Nanette, Hannah Gadsby and Me

You don’t need me to tell you that Nanette, a new Netflix comedy special by Hannah Gadsby, is an unexpected landmark in stand-up performance, because so many others will tell you that. But I’m going to anyway (before I go on to make a tangential point): For the first fifteen minutes or so, Nanette is a pleasant enough show, with Gadsby talking, in a winningly self-deprecating fashion, about growing up “a little bit lesbian” in Tasmania in a time when being such was actually and literally illegal. And then, having established this winningly self-deprecating mode for making her audience comfortable with who and what she is, Gadsby spends the rest of the special angrily and righteously deconstructing those first few minutes, not sparing herself, her audience or the culture at large.

I had heard about the special from friends who were discussing it in detail, so I knew a little bit about the outlines of what I was going to see when I flicked it on. But hearing about it and watching it are two entirely different things. I hadn’t heard of Gadsby before literally five days ago, and at this point I have two thoughts about her: One, I’m not sure I can go back and watch anything she did before this without knowing what it cost her, as she describes it in Nanette; Two, if in fact she doesn’t do stand-up comedy again (as she suggest she might not in the special), she’s quite possibly already changed how stand-up gets done. It seems nearly impossible to me that anyone who does stand-up comedy, or wants to, won’t see this special and realize how much it changes the game.

Well, let me back up on that. People are human, they like jokes; comedians are human, they like the attention they get from jokes. People aren’t going to stop performing comedy, some of it easy and simple; people aren’t going to stop going to comedy shows, many of them pleasant and disposable. Comedy is mostly entertainment, and not all entertainment is challenging or meant to be, and not every entertainer will want to push their audience to the edge of their comfort zone (and of course there’s more than one “audience”). Stand up as we know it will survive Gadsby and Nanette, for better or worse.

But I think that practitioners and audiences who are interested in how the stand-up sausage gets made are going to realize that Gadsby has raised the bar for them with this special. She’s given the game away, and made the point that the self-deprecation of comedy, the easy comfortableness of it, isn’t harmless to comedians from the margins of society, which still is anyone who is not straight and white and male. You can make the same jokes if you want, but you can’t go back from that understanding. Gadsby may or may not want the responsibility for that; ultimately with Nanette, as she says, she wants to tell her own story from where the focus of the story is not harmful to her. It’s her story, and it’s personal. But I’m pretty sure it will have implications outside of her personal life, particularly with comedians. Gadsby and Nanette has given them all homework.

I found Nanette a remarkable piece of writing and performance, and tangentially, in watching it I found Gadsby illuminated something for me about my own recent writing and thinking. I write a lot of humor and I’m pretty good at it, and over the years I’ve written quite a bit of humor about current events. I find myself rather less inclined to write humor about current event these days, particularly in a format longer than a Tweet (I’m having no problem being tweet-length snarky). It can still be done, and brilliantly — look at Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post — but I have a harder time doing it right now.

In Nanette, Gadsby makes the point that a punchline is the end of a joke but not the end of a story; she argues it’s often in the middle of a story, and focusing on the punchline comes at the expense of what comes after, which is usually more important for the people living the story (she illustrates this in the special in a way I won’t tell you now but I imagine will affect you deeply when she recounts it). I think one can quibble with this formulation in all sorts of ways, but I think for me it’s well on point as to why I feel restless and dissatisfied merely cracking jokes about what’s going on in the US right now. I’m less concerned about the punchline and more concerned about what’s coming after that. I don’t get much joy out of writing humorously about what’s going on today, because after the punchline is a miserable state of affairs that’s going to need more than jokes to get clear of.

I say my own observation is tangential to what Gadsby is on about in Nanette because it is, not in the least because Gadsby and I are coming from different places when we write funny stuff. We are different people and one of us isn’t in fact in the cultural margin. And I don’t know that this will stop me entirely from writing humorously about current events; I’m me. But it does help me understand why it hasn’t been making me happy: Basically, because it feels incomplete to me. I think it’s all right to write humorously about what’s going on in the world right now. But it’s not sufficient in itself. There’s more to be done, and more to be done by me, and I’ve got some thinking to do on that.

In this respect, Gadsby and Nanette is giving me homework, too. I can’t say I’m 100 percent happy about this. I’m lazy and I don’t necessarily want to do the work. But I also can’t pretend that I don’t know this about myself now. That’s a real thing.

36 thoughts on “Nanette, Hannah Gadsby and Me

  1. I’ve watched her special twice and both times found myself “deconstructed”. The issues of humility versus humiliation and what short-circuiting a story to make your story more palatable to others can do to you. It’s made me think about something as innocuous as writing a blog post and what we do when we sand down the edges to make others more comfortable. I had to take notes during her show, because those truths spoke so loudly to me. Glad to see I’m not the only one doing homework after watching her performance!

  2. Nanette is amazing.

    It made me cry, for several reasons:

    1) I’m a mom to a child with difficulties for whom the world is going to be a tough place
    2) her thoughts on shame, which was a punch to the gut because it’s where I am, still, 50 years on, although for different reasons
    3) the – the thing. Her breakdown of the punchline. And the humiliation of it.
    4) her righteous rage and pain

    I don’t know how the audience was able to keep laughing, tbh.

  3. Reference your “restlessness and dissatisfaction”:

    There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.
    — Will Rogers

    and as you imply, that’s not really funny any more.

    (another) Will

  4. I’d like to see this at some point, though we don’t have a Netflix subscription (and I don’t want to use bootleg methods). If anyone knows if it’ll be available soon a la carte in some form (such as a DVD or a licensed stream) I’d be interested in hearing about it.

    It looks like she has a book coming out titled “Ten Steps to Nanette”, though I’m not sure exactly when it’ll be available. (Some sites suggest it came out in Australia last week, but I don’t find actual copies available, and another site suggests the release date’s been pushed back to 2019). She also uploaded some videos related to art history on Youtube a couple of years back.

  5. I haven’t had a chance to see this yet, but I’m desperate to. I said to someone recently, upon seeing a billboard for a Jerry Seinfeld show in my area, that “I’m kind of over Seinfeld.” And I couldn’t articulate why, but you’ve done it here – his humor is too “pleasant and disposable” for where we are right now. One of the reasons I appreciate Stephen Colbert’s monologues is that I can feel the despair underneath them. Alexandra Petri (you’ve misspelled her name above) is the same way – I end up crying almost as often as laughing when I read her work.

  6. A small note–I swear I got your main point–but Alexandra Petri might enjoy the hat tip more if you spelled her name right. (She definitely deserves it.)

  7. Wow thank you for the recommendation. Please always recommend stuff this good when you find it I would have totally overlooked it without your post.

  8. This was an emotional gutpunch for me. I was really in tears, several times during her show. I found myself nodding along to so many of her thoughts and ideas.

    It was incredible, and reminded me of the very first time I saw Whoopi Goldberg back in the eighties.

  9. I don’t think Jerry Seinfeld has had much of importance to say for a very long time. He’s also one of the primary comedians complaining about how young audiences are too sensitive these days, because he can’t tell them the kind of jokes he used to.

  10. I’ll see your “raising the bar for stand up” (at least, I will when I get a chance to view “Nanette” – hopefully Netflix will release it to their DVD subscribers soon…) and raise you a “John Oliver has raised the bar for late night, for news commentary, and for investigative journalism, all in one swell foop of a weekly program.

    As we evolve our entertainment both leads the way and evolves with us.

    Being old enough to remember when Bill Cosby’s comedy albums were first released, I can remember laughing until I cried at routines like “Hofstra” and “Why is There Air?” and “Noah” and feel a sense of deep regret and loss that I can never enjoy them in quite the same way again.

    While the mark of comedic excellence is that it never really does “date” in some ways, even “Some Like It Hot” and the subversive humor of Carol Burnett and Harvy Korman and Tim Conway has some potholes in it now. There are bits of “Animal House” that make me cringe, anymore.

    And Mel Brooks has commented that though he could not make “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein” today, he’s not regretting that. They accomplished what they accomplished, and their significance remains.

    We’re in a period of hyper-accelerated evolution socially. It would be surprising if that didn’t have an effect on the creative imagination of writers.

  11. Just watched it. It will take some processing, in the good ways. Thank you for the recommendation.

  12. Her two part documentary “Nakedy Nudes” (about the significance of nudity in western art) is also very interesting. It doesn’t have the personal and emotional power of “Nanette,” but it is a smart (funny too) and critical examination of art as an expression of culture.

  13. @John Mark Ockerbloom: The street date for Ten Steps to Nanette is June 27 2019, Allen & Unwin (Aus). There is no other info for UK/USA/Canada release, but who knows, if she blows up before the Northern Hemisphere winter holidays, I wouldn’t be surprised to see fast publication of something or other. Please note the title may be different for your region.

    (I sling books for a living)

  14. Haven’t seen the full Nanette performance, but some snippets give a taste of its emotional oomph. Nevertheless–

    Climb up a rung or two on the abstracton ladder and substitute “art” for “standup comedy” and think about its role in our social/emotional lives.

    Where does laughter come from? What does it do to and for us? It’s certainly not “just” the simple, benign thing that some folks would have it. (“It’s just a joke!” “I just want a laff!”) Nor is it always equally freighted with great unacknowledged or finally-recognized pain or aggression or resentment. (Note the quantifying qualifier.)

    Q: What does it mean when I laugh at the work of Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, or (early movie-period) Bob Hope? At that of Lenny Bruce, Brother Dave Gardner, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Elayne Boosler, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield? At Ole & Lena jokes? At Veep? (Or when I don’t at Andy Kaufman, Andrew Dice Clay, or Don Rickles?)

    Kenneth Burke called art “equipment for living.” So what does comedy equip us for?

    May the Schwartz be with you. And put down that cookie! Those are for the funeral!

  15. I saw her do pretty much this show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and it was a remarkable and gruelling experience. The odd thing was that I didn’t go with any real idea of what Hannah Gadsby was like, and had picked her show after a few minutes cruising around Youtube, because (from the fragment I saw) it seemed dry and analytical and not overly emotional, and that’s what I was in the mood for. Well. Didn’t get that.

  16. Minor but not entirely insignificant point: as far as I can tell growing up “a little bit lesbian” in Tasmania was never “actually and literally illegal”. Australia inherited its laws on homosexuality from the UK and lesbianism was never criminalised (though there is some question as to whether common law implies an age of consent).

    Not having access to this program I’ve no idea what is actually said about this but guess that there was plenty of social stigma and hostility to lesbianism without the law becoming involved (given the history of extreme legal hostility to male homosexuality in the state).

  17. Her show was thought-provoking and raw and moving and brilliant. Thank you for the rec.

  18. I’m bi, and didn’t realise until quite late in life (already happily married to a man, with two kids). But Hannah Gadsby was the first woman I thought, “In another life, I could actually marry her.” Watching “Nanette” was devastating, and all the more so since another Aussie comedian, Eurydice Dixon, was very recently raped and murdered on her way home from a gig in Melbourne. In fact I recently crashed my car due to what I call “The Woman Tax” and wrote about it on my blog (https://murderinthemail.net/2018/06/22/the-woman-tax/).

    I’ve been working through my emotions about “Nanette” ever since watching it—I can’t bear to re-watch it, although I’ve been watching her in other interviews and such—and I was also saddened at the idea that maybe I couldn’t enjoy her earlier comedy any more. But fortunately she said in an interview that, “It was fun at first” and that seeing the funny side of awful experiences (and telling those stories as jokes) actually helped rearrange her own memories in a therapeutic way.

    The stuff she said about shame was so potent.

    So yes, we can all go ahead and enjoy her entire body of work (ideally in ways that send money her way). There was always a mixture of joy and sorrow there. Sorta like life.

  19. I had no idea who Hannah Gadsby is until I saw this column & was intrigued enough to watch her. She’s very funny, but still. I cried more than I laughed.

  20. This was the second time in a couple of hours that I heard about this show (the first was a piece on NPR as we were driving home from work). I do not generally watch television or comedy shows, but the spouse has a net-flicks account, and based on both your commentary and the piece on NPR, I think I will need to make an exception for this one. Thanks for the recommendation.

  21. Thank you for the recommendation. Just watched it. I will watch it again with my wife. I believe the absurdity that is Trump was a necessity so that sanity and reason would finally rise – kinda like you need to touch rock bottom to finally go back up. And Hannah Gadsby is one of those voices that will help us make sense of things and rise up. What she said about the jokes at the expense of Lewinski was like a punch in the gut… I laughed at those jokes back then, and I’m deeply ashamed that I did.

  22. I went into viewing Nanette after having seen a few funny caps of the earlier parts of the show and all I can say is…wow! I think you’re right, I genuinely think this is a game-changer in terms of comedy (and identity and a lot of other things).

    I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about Pratchett recently (especially monstrous regiment) and one thing I do appreciate is that the humour sits alongside the very genuine sense of rage at cruelty and society in a lot of his books, it is not used to lessen the anger.

    Thanks for recommending Nanette I think as many people as possible should view it.

  23. Thanks for the recommendation. I really loved the show. I hope that whatever she does next, she shares with the world.

  24. I haven’t seen the performance, but this is the second rave that I have come across, and I am really looking forward to it.

    That having been said, I’d like to make two comments on the general issue of humour in difficult times.

    1. I used to write for a magazine called Creative Screenwriting. After 9/11, all of the contributors received an email from the editor asking us to write something about the role of the artist in times of national crisis. The article I wrote, of which I am particularly proud, is “Laughter is Always Appropriate.” The main thrust of the argument is that laughter is cathartic; therefore, when we are in pain, we need it more than ever. (Those interested in reading the complete argument can find it at http://www.lespagesauxfolles.ca/index.phtml?pg=30&chap=1088.)

    2. Writing sarcastic tweets does not require the same commitment as writing satirical prose or sketches on a regular basis. It is understandable, then, that somebody who does that would be overwhelmed by the awfulness of the current political moment. (This is not a criticism: I can completely understand how difficult it would be to watch the values your country espouses be eviscerated by corrupt politicians.)

    Every writer’s mileage may vary of course. But…as somebody who has written satire since he was 14, I can say from personal experience that the longer forms are driven by rage and outrage. Put another way: the worse reality is, the more fuel there is for the satire. And given my argument in 1 that helping people laugh through difficult times can be a moral act, it seems to me that this is a good thing.

  25. I came across Nanette via my Netflix front page, so watched it in complete ignorance. I was poleaxed. I’ve watched it twice more, and will again. She has changed me, and how I will interrogate “comedy” henceforth.

  26. Nannette was the first of Hannah’s shows I didn’t see live -it was almost a birthday ritual for me to go and see her current dhow. But I’d been warned that Nannette was a hard one, especially for those of us already reeling from the marriage equality debate in Australia.
    Her shows were always gut-wrenchingly funny and sad at the same time – we’d usually leave saying things along the lines of, “I cannot believe I’m laughing at that, I know too well how that feels and/or what probably came after.” But that is Hannah’s gift – she makes the horrific funny but relatable and thought provoking at the same time.
    I’m still preparing myself to watch Nannette, the more I read/hear about it the more I know I need to see it.
    I second the recommendation for Nakedy Nudes, and would like to point you in the general direction of a tv series she was part of, Please Like Me. I don’t know how it will work for non-Australians, but it is geniune, funny and often silly, but can also be hard-hitting and raw at the same time (especially the last episode).

  27. I can’t believe I’m the only one who seems to know exactly who this woman is! Apparently, all you guys are in for a HUGE treat when you watch the four brilliant and disturbing seasons of the Australian show “Please Like Me”.
    Hannah plays a girl in the mental institution where the main character Josh’s mother is sent after trying to commit suicide. Hannah later goes to live with the mom and becomes friends with Josh and his friends. This is a very weird show. It’s entirely the vision of the main character Josh, who writes, stars and directs this.
    I think it’s important to know that Gadsby did not pop out of nowhere…her show sounds a lot like Please Like Me in tone.

  28. I waited to read your review until after I watched Nanette since I didn’t want the effect I suspected it would have reduced in any way. It made me laugh and it made me sad. I hope she finds a way to continue to do comedy. I think you are right that all comedy writers (at least the self-reflective ones) should look at what they write in the future in the context of what she has done. And I really covet her teapot.

  29. Thank you for writing about this. I *never* access our Netflix account, but something in your post compelled me. I was watching it within 20 minutes of reading, and I am…gobsmacked. I spent time laughing and crying – occasionally both at the same time. I found myself nodding along in agreement, and shouting an occasional “YES” in the air. I’m sad that I’ve not heard of her before – but HER STRENGTH. I cannot imagine what it took to go out on stage and deliver that show, night after night, telling your truth to an audience that you are purposely making to feel more than tension, but straight up awkward and uncomfortable and sad and angry…all emotions not typically felt at a comic show. She is *brilliant* and her humanity shines in a way that we should all hope to share. So again – thank you.

  30. @Michael A Wirkner, ‘Please Like Me’ is an excellent series, but Gadsby was an established name in comedy long before that show appeared.

  31. One of the reasons I appreciate Stephen Colbert’s monologues is that I can feel the despair underneath them. Alexandra Petri (you’ve misspelled her name above) is the same way – I end up crying almost as often as laughing when I read her work.

Comments are closed.