Hannah Gadsby is tired. Hannah Gadsby is tense. Hannah Gadsby is going to quit comedy.
The Australian stand-up is a long-time favourite comedian in her home country as well as an Edinburgh Fringe regular, but she’s never reached the glorious A-List heights of British comedy panel shows, T.V. series and viral Twitter arguments. Fans may recognize her from appearances on the series Please Like Me, where she’s genial, self-deprecating, and kind of adorable. Those familiar with her stand-up will feel that comfort in most of the first half of Nanette, now available to watch on Netflix. The rest will be new, but no less a revelation.
Nanette, Gadsby tells us, was the title she picked for the show before she started writing it because she met a woman named Nanette and thought she’d be interesting enough to tell jokes on. This thread is dropped almost immediately, and Gadsby dives into her childhood in Tasmania, her coming out as gay, and her prickly journey to finding a place for herself in the world from the perspective of its margins. The jokes are strong and delivered with her trademark self-deprecation. But therein lies Gadsby’s problem.
She’s sick of self-deprecation. She’s tired of creating bite-sized jokes out of the difficulties in her life. She can’t do it anymore, and that’s why she has to quit comedy.
Nanette is a show defined by tension, which Gadsby explains is the core of comedy. In order to elicit a joke from the crowd, one must first build up that tension to create a satisfying release. This has forced Gadsby to reduce the complexities in her life into manageable chunks that don’t make her audience too uncomfortable, regardless of the personal cost. The story she had to tell of her childhood, her internalized homophobia, her trauma with sexual assault, none of it can actually be told if it’s reduced to set-up versus punchline.
This is not an easy show to sit through. At times, it’s emotionally brutal, and that’s the point. It’s still incredibly funny, with an extended part on art history and its habit of romanticizing the worst in humanity providing satisfying laughs as well as deep-seated catharsis. But laughter has a limit, and Gadsby can’t stress that enough. Laughter is aimed at the wrong targets, and offence is more concerned with defending the people who need it least. A moment in defence of Monica Lewinsky makes for one of the hour’s most stirring moments, and a reminder that comedy often fails. Comedians are taught that everything is about the joke in stand-up. Sacrifice everything to get that laugh. No holds barred, everything on the table. Gadsby knows that’s seldom truly the case, especially if you’re not a straight white man.
There aren’t many laughs in the final fifteen minutes of Nanette. Actually, I cried more than laughed during that period. Gadbsy is angry and she delivers a fierce and magnetic display of oratory to let everyone know why that anger has been allowed to fester deep inside her for so long. She doesn’t want to put targets on anyone’s back, but the root of her trauma is in a system that protects straight white men and their reputations above all else, so she must indulge in a little persecution at the so-called default group of society. For her audience, this anger is refreshing, it is awkward, and it is a comfort because we live in angry times. Nanette has been called a show for the #MeToo age, but as her startlingly good section on art history proves, this is a show for all ages of time. As a butch gay woman, Gadsby doesn’t have much power in the world itself, but on that stage, she is in command and her attempts to reconcile those contradictions prove equally revealing as they are funny.
All of my words make Nanette seem like a joyless slog, or an aimless polemic. It’s neither of those things. Gadsby doesn’t like anger and finds nothing constructive in it, although her audiences may disagree. This is a comedy special by a woman in masterful control of her abilities. The audience does exactly what she wants at each moment, whether it’s a jovial laugh or an agonizingly long silent pause. For once, she wants those straight white men who feel so persecuted by nothing to feel what she does, if only for an hour. After 40 odd minutes in which she has encouraged us to laugh along with her at tough moments in her life - growing up in the most conservative region of Tasmania, coming out to her mother, being threatened with homophobic violence by an angry man - Gadsby turns the tables and asks why the hell she had to make that stuff funny in the first place. She fills in the gaps in those stories she told to giddy laughter and applause and reveals the true pain.
I’ve seen Nanette compared to some striking stand-up specials, including Tig Notaro’s set on her cancer diagnosis and Patton Oswalt’s recent Netflix show, Annihilation. Each were game changers in their own way and this has that exact potential.
I truly hope Hannah Gadsby doesn’t quit comedy. The obvious irony of Nanette is that her finale has given her that push into mainstream attention and near-universal critical adoration. Leaving the business may not be in the cards for some time. The problem is that she makes a really convincing case in favour of doing so.
Nanette is now available to stream on Netflix. I heartily encourage you to do so.
(Header image courtesy of Netflix)