How Hannah Gadsby changed comedy forever

When Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Special, Nanette, debuted in June of 2018, her unique, confessional, and deeply personal brand of comedy took audiences on a journey through what it means to be a lesbian in a profession – and, frankly – in a world dominated by straight white men.

You joked last year in your Netflix special Nanette that “No one in this room is leaving the room a better person.” And I remember when I watched for the first time, it changed me and I’ve cried every single time I’ve watched it since. I’m a fairly cis-gendered white gay man and having somebody who’s candid about their experience means the world. You mix being a comedian and a raconteur. It’s more than getting a laugh, it’s finding pathos. How would you define your brand of comedy?

GADSBY: What I think I was driving at in writing Nanette was that the sad clown is this idea that we have, that it’s just how it should be. And I kind of wanted to reject that, you know, I felt like that just meant I had to stay stuck in a certain kind of trauma in order to have the voice that I did. And looking around the gay community, I did see that space between pride and shame. You know, being in the closet and out of the closet, and nobody really talked, or I hadn’t really felt connected to any story where people go, “You know, the shame sticks.” The shame sticks and we have to pretend it doesn’t, even to each other. Because if we don’t look proud the world will attack.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette | Official Trailer [HD] |

It was kind of a very vulnerable space that I felt like I was opening up. You know, sort of in no man’s land, so to speak, because I didn’t want to alienate people. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that self-deprecation has no place. I think I could not have gotten where I was without the armor that I built with using self-deprecation. And I certainly couldn’t have found an audience with the people who would have preferred to be hostile with me if I didn’t have the armor of self-deprecation.

But, I think there is an evolution point that I think I want to push. And I’m just delighted that it resonated with such a large part of the queer community. To be part of the community is really important.

I know growing up as an overweight kid, who, if I’m going to be pigeonholed as anything, I’m a bear… I have always been the big guy who had to turn to that self-deprecating humor to find a place to fit in to make other people comfortable. So I understand that intimately.

GADSBY: I think it’s a point of power to be able to do that. When you get to a certain level of maturity, that practice of caring how other people feel, even though it’s at your own expense. I prefer to know how to care what and how other people feel. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, but also, the body image stuff. I don’t mention it directly in Nanette, but when I say that I no longer want to do self-deprecating, it has every bit as much to do with my body image as it does with my gender and sexuality. Because that is the point where people will sort of move to silence me. You know, it’s like, “Well, you don’t get to have a voice. You’re fat and ugly.” Which is a weird idea.

From your descriptions of where you grew up, it sounds like Tasmania is a lot like Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Western Pennsylvania is the rust belt, it’s “God and guns” country. Does that still identify and inform your life and work? Or is it sort of trying to exorcise that and move past it?

GADSBY: It does, but I think what I really want to do is humanize those people that I grew up believing were my enemies. Because they’re not. They’re as much victims of the toxic politics that play out over our heads. You know, I honestly think that if we want to change the conversation, we do need to appeal to the better part of people. I grew up when these debates were had among people who had to live with each other. And as painful as it was, it’s more human than the debate now. People don’t have to live with the people they disagree with. And I think that makes it even more dangerous, because people don’t get to see the effects of their behavior.

In the midst of Nanette, you questioned very directly a few times whether you needed to quit comedy. What factors helped you decide to carry on and create this new tour, Douglas?

GADSBY: Well, there’s two parts to that. The first is that quitting comedy in the show was a theatrical conceit. Basically, in the running of the show, I knew that people would disqualify what I had to say by way of how I was saying it. So my theory was, if I quit comedy, then they can’t say, “Well, this is not comedy.” It’s like, “Yeah, dude, I quit.” Making a critic redundant before they had a chance to even be relevant.

But as I toured the show – it’s kind of a tough tour, as you might imagine, doing that material over and over again – I believed it when I said it, because it’s like, yeah, I can’t keep doing it.

But it’s also the only thing I can do. I don’t have a strong resume, a strong CV, as they say, but I have quit doing comedy in the sense that what I do, you know, the punch line isn’t King. I refused to bend the knee for that one. And so what I’m doing now is sort of really mucking about with the with the form. I think comedy could be so much more than just set up, punch line, set up, punch line.

One of my favorite lines that comes out of Nanette is, “I cook dinner way more than I ‘Lesbian’. But no one introduces me as the ‘chef’ comedian.” That one kills me.

GADSBY: It’s true. I think you get to a certain age when you just go, “I don’t think my sexuality really should be front and center of my identity.”

Do you feel like you get pigeonholed as that, or as a female comedian in general?

GADSBY: Yeah, look, I think it’s a shame what we do with identity politics. I honestly think identity should be something people get to explore and have fun with when they’re younger and when you’re older, just get on with it. I think writing that show was like, I just want to get on with it. You know, I just want to do good stuff in the world without having to explain myself. Can I just be? And you can’t.

Absolutely. This world wants to, as you talk about, put a pink or blue color on a child as soon as they’re born, and enforce all these rules and regulations. It’s interesting watching the shift over time towards trying to find that neutral space to allow a child not to be the football player, the cheerleader, or any of those very typical American tropes.

GADSBY: Yeah, I mean, the next few generations seem to be all over it. I think they have a much more flexible idea of gender, but they’re not the ones writing the laws at this point. So, I think we’re still in a kind of dangerous place. And I think it’s important that older people step up and try and make it easier for the next generation. I feel like it’s the responsibility of people to not give a care about themselves, once they’ve reached a certain age, and just think more about what’s the focus for the future.

In a similar vein, I don’t know what the timeline was in relation to the Nanette tour, but you were diagnosed with ADHD and autism. Being able to talk about that in your work now, has that changed your perspective on your own life and what you want your work to be?

GADSBY: The diagnosis process, or, as I like to call it confirmation, which gives it less pathology, that has been quite a long process and predated Nanette. But talking about it publicly is something I feel like I can do now. It’s part of that I’m less vulnerable than I was. I wanted people to listen to what I had to say with Nanette without going, “Yeah, but you’re a bit special needs, aren’t you?”

I think just like gender, just like sexuality, I think neurodiversity is something that is a positive for our population. I believe that people who think differently should be seen not as a burden, or, people – particularly children – who fail to hit these markers of what growing up means. You know, you learn something by a certain stage, if you don’t, then you’re behind. I’m quite passionate about sort of breaking that open and widening our understanding of what developmental progress means. That people have a different perspective and valuable perspective, not the wrong perspective.

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas | Official Trailer |

If there’s one thing that I can honestly tell you I admired most in Nanette it was when when you circled back at the end to correct the joke, and correct the record on what happened with the man who beat you. And on the history of the assaults you endured. That’s drawing a real line in the sand and saying, “You know, we all got to chuckle about this earlier. But here’s what really happened now that now that you’ve spent an hour getting to know me.” But beyond that, Nanette ends with a message about taking care of each other, reaching out and really looking after our brothers, sisters, and non-binary friends, too. Is there an overarching message to Douglas?

GADSBY: Yeah, there is, but like Nanette there’s several competing messages. It is about challenging our habits of thought in a lot of ways. I am really tackling this common idea that difference should be ranked and looking at ableism more directly. Douglas is still evolving, which is exciting. And you know, this tour that I’m doing, it won’t be the show that lands on Netflix. It’s my favorite thing to do is share my mind, with audiences, and then the show grows from that.

And there is a beauty to that organicism, that it can grow and change and develop as, as you learn from the audience and the audience learns from you.

GADSBY: Yeah, I think comedy, it really is a conversation. A bit one-sided, but it is a conversation.


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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