Hannah Gadsby says her favourite sound is that gentle melodic clink you hear when a teacup hits a saucer and settles into its rightful place. In a discussion about gender labels, she says she self-identifies as “tired”. She’s so tired, in fact, that a third of the way into “Nanette”, her one-hour stand-up show that touches on themes including trauma, anger, homophobia, gender and mental illness, she announces that she’s had enough of comedy and wants to quit. Unfortunately for Gadsby, she might not be allowed to just yet. After a recording of her show at the Sydney Opera House made it onto Netflix, she has become an international phenomenon.
What scale of phenomenon are we talking about?
Twitter feeds are buzzing with praise. Her celebrity fans range from Kathy Griffin (who was “blown away”) to Monica Lewinsky (who gets a mention in the set and tweeted that the performance “one of the most profound + thought provoking experiences of my life”).
A glowing review in the New Yorker said Gadsby had forced stand-up to “face the #metoo era”. The Atlantic described it as one of the “most extraordinary comedy specials in recent memory”, and a review in the Guardian talked about how she “wields her craft like a weapon, lancing out the trauma and forcing us to look at it.”
Sounds heavy, but I’m intrigued. What’s “Nanette” all about then?
The show starts out fairly conventionally. Hannah Gadsby is gay. And as she says, like most gay comedians, she’s good at telling jokes about this part of her identity. In fact, she says, she’s got in trouble for “not having enough lesbian content”. She reminisces about being a child who “for a long time knew more about unicorns than lesbians.” Homosexuality was against the law in Tasmania until 1997 and in the rural bible-belt where she lived, 70% of people voted for it to stay that way.
From there on, the content becomes progressively more unusual. With impish humour, she weaves together her own personal experiences with art history and – most powerfully – an analysis of the dark side of comedy. Gadsby believes that when a marginalised person makes fun of themselves, they risk becoming the architect of their own humiliation. She explains how growing up in a place where homosexuality was illegal had made her ashamed of who she was. She ended up building a career out of self-deprecating humour, having learnt to diminish herself in order to make others laugh.
As traumatic as this experience must have been for her, her delivery is remarkably calm: the punchlines neat, the emotions zip-locked. And then, in the last five minutes, she undoes that zip lock. Her roar is so raw you almost want to look away from the screen. In an unapologetically furious monologue, she wallops the audience with the truth that she’s been repressing throughout her career as a comedian. It would spoil it to say exactly what that truth is, but it’s enough to say that she makes a vital point about how the words we speak and the art we see shape the lives we lead.
I’d never heard of her before. What’s she been doing all this time?
Gadsby comes from Tasmania, the lush, temperate island off the south end of Australia, which she quips is “famous for its potatoes” and “its frighteningly small gene pool”. She’s been a regular on the Australian stand-up circuit for more than a decade and is a regular guest on TV panel shows. She appears in the third and fourth series of “Please Like Me”, a dark comedy-drama made by a comedian called Josh Thomas about the day-to-day life of a young gay man in Melbourne. Depressed and droll, in a thinly veiled version of her real-life self, she’s the Eeyore to Thomas’ exuberant and lively Tigger.
Gadsby has a degree in art history, and has put it to work in a bunch of documentaries. In “Renaissance Woman”, a series of short videos which you can watch on YouTube, she offers a feminist take on Renaissance paintings. This year she produced a two-part documentary for ABC called “Nakedy-Nudes: Art Stripped Bare”, which skewers art history’s relationship with the female form, making fun of how women in art are often unconscious or uncomfortable, sprawled awkwardly on furniture.
Back to “Nanette”. It does sound interesting, but a bit worthy. Am I going to enjoy it?
If you’re looking for a few giggles after a long day in the office, “Nanette” is not for you. As you can probably guess by now, most of the show is not funny at all. It is disturbing, it is furious, it is sensitive and it is incredibly smart. So if you’re looking for something challenging and thoughtful that offers a fresh perspective on the debates we’ve been having about gender, sex and power, Gadsby’s show will be smack-bang in your wheelhouse.
If, however, you like your comedy macho and unreconstructed, you’re not going to be terribly comfortable watching “Nanette”. You’ll probably start scrolling through your phone. You’ll definitely read some work emails. You might even write some. You could even feel the urge to go do some dishes or hang some laundry, just so you have a good excuse to leave the room. One man I know described it as a “feminist TED-talk on crack”. Still, it is worth trying your best to not to switch it off. As naff as this is going to sound, it might just make you a little bit of a better person.