It took a stream of increasingly urgent Tweets on my feed and text messages from friends for Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special to land on my radar. I wasn’t yet familiar with Gadsby, the Australian actress, comedian and writer, but the Nanette buzz on my social had reached a critical mass. I knew I needed to watch this thing, but not having read any reviews of it, I didn’t really know why.
Filmed live at the Sydney Opera House, Nanette begins typically enough: Gadsby tells a string of zingers about her life after she came out as “a little bit lesbian.” (She named the special Nanette after a woman she thought would inspire her comedy, which didn’t end up happening, but she kept the name anyway.) Gadsby grew up in Tasmania, a tiny island “hanging off the ass end of Australia,” where during her formative years the majority of citizens believed homosexuality should be a criminal offense. She jokes about coming out to her mom, not coming out to her grandma, and being “gender-not-normal,” telling a story about being mistaken for a man by a drunk guy who saw her chatting up his girlfriend. The man threatened to beat her up before realizing she was a woman and apologizing. (“What a guy!” she quips.)
These anecdotes about sexuality and gender and feeling “other” are all very funny and disarming, but I wasn’t yet getting what all the fuss was about.
Then, about 25 minutes into the show, I understood.
It’s like Gadsby flips a switch. Her tone shifts dramatically. Her smile fades, her voice rises, then trembles. Although she continues to pepper in a few jokes, you quickly realize you’re no longer watching a lighthearted comedy special. That realization is shocking and uncomfortable, but since you’re already strapped into the roller coaster, all you can do is brace yourself for the ride.
And what a ride it is. Dead serious, Gadsby announces that she wants to quit comedy for good, because the setup/punchline format of joke-telling will never allow her to tell the full truth about her story.
For the rest of the show, the massive audience silent, rapt, Gadsby proceeds to deconstruct most of the jokes she has already told so we see their full, true, often painful context — which comedy does not make room for. This is Gadsby telling her story properly. She has suffered mightily, she is not as “cool with it” as her earlier jokes made it seem, and she is done mining her trauma and pain for punchlines.
What Gadsby is doing is very publicly rejecting what everyone wants and expects her to do — which is to tell silly jokes at her own expense — in order to focus on her healing. This is a radical act. (In doing her show, Gadsby is re-living the most traumatic events of her life night after night, which, she revealed in an interview with Vulture, has caused psychologists and psychiatrists to reach out to her, concerned for her well-being. But the experience has also helped her. “It’s never easy to perform,” she says, but as audiences have become more accepting, “I feel like I suddenly connected to the world…It’s made me realize just how isolated I felt.”)
Some of the world’s most famous comedians have been Tweeting in awe at the show. “I’ve been a professional comic for 30 years. I’ve been studying comedy for even longer. I thought I had seen everything … until I watched Nanette,” tweeted comedian Kathy Griffin. “This one’s gonna…influence a whole generation of comedians,” tweeted comedian Jenny Yang. “If I don’t change how I do comedy after seeing her special, why even?”)
While Gadsby is certainly turning the idea of a stand-up comedy on its head, she is also doing something bigger, something many of us may not believe we have the luxury of doing — that is, to put our emotional well-being first, and then layer our career around it in a way that supports rather than destroys us. Gadsby could have continued on telling lighthearted coming out jokes, but she couldn’t anymore. And her pivot to a more honest place ended up being what propelled her to international stardom.
In a subsequent interview with Vanity Fair, Gadsby admitted she is re-examining whether to leave comedy entirely (she was literally ready to move back to Tasmania and get a job at her brother’s fruit and vegetable shop) or to instead revisit how she participates in it. I hope she stays. But either way, she has gifted us with a remarkably subversive piece of art that asks fresh, important questions about mental illness, trauma, comedy, and how to focus on your personal healing no matter what others want from you.
Here are three well-worn ideas that Nanette will make you reconsider, and some quotes that will leave you thinking:
We tend to think: Self-deprecation is always a good thing in comedy.
Gadsby’s take: Self-deprecating humor can do more harm than good.
“I have been questioning this whole comedy thing. I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore. I built a career out of self-deprecating humor. And I don’t want to do that anymore. Because 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. And I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or to anybody who identifies with me.”
We tend to think: A funny anecdote is simply that — a funny anecdote.
Gadsby’s take: A anecdotal joke relies on freezing a story in the middle to get a punchline. Often the full story is too devastating for comedy.
“Do you remember that story I told about that young man who almost beat me up? … In order to balance the tension in the room with that story, I couldn’t tell that story how it actually happened. Because I couldn’t tell the part of the story where that man realized his mistake. He came back. And he said, ‘Oh, no, I get it. You’re a lady f****t. I’m allowed to beat the sh*t out of you.’ And he did. He beat the sh*t out of me. And nobody stopped him. We drew a crowd! And nobody helped me! I was seventeen. And I didn’t report that to the police, and I did not take myself to hospital, and I should have. And you know why I didn’t? It’s because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give another permission to hate.”
We tend to think: If everyone is laughing about the same thing, it’s fair game to glom on.
Gadsby’s take: We need to think harder about “easy, reliable punch lines” like Monica Lewinsky.
“Perhaps if comedians had done their job properly and made fun of the man who abused his power, then perhaps we might have a middle-aged woman with an appropriate amount of experience in the White House — instead of, as we do, a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting vulnerable young women because he could.”
And a few shorter quotes from Gadsby that can serve as powerful mantras for all of us:
“Your resilience is your humanity.”
“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”
“Stories hold our cure.”