Golden Globe nominated screenwriter and playwright Susan Sandler makes her feature documentary directorial debut with Julia Scotti: Funny That Way—available to watch online until March 21st as part of this year’s virtual Athena Film Festival at Barnard College—a tender and heartwarming portrait of the charismatic trans comedian.
If you watch America’s Got Talent you’ll likely already be familiar with Julia Scotti who was a quarter-finalist on season 11 in 2016 thanks to her hilarious and pretty dark stand-up set, which even got Simon Cowell laughing. After several marriages, and having sustained a decades-long comedy career on television and touring the country as Rick Scotti, in her late forties Julia came to the realization that she was trans and began her transition at the age of fifty.
With footage of Julia’s on stage routines today, often contrasted with her past stand-up sets as Rick, the film offers a real insight into the evolution of her comedy, as well as the work that goes into building her jokes, and the challenge of revealing oneself to an audience. “If it’s your truth it’s going to be tough to talk about, that’s what makes stand-up hard”, says Scotti, for her it’s about opening “your soul so that everyone can see it”. Laughter is a powerful way to disarm, breakdown barriers, and potentially make people question their own prejudices, so it’s heartening to see the warm reception that Julia receives as she tours mainstream comedy venues, often in conservative regions, on her I’m Not Dead Yet tour following her heart surgery, managing to find humour in her own now heightened sense of mortality.
At the heart of the film is Julia’s relationship with her son, whom she had been estranged from for many years after she left his mother. Now a writer and up-and-coming comedian himself, we see Julia watching video tapes of her old performances giving him insights into creating jokes that will land, and discussing some jokes that got big laughs despite the fact that she didn’t enjoy performing them. It is uncomfortable for Julia to revisit some of her material as Rick which was homophobic, and she is surprised to come across a transphobic joke that she didn’t remember making. Looking back, she now sees this as her working through what she was feeling at the time but couldn’t yet put her finger on as she was discovering her identity. There’s a particularly touching moment where Julia is speaking at a PFLAG meeting and is joined on stage by her son who tells her that while he listening to her talk he saw her as his mother for the first time, which proves to be a moving moment of acceptance for Julia.
Several sequences are brilliantly rendered in animation by Sam Roth, including Julia detailing being repeatedly misgendered by a doctor when she was rushed into hospital for a quadruple heart bypass surgery and her gently confronting him about it.
As someone who transitioned later in life, Julia is dealing with a certain amount of regret for the decades that she feels she lost, but she’s keen to convey the powerful dual messages of not waiting too long to discover your truth, and that it’s never too late to become who you were always meant to be. Along with the archive footage and photographs, there’s a fly-on-the-wall intimacy to scenes of Julia at home, reuniting with her comedy peers, driving cross-country, and even in her hospital bed, giving us a well-rounded sense of the woman both on stage and off.
An uplifting, frequently funny, and sometimes poignant watch.
By James Kleinmann
Julia Scotti: Funny That Way is currently available to watch online as part of the 2021 Athena Film Festival at Barnard College until March 21st. Join director Susan Sandler and Julia Scotti for a live Q&A at 7pm on March 17th.