I find myself still living in the shadow of Nanette, the earth-shatteringly good stand-up special by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. The Netflix special premiered to rapturous acclaim and seems well on its way to becoming a stone-cold classic of the medium. It’s no hyperbole to say that Nanette is a complete game-changer for stand-up, thanks to Gadsby’s skillful twisting of audience expectations, interrogation of comedy’s power, and righteous fury at its damage. Yet, amidst all that, there remains an incredible funny show, one with jokes I’m still thinking about weeks after watching it.
I don’t watch as much stand-up as I used to. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I devoured comedy like it was going out of style. I moved from improv and my full-on fangirl obsession with Whose Line is it Anyway? and British panel shows to spending my savings on every stand-up show I could see at the Edinburgh Festival. There’s a fascinating intimacy to seeing stand-up in those small venues, bar stools cramped together for seating and bereft of air conditioning. If you see a great act in a 30 seat room, it’s like being let in on an amazing secret, and gossip of the hot finds of the festival would spread like wildfire.
Nowadays, Netflix reign supreme as stand-up content providers, and I find myself sticking random specials on in the background while I work or crochet. Stand-up has never been more accessible but, as with all things Netflix, the worry is that the true gems will be drowned out by the sheer quantity of shows available at the click of a button. Nanette wasn’t especially heavily promoted by Netflix, especially when compared to their major exclusives like Dave Chappelle. The hope is that organic hype will appear, and such shows will find their audiences organically, but it’s seldom that easy.
I’ve been thinking so much about Nanette because it made me consider why I loved comedy so much in my late teens and early 20s. I always laughed hard at self-deprecation, partly because I found it relatable and an easy way to get ahead of the curve of whatever bullshit someone was going to say about me. I never truly considered what I was reinforcing everytime I and dozens of others sat in a darkened room and guffawed at a woman making nasty remarks about her own appearance or a person of colour cracking jokes about their immigrant parents’ accents. Nanette has faced the expected backlash from the expected crowds for apparently being too much of a polemic - something straight white dudes do all the time in comedy to great acclaim - and her refusal to make everything a punchline has inspired much ire. Never mind that being the whole point of the show: It broke the cardinal comedy rule that everything can and must be fair game. Hannah Gadsby didn’t just subvert the typical comedy expectations: She forced audiences to consider that maybe those expectations are kind of shit.
There’s a moment in Bo Burnham’s what. that reminds me a lot of Nanette. When a female member of the audience cheers for Burnham, he responds in his typical heightened manner of self-loathing by pointing out that she likes the idea of Burnham more than the man himself. It’s a parasocial relationship that will bleed them both dry but hey, she should buy his merchandise and keep making him money while she’s at it. Burnham’s shows are full of this contradictory fear over fame and how easy it is to simultaneously crave and reject it.
I like my comedy introspective and sad, but sometimes I just want to laugh at jokes about saggy genitalia. Thankfully, the medium isn’t short of such offerings, but my favourite examples of raunch can be found through Ali Wong. Both of her Netflix specials - Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife - giddily delve into gross-out territory but with such specificity that you find yourself laughing hysterically, then quickly following it up with a sharp intake of breath as you wonder if it was even okay to laugh in the first place. During Baby Cobra, she makes jokes about her miscarriage, her mother’s ambivalent reaction to it and how she guilt-tripped her husband into being nicer to her in the aftermath. In less skillful hands, the skit would be too harsh or glib, but Wong finds the right route through the tangled territory. Wong is probably the comedian whose Netlix specials I re-watch the most because I reliably laugh so heartily every time I watch, no matter how familiar I am with each joke. There’s something so infectiously appealing about Wong’s delivery, which is halfway between droll and a full-on honk.
My family seldom agree on anything when it comes to pop culture, but we are forever united by our love for Billy Connolly. I’d hazard a guess that most Scots are bound together through this cultural commitment. Connolly doesn’t just make my family laugh: He sends us into smothering fights of hysteria that leave us unable to do anything else for a solid hour. He’s the consummate storyteller, one who can go on seemingly endless and random tangents, then tie everything together with immense satisfaction and endless laughs. Connelly reminds me of so many old Scottish dudes I know who have a treasure chest of tales to tell, all of which sound eerily familiar to one another, but it’s Connelly who nails the inimitable Scottishness of them.
If I need a 5 minute burst of happiness, I find myself returning to the same YouTube clip of John Mulaney’s skit on Ice-T in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Like Ed Byrne being the first comic to do the obvious yet hilarious with Alanis Morrissette’s Ironic, I’m stunned that it took this long for someone to dissect the comedic weirdness of SVU and its format. It doesn’t hurt that Mulaney’s Ice-T impression is pretty damn good.
Let us know what your favourite stand-up specials and skits are in the comments!
(Header photograph courtesy of Netflix Media)