I remember watching America’s Got Talent and seeing Julia Scotti’s first set. She had the judges–including veteran comic Howie Mandel–eating out of the palm of her hand as she told jokes about aging before revealing to the audience that she is transgender. When you perform with such honesty and heart, you can make everyone laugh because they connect with you. Susan Sandler’s new documentary, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, gives the comic the chance to explore her own history and share it with us.
Scotti is very open about her past and her previous marriages. Her transition was hard on her two children, and they didn’t speak for almost 15 years. Her presence on stage is quick and fiery, but there is a reserved quietness to her as she reminisces about trying to make it as a comedian before her transition. Scotti invites us to watch home movies of herself as if we were a guest in her living room.
Her success on NBC’s AGT is only one chapter of her life–something we don’t always see when a season of reality competition wraps up. Scotti can make jokes about the North Carolina bathroom bill in the middle of a set and brings the audience into her own struggles. Her innate ability to make you smile comes with her ease of storytelling.
Sandler captures so many of Scotti’s reactions to her own work and it reminds us that comedians always can learn from themselves and their past experiences. In one scene, Scotti is watching a home video of herself on stage before she transitioned, and she goes on a homophobic and transphobic tirade against guest on The Geraldo Rivera Show. She is shocked at how her own silent struggle manifested itself on stage, but the way that people laugh at what’s being said is all the more disturbing.
Above all else, Sandler’s film celebrates an artist who continues to hone her craft at an age when most are slowing down. Scotti has had her own battles with her health, but she continues to get up on stage and destroy her audience’s expectations. Humor can be a weapon, and you don’t want to mess with Julia Scotti. Give her a sitcom. Give her an animated show. Give her anything she wants.
Julia Scotti: Funny That Way debuts on streaming platforms on June 1.