Dissecting the Disorienting Brilliance of Hannah Gadsby

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Hannah Gadsby’s breakthrough comedy special on Netflix, Nanette, was greeted as a format-redefining moment when it debuted in 2018. And yet it sneaks up on viewers slowly, resembling so many other comedy specials for its first quarter-hour or so, with Gadsby telling humorous stories about growing up in Tasmania as a queer person. Then it shifts. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins?” they say. “It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.”

Gadsby begins to retell stories not from the funny ha-ha perspective, but from the real and raw perspective, about trauma and assault. As they do so, the audience waits for a punchline, a signal that it’s okay to laugh, to ease the tension. Gadsby never delivers it. Instead, they say they’re quitting comedy, in that very moment. They know that as a comedian, it’s their job to be funny, but they don’t want to do it anymore. “I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humor,” they say. “I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore—not to myself, or anybody who identifies with me.”

Their confessional oratory essay, wrenching at times, served as a corrective to an ongoing discourse surrounding the question of whether political correctness was killing comedy. (Jerry SeinfeldJohn Cleese, and Chris Rock are among those who have argued such.) “Comedians are too sensitive,” Gadsby told NPR. “If something as benign as political correctness can kill comedy, then comedy’s already dead.” Nanette also suggested a way forward for comedy in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which not only felled comedic giants such as Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby, but also highlighted the need for women’s voices to be taken seriously, and even, and perhaps especially, in the realm of humor. As Moira Donegan wrote in The New Yorker: “You could consider the #MeToo moment itself as a kind of callback, a collective return to stories that women have been telling one way—to others, to themselves—with a new, emboldened understanding that those past tellings had been inadequate. Like Gadsby, many women have excluded or elided the difficult parts of their stories for the sake of a punch line, the sake of not upsetting the status quo, or the sake of the comfort of their listeners.”

Since Nanette, Gadsby has released two more well-reviewed specials on Netflix, Douglas and Something Special. And, yes, these were comedy specials, so Gadsby didn’t take their own quitting too seriously. (Keep in mind that they also “quit comedy” every time they performed Nanette around the world, notching more than 250 performances besides the Netflix recorded version.) Gadsby is back on the streamer again this week with Gender Agenda, a lineup of genderqueer comedians curated and hosted by Gadsby.

While Gadsby clearly still believes in the power and worth of comedy, the Peabody-winning Nanette stands as a gold standard in upending the status quo—the kind of trick you can’t do twice, and that no one can copy. Here are the masterful moments that make it possible (spoilers ahead):

Deciding to Call It ‘Comedy’

Gadsby’s first genius move happens off camera: the choice to call Nanette a standup comedy show, and present it as such. Call it anything else, and it doesn’t play as searing critique. It just plays as critique, and is unlikely to reach the audience Gadsby most wanted to reach—comedy fans. “I was quite exhausted of this generating new material year after year after year,” Gadsby told Rolling Stone. “But I knew that the show that I was looking to write would be dismissed critically as being just a one-woman show—because I’ve seen it happen before. And then I thought, well, that’s a bad idea, to just jump down on it like that. I mean, nobody ever accuses men of doing one-man shows. They just do them.”

Setting Up Identity as Its Main Theme

“I reckon I’ve been slacking off in recent years with my lesbian content,” she says, telling a cute, classically standup story about how she “forgot” to come out to her grandma. This approach reinforces the decision to call the routine “comedy,” foregrounds sexual and gender identity as the site for the kinds of jokes Gadsby is expected to do, and creates a safe cocoon of expectation for what is to come. As a bonus, Gadsby’s melodic voice is an absolute dream to listen to, and their unique delivery puts them in league with the greats.

‘Quitting Comedy’ 17 Minutes In

After establishing that comfortable rhythm, Gadsby does what turns out to be a transitional bit, telling a joke about how lesbians don’t laugh at jokes, then deconstructing it. Gadsby then pivots, growing serious and announcing they’re quitting comedy. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak.”

Telling Emotional Stories of Hate and Assault

No jokes here, no momentary relief via laughter. Gadsby tells these stories with palpable vulnerability, and the result is mesmerizing and moving specifically because of the groundwork laid earlier in the special. We wouldn’t listen the same way if this had been billed as a “one-person show,” or a screed on hate crimes. The point becomes clear: Marginalized groups don’t have a duty to make you feel better by making fun of themselves. The more we become aware of those groups’ struggles, the less fun it is to joke about.

Reacting to the Discourse and the Backlash

The discussion is the point. Gadsby was hailed as “a major new voice in comedy,” and Nanette as a “transformative” work that “rewrites the history of art,” moving The New York Times to simply publish a roundup of the think pieces it inspired.  Film School Rejects, meanwhile, covered, and rebutted, the backlash from people complaining that Nanette wasn’t funny enough to be labeled comedy. Gadsby addressed the controversy in her follow-up, Douglas: “I wanted that show to have an audience, and a broad audience, and if that meant I had to trick people by calling it ‘comedy,’ that’s technically a joke.”

Admitting That ‘Quitting Comedy’ Was a ‘Lie’

Though Gadsby maintained for a while after Nanette hit Netflix that they may really quit, eventually, they embraced their dizzying success—and came clean on Australian television that they were not, in fact, hanging up their microphone for good. After Nanette caused such an uproar, this final denouement became a necessary part of the act, letting us know that we hadn’t heard the last of Gadsby’s essential comedic voice.

Hannah Gadsby’s Peabody Acceptance for ‘Nanette’

Nanette came from such a deep, dark, and painful place. I’m astounded and lost for words, apparently, that it’s found resonance for such a broad, global audience.”

Where to Watch: PeabodyAwards.com

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