“Seventy-percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin,” says Hannah Gadsby in her new comedy special, “Nanette”—and there’s no punchline to ease that fact. Is this even stand-up? Is it a recorded therapy session? A TED talk? “Nanette”, which was released on Netflix in late June, is billed as a comedy special, but it transcends genre to function as a profoundly destabilizing piece of visual art.
Gadsby is well known in Australia for her regular segments on “Adam Hills Tonight”, her role on Josh Thomas’ “Please Like Me” and her art history lectures with the National Gallery of Victoria. However, it was not until the release of “Nanette” that she gained popularity in the United States. This new recognition is well-earned. “Nanette”—part stand-up comedy show, part art history lesson, part personal narrative—is a challenge to watch, both unwavering in its intensity and fiercely funny.
Gadsby begins “Nanette” with a barrage of self deprecating jokes, the kind audiences have come to expect from comedians with marginalized identities. These fresh, easy-to-digest one-hitters often center on Gadsby’s identity and sexuality. “Where do the quiet gays go?” she asks. “My favorite sound in the whole world is the sound of a teacup finding its place on a saucer. It’s very difficult to flaunt that lifestyle in a parade.” For American audiences who are unfamiliar with Gadsby’s work, these jokes serve to establish her credibility as a comedian. Then, so smoothly that it’s hard to pinpoint just where things shifted, Gadsby’s tenor shifts from conversational to deeply angry.
“Tension,” Gadsby says, “that’s my job.” Gesturing to the audience, she continues: “This is an abusive relationship.” Gadsby inverts the dynamic for the sake of the joke, but what she’s really saying is this: audiences want comedians to be emotionally content with the people who have hurt them so that they can package their trauma into a funny story. The audience abuses the comedians, not the other way around. So what happens when comedians attempt to do fulfill their audience’s desire for closure, cutting off the bitter ends of their stories and focusing on the beginnings and the middles? Pain, Gadsby explains — pain and anger.
“You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly,” Gadsby says, her voice quivering.“I still have shame,” Gadsby admits to the audience. Rage, humiliation, the desire for self-love: this who she is, living a life forged by the narratives she tells herself and others. In “Nanette”, Gadsby tells the story of a man who attacked her for hitting on his girlfriend because he thought she was a man. Upon realizing she was a woman he backed off, and Gadsby was seemingly left with no trauma too scarring for a joke—or so she leads us to believe. The joke is funny when she tells it, her thick Tasmanian accent twisting every syllable. Later, though, Gadsby explains the end of that story. The man did not leave her alone, but instead brutally attacked her for being a lesbian. This is the part that cannot be reconciled or understood or written off, an example of the concealment has for so long been a strict requirement of stand-up. “Punchlines need trauma,” Gadsby explains, “because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma.” More than anything, “Nanette” is a renunciation of the the tension, anger and trauma feeding the self-deprecating humor Gadsby has built her career on.
Gadsby also question the idea that comedy does some unalienable good by allowing people to bond over shared experiences of joy, anger, embarrassment and sorrow. Why? This supposed benefit is often procured at the cost of marginalized people’s—and comedians’— emotional well-being. “Nobody here is leaving this room a better person,” Gadsby tells her audience. Community, she explains, cannot be created through common anger.
Gadsby’s willingness to complicate the traditional audience-comedian dynamic raises important questions about the relationship between artists and the art they create. “Nanette” is not about the power of art to heal or unite. Rather, it is about the other, less-easily-named powers that art has over the people who make and consume it. It is about how art can obscure the identities and proclivities of artists to an audience. It is about how the very act of creating art both builds and disassembles artists’ lives. “Nanette” has a radical, simple purpose: Hannah Gadsby is here to tell her story. We are here to hear it.