and tells her to meet her at the coffee shop because she wants to tell Charleen some bombshell information and she needs someone to vent to about it.

Anna and Charleen meet up at the coffee shop, which is closed for the night, and Anna tells Charleen about her father’s confession that he’s pansexual. Charleen’s reaction is to laugh and say that Ed can now openly be part of the LGBTQ community. Anna and Charleen also discuss Anna’s messy life while sharing a marijuana joint. Charleen says she got the marijuana by stealing it from police evidence. Anna jokes that Charleen is the “worst cop ever.”

But what do you know, in a dumb movie like this, before Anna and Charleen leave the coffee shop, they just carelessly toss away the joint, which is still lighted, on the floor of the coffee shop. And the lit joint falls right into a puddle that happens to be an unidentified flammable liquid, thereby causing a fire that burns down the entire coffee shop. Predictably, Anna doesn’t have fire insurance.

Needless to say, Anna’s life goes from bad to worse. With her coffee shop gone, she struggles to find other work. Charleen tries to cheer up Anna one night by taking her to the female-only underground fight club, which is in a seedy area of the city in a dirty, warehouse-styled building. Anna later finds out that her mother Mary was the person who started this fight club.

The fighters do not use boxing gloves or wear mouth guards, although they can cover their hands with cloth or other fabric. The rules are that they can do anything during the fight, except for hair pulling, biting and eye gouging. Everything else is fair game. Every time someone wins a match, a dollar bill gets put up on the wall.

Charleen introduces Anna to a burly and tough woman named Bear (played Fortune Feimster), who manages the fight club with Charleen. Bear says she got her unusual name as a child because she was born with a lot of body hair. Later in the story, Anna finds out that Bear considered Anna’s mother Mary to be Bear’s mentor and biggest inspiration—so much so, that Bear keeps a poster and lots of mementos of Mary in Bear’s one-room apartment, which is in the same building and right next to the room with the boxing ring.

After a horrified Anna witnesses a brutal and bloody fight in the ring, Bear tells Anna that it’s a tradition for anyone visiting the fight club for the first time to fight someone in the club during that first visit. Bear also tells Anna that she has a choice to fight either Bear (who looks like she could do serious damage) or a terrified-looking woman with a slight physique who’s sitting in a corner by herself. Bear says that the other woman’s name is Carol (played by Marissa Labog), who’s a schoolteacher.

Anna predictably chooses Carol, who looks like she’ll be a much easier opponent than Bear. But (surprise, surprise) Carol turns out to be a tough fighter, who pummels Anna in the ring while using her legs to put Anna in a headlock. Anna is humiliated but also relieved because she thinks she doesn’t have to go through that experience again. But there would be no “Chick Fight” movie if she walked away that easily.

The fight club has a doctor named Roy Park (played by Kevin Connolly), who happens to be Bear’s brother. (Cue the joke about Bear’s full name being Bear Park.) Roy and Bear being siblings sort of explains why he’s the only man allowed in the room during the fights and why he would be willing to do medical exams for this illegal fight club as a favor to his sister. Roy examines Anna after the fight and determines that she’ll be okay.

But since Roy is the only man who’s allowed into the fight club room on a regular basis, you know what that means in a catfight movie like this: He’s going to be the center of a love triangle between two of the female fighters. And sure enough, after Anna gets the deluded idea that she’s going to honor her mother by becoming an underground fighter, Anna ends up taking on the fight club’s toughest competitor: Olivia (played by Bella Thorne), who’s about 15 to 20 years younger than Anna and who is also attracted to Roy.

This insipid movie puts up a fake front of being a feminist empowerment film, so it’s no surprise that “Chick Fight” reduces the story to the old cliché of two women fighting over a man. Olivia is supposed to be a tough-talking badass, but she’s actually a one-dimensional “mean girl.” Olivia has two sidekicks: Noel (played by Vitoria Setta) and Veronica (played by Ekaterina Baker), whose only purpose in the movie is to make Olivia look like she’s got some kind of posse. Anna is supposed to be “empowered” by taking on the challenge of fighting Olivia, but it’s actually quite pathetic that a supposedly mature woman who should know better is catfighting with someone who looks like she’s barely out of high school.

And really, the underlying motive for Anna and Olivia’s rivalry is that they both want to prove who’s more sexually attractive to Roy. However, Roy’s personality is extremely bland and he’s not very well-suited for either Anna or Olivia. And so, viewers can only conclude that Roy’s doctor salary has a lot to do with the attraction that Anna and Olivia (two very different women) have to Roy. And once again, it plays into outdated gender stereotypes that women need to find a man who makes more money than they do in order to have a happy love life.

At any rate, Anna needs a trainer. And fast. You’d think that with this female fight club existing for so many years, there would be some talented female alumni who still live in the area who could possibly mentor or train Anna.

But no. The filmmakers refuse to consider that qualified women could ever train other female fighters, because they make Anna go into training with a drunken and boorish has-been named Murphy (played by Alec Baldwin), whose main claim to fame is that he used to be the trainer of “Sugar Ray,” according to Charleen and Bear. Viewers are supposed to assume that “Sugar Ray” means Sugar Ray Leonard, but we can also assume that, for legal reasons, the filmmakers couldn’t use his full name, in order not to have Sugar Ray Leonard’s name associated with this crappy movie.

There’s also a not-very-funny subplot of Charleen being threatened by a female fighter named Betty (played by Nicole Paone), whose teenage son (played by Brian Dean Rittenhouse) was recently busted by Charleen for drug dealing to students. (The drug bust is shown in the beginning of the film.) Betty wants revenge on Charleen by challenging her to a fight. It should be noted that Paone, Akerman and Feimster also worked together in the 2020 comedy film “Friendsgiving,” another stinker of a movie with self-centered, obnoxious characters.

Sometimes, a bad movie is a little more tolerable if at least one of the main characters is appealing or if the acting is better than the material. But there’s almost nothing to like about this annoying group of characters in “Chick Fight,” and the acting is mediocre at best. The fight scenes are very unrealistic, because it’s easy to spot the difference between the stunt double and the actor. “Chick Fight” is so idiotic and unpleasant to watch that viewers will feel like it’s an assault on their time, patience and common sense.

Quiver Distribution released “Chick Fight” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on November 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Friendsgiving,’ starring Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Aisha Tyler, Jack Donnelly, Jane Seymour, Chelsea Peretti and Ryan Hansen

October 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Deon Cole, Aisha Tyler, Andrew Santino, Christine Taylor, Kat Dennings, Jack Donnelly, Malin Akerman, Jane Seymour, Ryan Hansen, Mike Rose, Scout Durwood and Rhea Butcher in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Friendsgiving”

Directed by Nicol Paone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Friendsgiving” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, one Latino and one Asian) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Hollywood actress and her best friend, who are trying to get over big breakups in their respective love lives, plan to spend a quiet Thanksgiving together, but those plans are disrupted by several unexpected guests.  

Culture Audience: “Friendsgiving” will appeal primarily to people who like lowbrow comedies that think any jokes about sex, drugs and selfish antics are automatically supposed to be funny.

Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Serenity Reign Brown, Kat Dennings, Christine Taylor, Aisha Tyler, Deon Cole, Everly or Savannah Sucher, Malin Akerman and Jack Donnelly in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

When there’s a comedy film about a large, chaotic holiday gathering, how much you might enjoy the film really comes down to one thing: Would you want to spend time with any of these people in real life? “Friendsgiving” swings hard and aims low in this vulgar comedy about mostly self-absorbed people at a Thanksgiving dinner, where the majority of the people weren’t even invited by the host. There are some mildly amusing moments, but “Friendsgiving” is really just a series of crude jokes, as the movie’s characters preen, make mischief, and whine about something that eludes almost everyone in this movie: a happy, long-term, monogamous relationship.

“Friendsgiving” is the first feature film directed by Nicol Paone, who wrote the movie’s vapid screenplay. Paone has a background in stand-up comedy, as an actress and as a writer for Funny or Die. Unfortunately, this movie is written as if everyone is a caricature waiting to spout some foul-mouthed lines that someone would write for a mediocre stand-up comedy act. The good news is that the characters’ personalities are distinctive and you can tell them apart from each other. The bad news is that their personalities are also very shallow.

Set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, the two central characters of “Friendsgiving” are longtime best friends Abby Barrone (played by Kat Dennings) and Molly (played by Malin Akerman), who have had very different reactions to painful breakups in their love lives. Abby is still recovering from being dumped in January by her ex-girlfriend Maeve, who is a single mother. Molly is a semi-famous Hollywood actress who’s raising a baby son named Eden (played by twins Everly and Savannah Sucher) on her own. Molly’s businessman husband Michael left her because he said he didn’t want to be married to her anymore.

Molly’s impending divorce hasn’t reached the stage of signing divorce papers yet, but she considers herself to be single and available. And she’s already found a new lover: a Brit who’s a cheerful, New Age type of philanthropist named Jeff (played by Jack Donnelly, who’s married to Akerman in real life), whom she’s been dating for only about two weeks. They met when Molly was in London for a press tour for a movie called “Pluto Raiders,” which is described as a basic sci-fi action flick.

Meanwhile, Abby is still wallowing in her breakup misery and has a hard time getting back into the dating pool. Abby doesn’t label her sexuality in the movie, but she mentions that Maeve was the first woman she ever dated, after Abby previously dated only men. In one of several video chats that Abby has with her nosy and opinionated family members—including Abby’s mother (Rose Abdoo) and Abby’s younger sister Barbara (played by Dana DeLorenzo)—Abby is given unsolicited advice on her love life. She is “out of the closet” with her family members, who are a traditional Italian clan on the East Coast, and they seem to think it’s best if Abby settles down and marries a man.

According to the production notes for “Friendsgiving,” the movie is loosely based on Paone’s real-life experiences during one Thanksgiving, when she was mourning a breakup from an ex-girlfriend, while Paone’s best friend was raising a baby after her husband had left her. This shared loneliness and breakup blues sparked the idea for the movie. Paone is openly gay, and she describes Abby as a “gay lady” in the movie.

Although the heart of the movie is about the friendship between Molly and Abby, the story is more focused on Molly. It’s at Molly’s home where the Thanksgiving dinner is held, and Molly is the one whom people seem to want to be around, probably because she’s a fairly successful actress. She lives in a spacious house, but it’s clear that she’s not an A-list actress who can afford any live-in staff.  (There’s no nanny in sight.)

The opening scene of “Friendsgiving” gets right to the raunchiness, as Molly is dressed as a dominatrix while she and Jeff are engaged in some light BDSM play. Their sex session is interrupted by a phone call from Molly’s friend Lauren (played by Aisha Tyler), who asks Molly if she, her husband and two kids can come over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving. Lauren gives a vague explanation that she’s going a little stir-crazy in the home and wants to spend Thanksgiving at Molly’s place, and she offers to bring some food. Molly is too polite to say no.

Meanwhile, Abby is chatting by phone with her mother and sister while doing some last-minute Thanksgiving shopping in a grocery store. There are clues to how obnoxious Abby can be, such as when she guzzles a bottle of wine while shopping. When a store manager tells her that drinking alcohol in an open container is not allowed in the store, Abby refuses his request to stop, and she gets thrown out by security. Before Abby leaves the store, she makes sure to do some damage to the Christmas tree on display.

Abby plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving with just Molly and Eden. But there would be no “Friendsgiving” movie if that happened. Needless to say, Abby isn’t too pleased when she hears that there will be more people at the Thanksgiving dinner than originally planned. In fact, Abby is furious, and she starts whining about it like a bratty teenager.

Jeff is invited to stay for Thanksgiving dinner too, since Molly figures out that he’s lonely and has nowhere else to go. And of course, since this is a movie that wants to cram in as many jokes as possible about sex and penis sizes, the first time that Jeff and Abby meet, he accidentally walks into the room completely naked. As an embarrassed Jeff covers his genital area, Abby quips, “It’s no big deal. I have one just like it in my top drawer, except mine is bigger.”

It turns out that Lauren invited several people over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving without checking with Molly first. And then, Molly’s sex-crazed Swedish mother Helen (played by Jane Seymour), who’s on her fifth marriage, shows up unannounced without her current husband. And, much to Molly’s embarrassment, Helen acts exactly how you would think a no-filter “cougar” would act.

In addition to Molly, Abby and Helen, the people who are at this larger-than-expected Thanksgiving dinner include:

  • Jeff, Molly’s new lover whom Abby begins to compete with in the kitchen and for Molly’s attention.
  • Lauren, who brings some low-dosage psychedelic mushrooms to share with Abby and Molly. (Molly declines to take any mushrooms, but Lauren and Abby do.)
  • Dan (played by Deon Cole), Lauren’s husband who is loving and attentive, but Lauren seems bored and restless in their marriage.
  • Lauren and Dan’s children Lily (played by Serenity Reign Brown), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and Jack (played by Kenneth Sims), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. The children have no purpose in the movie but to look cute, sit at the kiddie table, and possibly walk in on something “adult” happening.
  • Gunnar (played by Ryan Hansen), a vain actor who is an ex-boyfriend of Molly’s and whom she broke up with years ago because he cheated on her. Gunnar was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner by Molly’s mother Helen, who thinks Molly and Gunnar should get back together, but Helen didn’t know about Jeff when she invited Gunnar.
  • Gus (played by Mike Rose), who’s openly gay, single, and lets it be known that he has a brother who’s been missing for years, which has no bearing on this movie at all, but it’s an attempt to give Gus some kind of backstory.
  • Rick (played by Andrew Santino) and Brianne (played by Christine Taylor), an image-obsessed, materialistic newlywed couple from Orange County who met each other four months ago and have been married for one month. A running gag in the movie is Brianne has recently had some kind of plastic surgery on her mouth, which she can’t move properly.
  • Claire (played by Chelsea Peretti), a New Age hipster who’s recently become a shaman (or a “shawoman,” as she would prefer to be called) and who can’t stop spouting platitudes about people being in touch with their feelings. And maybe she’s a part-time drug dealer too, because Claire sold the mushrooms that Lauren brought to the party.

There are also three lesbians whom Lauren invited to the party in an attempt to match any of them up with Abby. The lesbians don’t have names in the movie, but they have nicknames in the end credits. The lesbians each give brief monologues to the camera explaining their likes and fetishes when it comes to dating.

The first lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed Denim (played by Rhea Butcher), and she likes to wear denim and gives off a Tig Notaro vibe. The second lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed named Palo (played by Scout Durwood), and she’s a neo-hippie who seem likes the type to go to the Burning Man Festival. The third lesbian is nicknamed Civil (played by Brianna Baker), and she’s a left-wing militant feminist.

In addition, comedians Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster make cameo appearances as Fairy Gay Mothers, in a scene where Abby is having a psychedelic hallucination. The Fairy Gay Mothers give Abby some “Wizard of Oz”-inspired advice, since she is recently out of the closet as a queer woman: “All you have to do is tap your wing-tipped Oxfords three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Home Depot.'”

It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which doesn’t have a lot of very funny scenes. By the way, Sykes is shown on the movie poster for “Friendsgiving.” But it’s misleading to think that she’s in the movie as one of the main stars. She’s barely in the film. Sykes, Cho, and Feimster are only in the Fairy Gay Mother scene, which lasts for only about five minutes. Unfortunately, the characters that are annoying in “Friendsgiving” get much more screen time than this hilarious trio.

Seymour, who’s British in real life, has a questionable Swedish accent for her character of Helen, who is one of the worst people in this group of mostly spoiled and obnoxious egomaniacs. When Molly makes it clear to Helen that she’s not interested in getting back together with Gunnar, Helen declares, “If you won’t have him, I will.” And then Helen proceeds to make a fool out of herself in trying to seduce Gunnar.

Molly is actually one of the more tolerable people in this group, but she shows a lot of bad judgment in quickly letting this group take over her household. Some of these guests thoughtfully brought potluck dishes, but others didn’t. And there’s a scene later in the movie that involves the baby and some irresponsible actions that send Molly and some other people into panic mode. It’s one thing for the adults in this story to act dumb, but it’s not that funny to make it a joke that an innocent child’s safety is put at risk because of some the shenanigans at this party.

Because there are so many guests at this dinner, “Friendsgiving” doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development. Therefore, everything in the movie is as superficial as the characters, which is why the movie has nothing to fall back on except more crude jokes and predictable gags. The overwhelming attitude that all the adults have at this Thanksgiving dinner is: “I’m going to do whatever makes me feel good, even if it hurts other people.”

And it’s why there’s an ill-conceived scene in the movie where Lauren and Abby make out with each other (this isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer), and Lauren’s husband Dan finds out and naturally feels hurt by this infidelity. And it’s just so cringeworthy to see Helen try to be sexy with the ex-boyfriend of her daughter. It should come as no surprise later when Helen admits to Molly that her latest marriage is on the rocks, but it’s still no excuse for Helen’s selfish and predatory actions. Someone of Seymour’s talent deserves better than this tacky role, even if she doesn’t exactly master the Swedish accent that she’s supposed to have in the movie.

Dennings has a lot of very good comedic timing, but it’s too bad that a lot of lines she has to deliver make Abby insufferable. Akerman (who is one of the producers of “Friendsgiving”) is solid in her role as Molly, while the supporting actors do an adequate job with their very limited characters. Peretti can bring some chuckles as the spacey-yet-pretentious Claire, but those laughs are few and far in between, since Claire is a one-note character.

A better movie would’ve had less people at this Thanksgiving dinner. For example, the characters of Gus, Rick and Brianne don’t really add anything to the story except stereotypes that aren’t very funny. And speaking of stereotypes that aren’t very funny, here’s an example of some dialogue between the lesbian nicknamed Denim and the lesbian nicknamed Palo. Demin asks Palo, “Do you like basketball?” Palo replies, “I don’t like balls of any kind.” 

You get the idea. If “Friendsgiving” were a meal, then it would be a meal that should be skipped because of all the stale cheese that’s being offered.

Saban Films released “Friendsgiving” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 23, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is October 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Call Your Mother,’ starring David Spade, Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Roy Wood Jr., Norm Macdonald, Kristen Schaal, Bridget Everett and Fortune Feimster

May 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Spade and his mother, Judy Todd, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Jenna Rosher/Comedy Central)

“Call Your Mother”

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Culture Representation: The documentary “Call Your Mother” features a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) group of mostly American comedians talking about how their mothers have affected their lives, with some of the comedians’ mothers also participating in the documentary,.

Culture Clash: Some of the comedians describe having nonconformist or dysfunctional childhoods that are often used as material for their stand-up comedy acts.

Culture Audience: “Call Your Mother” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about the family backgrounds of some well-known comedians.

Louie Anderson with a picture of his mother, Ora Zella Anderson, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Alex Takats/Comedy Central)

If you ask any stand-up comedian who’s the family member most likely to inspire material for their stand-up comedy act, chances are the comedian will answer, “My mother.” With that in mind, the documentary “Call Your Mother” interviews a variety of comedians (and some of their mothers) to talk about how with these mother-child relationships have affected the comedians’ lives. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “Call Your Mother” might not have a deep impact on society, but it accomplishes what it intends to do. The film is a mostly light-hearted, sometimes emotionally moving and occasionally raunchy ride that will give some psychological insight into how and why these comedians ended up where they are now.

“Call Your Mother” includes interviews with a notable list of comedians (almost all of them are American), including Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Jimmy Carr, Bridget Everett, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Judah Friedlander, Jim Gaffigan, Judy Gold, Jen Kirkman, Jo Koy, Bobby Lee, the Lucas Brothers, Norm Macdonald, Jim Norton, Tig Notaro, Yvonne Orji, Kristen Schaal, David Spade and Roy Wood Jr.

In some cases, the mothers of these comedians are interviewed alongside their comedic children: Everett, Feimster, Schaal, Spade and Wood all have wisecracking moments with their mothers, who are also shown in the audiences while their children are on stage, as well as backstage or at home. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Macdonald is also interviewed with his mother.  (For whatever reason, no Latino comedians are in the documentary, which is a shame, because there are many Latino comedians who talk about their mothers in their stand-up acts.)

Bridget Everett’s mother, Freddie Everett, is memorable for being as foul-mouthed and crude as Bridget. (Freddie even gives the middle finger to the camera, but all in good fun.) Bridget Everett says, “My mother is really one of a kind. She’s the person you meet that you never forget. She can be kind of mean, but somehow she gets away with it.”

Bridget continues, “She’s got a real naughty streak in her,” when describing how her mother was the type to wear very revealing outfits in places where it would be inappropriate for a woman’s breasts to be openly displayed. “There’s something really liberating about that in a small, conservative town.”

Like many of the comedians interviewed in this documentary, Bridget Everett is a child of divorce. After her parents’ divorce, her mother Freddie (who raised six kids) would take a pre-teen Bridget with her to stalk her ex-husband, mainly to see if he was dating anyone new or other reasons to spy on his post-divorce love life.

Bridget remembers her mother telling her to look in windows and report what she saw to her mother. These experiences are part of Bridget Everett’s stand-up act.  And just like her mother used to do when she was young, Bridget Everett dresses in cleavage-baring outfits on stage. “My mom pulses through my performance,” she says. “It’s really a tribute to her.”

British comedian Carr says although his mother “was the funny person in the house,” she often suffered from depression. He turned to comedy to help cheer her up. He says of stand-up comedians: “Most of us come from unhappy childhoods.”

Fans of Louie Anderson already know about how he grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving mother, because he’s used his childhood as joke material in his stand-up act for years. In the documentary, Anderson (who’s been doing stand-up comedy since 1978) says that he started out doing self-deprecating fat jokes, but he eventually switched to mostly jokes about his family when he saw that it got a stronger reaction from audiences. He also says that dressing in drag for his Christine Baskets character in the FX comedy series “Baskets” was a tribute to his mother, Ora Zella Anderson.

Anderson believes that there’s a reason why so many stand-up comedians come from dysfunctional, often abusive households: “I think comics are about control. They’re trying to control the whole situation, because we had no control growing up.”

Anderson also echoes what most stand-up comedians said in Comedy Central’s documentary “This Is Stand-Up” about gravitating to stand-up comedy because it was their way of being the center of attention and getting unconditional love from people, even if it’s for the limited time that the comedians are on stage.

Spade is another child of divorce. His father left his mother when he was a child, and he says it had long-lasting effects on him and undying respect for his mother, Judy Todd. “My mom is very positive and upbeat and also very funny and clever.”

Todd is seen visiting the set of her son’s talk show “Lights Out With David Spade” on her 82nd birthday, where the audience shouts “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’s invited on stage with the interview guests. Todd is somewhat “normal,” compared to what other comedians have to say about their mothers. She’s almost downright reserved, since she doesn’t do anything to embarrass her son.

The same can’t be said for what comedians Koy, Lee and Gold have to say about their mothers, whose cringeworthy mothering techniques have been fodder for much of these two comedians’ stand-up comedy acts. Koy, who was raised by his divorced Filipino mother, Josie Harrison, remembers how his outspoken mother would inflict terror on anyone who would dare to criticize him.

Bobby Lee talks about how his Korean immigrant mother, Jeanie Lee, used to call his name to get his attention, just so she could fart in front of him. And when they would go to a shopping mall, she would encourage Lee and his younger brother to play in the shopping-mall fountain, while she would take a nap on the floor in a store. Lee, who is a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, also claims that his mother was fairly good-natured about his multiple trips to rehab, whereas most other mothers would be horrified or ashamed. He describes a moment during a family rehab meeting where his mother got the family to laugh so hard in what was supposed to be a serious gathering, they almost got kicked out of the meeting.

Judy Gold says in the documentary that she had the quintessential nagging, over-protective Jewish mother, Ruth Gold, who liked to leave long, demanding phone messages. Gold’s mother passed away in 2015, but Gold still plays some of her mother’s phone messages in her stand-up comedy act. She also plays some of the phone messages in the documentary and remembers that she did not get much overt affection from her parents when she was growing up.

Gold also says that her parents weren’t the type to hug their children and say, “I love you.” Instead, in her family, people would be rewarded based on whoever did the best to “one-up” the others with a quip. Still, Gold says that toward the end of her mother’s life, she did express her love more openly, and she shares an emotionally touching memory of what happened the last time she spoke with her mother.

One of the issues that the documentary covers is how mothers react when they find out that their children want to be professional comedians. Roy Wood Jr. says it was a very uncomfortable experience for him, since he had dropped out of Florida A&M University after being put on probation for shoplifting. He secretly started doing stand-up comedy in 1999, and when he told his mother, Joyce Dugan Wood, that he wanted to do stand-up comedy full-time, she was very upset.

“She definitely felt my priorities were in the wrong place,” he says. So, in order to please his mother, Roy went back to Florida A&M. And when he graduated, he gave his mother the plaque of the college degree that “I didn’t need” and began pursuing a full-time comedy career. Now that he’s become a successful comedian (including a stint as a correspondent on “The Daily Show”), Wood says of his mother’s approval: “These days, I feel supported.”

When comedian/actress Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum) was 4 years old, her mother died, so when she was growing up, her paternal grandmother was Awkwafina’s main mother figure. While most people in Awkwafina’s family had expectations for her to going into a traditional profession, her paternal grandmother encouraged Awkwafina to pursue her dreams in entertainment.

Although many of these comedians say vulgar things about their families in their stand-up acts, the documentary shows that a lot of stand-up comedians have a soft spot for their mothers and like to hang out with them. Kristen Schaal and her look-alike mother, Pam Schaal, are seen shopping together at a fabric store. Norm Macdonald and his mother, Ferne Macdonald, play Scrabble and golf together. Wood’s mother Joyce accompanies him to a tuxedo fitting.

But not all of these mother-child moments are warm and fuzzy. Some of the comedians, such as Norton and Spade, admit to changing their shows to being less offensive and less raunchy if they know their mothers are going to be in the audience.

Norton says that he’s felt uncomfortable at times when his sex life (which he talks about in his stand-up comedy routine) is a topic of conversation with his mother. Norton remembers how after he did a stand-up show where he talked about his experiences of hiring hookers, he got a call from his mother suggesting that he join a gym to meet new people and improve his dating life. (In the documentary, he even plays the voice mail from 2001 to prove it.)

As for talking about their mothers in their stand-up comedy acts, Koy says that it was hard for him to do at first, but his mother and the rest of his family have gotten used to it. Feinstein says about her mother: “She likes it when I impersonate her. She gets upset if I don’t.”

Fortune Feimster says something similar, in an interview seated next her mother, Ginger Feimster: “She would rather me talk about her and be the center of attention than me not talk about her at all,” Fortune says. “She’s a good sport and she likes the attention.” Ginger Feimster says in response, “That is so true.”

Whether these comedians’ relationships with their mothers have been good or not-so-good, one thing that most people can agree on is a sentiment that Gold expresses in the movie that is a tried and true cliché: “There’s nothing like a mother’s love.” And at the very least, this documentary might inspire people to get in touch with their mothers to express gratitude if their mothering wasn’t a complete disaster.

Comedy Central premiered “Call Your Mother” on May 10, 2020.