Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette" and the case for quitting comedy

Gadsby's Netflix special explains how jokes have prevented us from sharing the stories that maintain our humanity

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 3, 2018 2:00PM (EDT)

"Hannah Gadsby: Nanette" (Netflix)
"Hannah Gadsby: Nanette" (Netflix)

Before Hannah Gadsby takes the stage in her Netflix stand-up special “Nanette,” the viewer is treated to a glimpse of the Australian comic entering her modest home. Gadsby’s friendly dogs Douglas and Jasper happily greet her, but they don’t bark loudly or behave wildly in any way. Like her, they are subdued creatures of comfort, sitting patiently as she makes tea for herself on a humble stove.

Most comedy specials open with a sketch featuring the headliner in some kind of a raucous setting — strutting down a street of the city where the special is filmed, partying with his circle of friends in a club, engaging in scripted clever repartee in the green room.

These filmed intros are meant to whet the audience’s appetite, giving us a taste of the freewheeling hour or so that lies ahead. Not so here. In fact, not long after “Nanette” begins, she references that opener by describing herself as a quiet gay person, one not given to letting it all hang out at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras because, among other things, she finds the rainbow pride flag to be "mm, a bit busy.”

To her, she says, the experience of being gay is captured in the delicate “plink” of a porcelain cup meeting its place in a saucer. ("It's very, very difficult to flaunt that lifestyle in a parade!" she quips.)

I’m going to assume that if you’ve made it this far into this article, you’ve seen “Nanette.” If not, don’t ruin the surprises of it by continuing to read this. Come back after you’ve watched it. Twice. At least.

You’ll need to watch “Nanette” more than once, by the way, but not for the usual reasons comedy fans put their favorite specials on repeat. Instead, what Gadsby does in this unassuming sneak attack is disassembly of the artistry and trick of comedy itself.

That genteel opener serves a role beyond a mere visual call-back to a bit. Watching Gadsby placing a teapot and teacup on the sparkling porcelain tiles of her kitchen counter is our invitation to join her in her space.

She wants us to be surrounded by comfort and warmth so that we feel the acute discomfort and pain of the slights and abuse she and people like her have absorbed over a lifetime, and with absolute, searing clarity. My story is your story, she tells her audience at the Sydney Opera House. The roles we play within that story, however, can be very different. None of those roles constitute parts of a joke; that much she makes clear. And one of the many illuminating purposes of “Nanette” is — its main purpose, I’d say — is to establish the difference between stories and jokes and make the case that each of us needs to value the former much more than we prize the latter if we are to make it through the current mess the world finds itself in.

Gadsby’s routine has accurately been characterized as a specific distillation of the #MeToo movement. Certainly it serves that purpose, although, as is true of many such scripted works, she began honing it onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (She’s since updated it to refer to our recent string of celebrity public enemies, specifically Harvey Weinstein.)

But it’s also a surgical disassembly of the notion that comedy is the cure for all that ails us. “Let me explain to you what a joke is,” she says. “A joke . . . needs two things to work: a set-up and punchline. And it is essentially a question with a surprise answer.”

But, she adds, in the context of “Nanette,” “what a joke is, is a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension . . . I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh and you say, ‘thanks for that. I was feeling a bit tense!’

“I made you tense,” she concludes. “This is an abusive relationship.”

Ha ha. Yes it is.

The necessity of this slap, however, rests in the differentiation between recognizing what a joke is, which is, it has a beginning and a middle, and defining story, which has a beginning, middle and end.

A joke requires tension, she says. Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.

“I’d been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a children [sic],” Gadsby admits in a moment of revelation. “But back then it wasn’t a job, it wasn’t even a hobby, it was a survival tactic. I didn’t have to invent the tension, I was the tension."

So if we’re needing comedy right now, if we need a good laugh, is there any reason to wonder why? The world is absolutely drowning in tension.

Gadsby doesn’t say this specifically. Instead, she passes on this revelation through a personal lens. Comedy, she says, has suspended her in a perpetual state of adolescence. Hence the ongoing refrain within her comedy special that she needs to quit comedy.

“Nanette” has been described as an anti-comedy, with many likening its boundary-shattering import to Tig Notaro’s famous 2012 stand-up show at Largo, where she greeted the audience with “Hello! Good evening, hello! I have cancer! How are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you?”

You should listen to that one, too, as a point of reference in these conversations about Gadsby and because it’s incredibly good. But even though that set felt personal, like Notaro’s way of publicly processing horror and humankind’s general inability to deal with it, it also proves Gadsby’s point.

Listen to the audience in that set: People kept laughing at Notaro for a time, until they didn’t feel comfortable laughing, until they didn’t know what to do. Soon she assures the audience it’s OK to laugh as she walks them through the horror of finding lumps in both breasts. She keeps returning her attention to a man in the audience who is apparently unsure as to whether he should be laughing or crying. “It’s OK!” she keeps saying. “It’s going to be OK. It might not be OK. But I’m just saying, it’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I don’t know what’s going on with me.”

Notaro’s response to being bombarded by one tragedy after another — losing her mother, nearly dying of a gastrointestinal illness, then being diagnosed with cancer, all within a short time span — is to talk it out. With jokes! She tells this terrifying part of it, but injects punchlines in all the right spaces. And this gives the audience permission to let its guard down.

“Nanette” delivers no such comfort to the viewer. Not in the least. “Nanette” wants the audience to be uncomfortable as a matter of purpose, because Gadsby’s point is that we’ve all been hiding the truth of suffering in comedy at the expense of learning from one another’s stories.

And Gadsby herself is a masterful storyteller here as well as an expert comedic technician. She doesn’t walk the stage or engage in physical antics, barely moving from behind the mic stand for the entirely of the special. She jokes about frightening, soul-crushing life experiences in a genteel sing-songy voice, smiling a practiced smile that is at once devoid of malice and somewhat flat. As she tosses off one-liners in response to ignorance and sheer malice directed at her, she raises her eyebrows wryly, her eyes playfully sparkling behind her dark-rimmed glasses. Together with that polite smile, it’s all very disarming.

We get 40 minutes of this before “Nanette” transforms from a stand-up that incorporates personal history, bits about spending a lifetime contending with homophobia, and jokes about misogyny and our our indoctrinated validation of the male gaze via our relationship with art and its mentally ill heroes, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, into a passionate, fiery indictment of the same. The entire special is about an hour and 10 minutes, so it does fulfill its comedic promise for well over half of its running time.

The second half jabs at our sense of decency and compassion to such a degree that it’s not unusual to be reduced to tears. Feeling the need to watch “Nanette” a second time isn’t merely a matter of having a better understanding of Gadsby’s brilliance in creating this special, it’s because the crying may have interrupted your ability to fully absorb it. Because Gadsby vents, then erupts, and in doing so she’s giving everyone watching her permission to uncork the discomfort they’ve been bottling up all their lives.

Despite how that may read, Gadsby’s intent isn’t to get our sympathy. It is to dismantle our addiction to using comedy as an escape from the pain we’d rather not to face. The problem is that pushing down that pain is part of the reason we’re finding ourselves in our current political and social fix.

Comedy is a shelter, especially in this time, and Netflix certainly know this or else it would not be putting so much of its resources into promoting stand-up specials by the likes of Ali Wong, John Mulaney, Hasan Minhaj and Hari Kondabolu as well as A-listers like Patton Oswalt, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. Stand-up is a simple, single-serving way to turn off from the endless caravan of bad news, even when a routine veers into political territory.

Gadsby, however, makes the point that comedy keeps us from telling our stories, stories that others need to hear in order to find our courage, to know we’re not alone and to make some goddamn progress.

Comedy’s long been co-opted as a weapon and a tool to dehumanize, of course. Gadsby make the point that by engaging in the long-established comedic art of self-deprecation, we’re also co-signing onto our own humiliation. When you have a fame-starved right-wing media personality braying that he can’t wait for vigilantes to gun down journalists in the streets, that was fine! He was only joking. And he let us know that after five people were murdered at a newspaper in Maryland.

Right now, "performance artist" Alex Jones is seeing how many people are in on his joke that liberals plan to launch a new civil war on Independence Day. We think it’s a joke. Surely he’ll let us know if one of his fans takes him seriously and hurts someone.

None of these thing constitute a laughing matter, mind you. They’re not even examples of artfully creating tension. They’re examples of sociopathic grinning at a crisis garden one has spent years sowing and tending and fertilizing with toxic bullshit.

To say jokes became more mean-spirited in recent times implies that they were kinder at some point in the past. They weren't.

Two decades ago, when a famous conservative talk show host — an adult, legally if not mentally (joke!) — referred to the young daughter of a sitting president as a dog, the outraged were told not to get our panties in a bunch. Because he too was only joking.

This happened only a few years prior to 1997 when, in Tasmania, where Gadsby grew up, “The wisdom of the day was that if you chose to be gay, then you should just get yourself a one-way ticket to the mainland, and don’t come back. Gays, why don’t you just pack your AIDS up into a suitcase there, and fuck off to Mardi Gras!” This was delivered as a joke and got quite a few laughs.

Gadsby’s point is that in figuring out ways to laugh off these slights and through tragedy — after a time, that’s the magic equation, right? — we’ve enabled these weeds to spread. And we’ve wandered as far away from the definition of comedy as you can get.

Gadsby lures the audience in at the beginning with a dark joke about her encounter with a homophobic bigot at the beginning, a version we can laugh at because although it was uncomfortable, everything turns out fine. . . or so we think.

She returns to the bit near the ending of “Nanette,” when we’re all wallowing in a swamp of discomfort, and lets us know that the joke is actually a story, that she only escorted us to the middle section. The story’s actual outcome is miserable: Gadsby doesn’t turn out fine. In fact, she is assaulted and she doesn’t take herself to the hospital because something inside her tells herself she isn’t worth it.

“This is bigger than homosexuality,” Gadsby tells us. “This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.”

The lesson of "Nanette," one pressed into our hearts by this performer previously unknown to most Americans, is that tension isolates us. But while laughter connects people, so does anger. In baring that truth, in telling her story, Gadsby stands to create a revolution based in reason, in being honest about ourselves and reaching for calm. She may indeed make good on her promise to quit comedy. But one hopes she dedicates herself to continuing a conversation she began with an invitation to tea and that she keeps insisting that we be unafraid to spill ours, with gentle purpose, every so often.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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