Comedian Kelly Bachman has been thinking a lot about Tina Turner. That’s partly because she just finished watching the icon’s devastating documentary on HBO, but it’s also because she’s been grappling with what it means to inadvertently become the symbol for something. Bachman got a taste of what that’s like in late 2019 when she went on stage to perform at an invite-only comedy night in New York City and used the opening minute of her set to call out Harvey Weinstein – the disgraced Hollywood producer who was then facing a litany of sexual assault allegations. (He would go on to be found guilty of sexual assault charges in New York where he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Separate criminal cases in California are still ongoing.)
Bachman was both booed and cheered for confronting the elephant in the room, but it’s what happened next that helped her understand Turner’s story better. She’d write op-eds for The New York Times and Glamour, detailing the incident and opening up about her own experience of being raped. She’d eventually craft a musical comedy show, cheekily titled “Rape Victims Are Horny Too,” that she’d perform a handful of times before Covid shut down clubs in the city. And she’d be approached by Andrea Blaugrund Nevins to star in Hysterical, a new documentary airing on FX April 2nd, that charts the history of women in stand-up and sports an enviable line-up of intimidatingly talented comedians (think Judy Gold, Iliza Schlesinger, Margaret Cho, Sherri Shepherd, and Jessica Kirson just to name a few).
For an artist who’d only started doing standup a handful of years before all this, the viral consequences of a moment of bravery in the basement of a New York comedy club were unexpected … and probably overwhelming. But Bachman’s rise to fame, with its triumphs and challenges that mirror other women featured in the doc, is also an eye-opening case study that shines a light on the best (and worst) parts of the #MeToo movement. We chatted with the comedian about the fallout from Weinstein, the exhaustive nature of joking about rape, and what she thinks of some male comic “allies” who aren’t doing enough.
On a scale of 1-10, how tired are you of being asked about Harvey Weinstein?
With 10 being the most tired? I would say, it was definitely a 10 by November of 2019. But now, I don’t get asked as much. I think, what I am more tired of than being asked about Harvey Weinstein is, when I go on a comedy show, or a comedy podcast and people specifically ask me about my trauma. I’ll go on a podcast that’s supposed to be a fun podcast where the topic is jokes, and sex, and drugs, and whatever podcasts talk about. And then, they’re like, “So, tell us about what happened when you were 17.” And I’m like… “Oh.”
That’s a pivot.
They’re like, “That’s your thing, right? You like to talk about that a lot.” And I’m like, “I don’t know what people expect.” It’s not even going to be funny when I’m asked those questions. I’m not. I get sad, and I’m emotional like a person would be. It’s one thing when I’m performing. I do have a show where I make jokes for an hour about this. But they’re not ready to go. It’s something I have to emotionally prepare for and do in my own time. But when I go on a podcast, the podcast then inherently becomes very not funny. And I feel kind of guilty about that, because I’m like, “Oh, the podcast was really depressing.”
Naturally. Even a comedian who has done that kind of material can’t make sexual assault funny all the time.
Right. I feel bad, because people Google me, and they find all of this stuff where I’m being really sad, and have this traumatized look in my eyes, and I’m like, “I don’t talk like that.” If you pull that out of me, it comes out of me. I look back on a lot of interviews I’ve done and stuff, I just cringe, because I’m like, “I don’t even talk like that.”
Do you feel like you’re the de-facto authority on that stuff when you do interviews like that, just because you’ve been open about your personal experience?
It happens. Not just when I’m interviewed, either. I’ll start a new job, and my coworkers that are not comedians will find out who I am, and they’ll all start asking questions about cancel culture, and what do I think about “X”-named comic. Or if I go on a date, some dates will Google me and find out who I am, and ask what I think about this person’s special. People treat me like I’m a magic eight ball for predators like I’m supposed to tell them what they’re supposed to think about it, and they’ll argue with me. Sometimes I’ll walk into rooms of someone I’m dating, their friends will assume I’m going to police them and call everyone out. That’s my whole deal. It can feel like I have a sign on my head that I represent something to people. For some people, they’ll see me, and I represent the idea of cancel culture or something they want to talk about. For other people, they want to paint me as a hero, or this feminist who’s always going to call things out when I see it. People are just a lot more complicated than that.
It’s almost like, when does being honest about your own experience cross a line into becoming the face of a movement?
I’ve had trouble speaking up for myself in my life. I really have had to work on that a lot. I remember feeling something like imposter syndrome after [Weinstein} happened. I was like, “I haven’t called out any of my own rapists.” People have this idea about me like I’m this fearless person, but the circumstances of that were specific, in that I was calling out someone when he’s already a pariah. Most people in the world agree that they don’t like him. I didn’t really feel like I was going to get destroyed for that. I was really nervous about it. I was nervous, that he still had the power to hurt me. I remember texting people I was working with saying, “Can he still tank the project I’m trying to pitch right now? How does that work?” I really wasn’t sure about that kind of thing. But in the grand scheme of the world, I pretty much knew that the narrative had already shifted [around Weinstein].
But there was still backlash, even for calling out the most-hated figure in Hollywood at the time.
Yeah, at the beginning of 2020, it became such a big part of my life. So many of my interactions with people telling me I should talk about it on stage, or I shouldn’t talk about it on stage, or I’m an opportunist, or I need to keep going and carry the torch, or whatever. I really hid from comedy. I really didn’t feel okay around people in general at the beginning of the year. And then, of course, quarantine hit, and I’m like, “Okay, I take it back. I’m okay. I’ll go outside, I’ll do anything.”
The doc really explores the history of women in comedy but you’re fairly new to the scene. Knowing your experience, and what women before you went through, are things better now?
Overall, things are improving. My part of the story in the documentary, I think it brings attention to [the fact] that there are always rooms where things haven’t changed. Even if things have changed overall, you can always find a room where people are going to say the things that the documentary is talking about. You’ll find the room where people are telling you to shut up when you get off stage, or making jokes about you being a woman. There are some rooms where every lineup is still all men except for the one woman, where the lineups are all white people. Some parts of comedy are making more of an effort to change and be inclusive, and some people are the old guard that is not letting go.
Is it tough, to see those male comedians who were your heroes growing up, plant themselves on the opposite side in some of these conversations about “cancel culture” and sexism and racism…
You don’t want to be the person who sh*ts on other comics.
Like “Oh, that person, they said the wrong thing, but I would never.” It’s like, “Yes, I would. I will. I will f*ck up.” I think that’s one of the things that scares me about the narrative that’s been written for me. It puts me up on a pedestal, and I didn’t ask to be up there. If you put yourself up there, then you’re more likely to fall down. But what I will say is that I remember when the #MeToo movement was really busting wide open with the accusations around Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, and a bunch of others. I remember I was really waiting for some of my heroes to say something. I thought, “They’re going to tell them.” I was like, “You know who we need? We need ‘X’ comedian to come back and say something. That’s going to be awesome.” And then, those comedians would say something, and it would be really disappointing. It was actually was very motivating for me because these are people who are hilarious, who are making these hilarious takes that I don’t agree with at all. They’re making really comedically sound takes that are hurtful to me personally. So, my thought to that was like, “I don’t want to tell this person to stop saying that,” but it made me realize I need to be my own champion.
I think that’s probably one of the better lessons to take from all this — certainly to take from the doc.
Right? I think Dave Chapelle said during his Mark Twain acceptance speech that “Everyone has a champion in the room” when it comes to comedy. I think I realized, I need to stop waiting for someone to be the voice that represents me, and just represent myself.
Hysterical airs on FX on April 2nd at 9 p.m. ET.