Words By Sydney MacDonald and Cam Higgins
Comedian Hannah Gadsby isn’t here to make you laugh. Her new show Nanette is, without exaggeration, one of the most profound pieces of performance art we’ve ever encountered. It’s simultaneously hilarious and traumatic. Gadsby’s show turns the comedic form on its head as she deconstructs the set-up/punchline structure and fashions the rubble into an entirely new experience. No joke: the most raw Netflix comedy special feels watered down when compared to Gadsby’s Nannette.
Gadsby herself is a forty-year old comic who grew up in Tasmania, Australia. Gadsby described to CONVICTS the stigma that still surrounds Tasmania.
“Tasmania was an outpost and it really was more so than the rest of the nation, like it’s so far away anyway but then Tasmania was set up with the penal colony of the people so the worst of the worst were sent to Australia, and then the worst of those were sent to Tasmania, so I come from good stock. We’re inbred and ignorant you know, a bit stupid. You know, dueling banjos.”
Gadsby is obviously very, very funny. Surprisingly, Gadsby got a bit of a comedic late start. “I was 27 before I took up comedy. It wasn’t on my agenda. We didn’t have any standup where I’m from, no theatre or anything. I had very practical plans. I did an arts degree and worked on a farm for a few years.”
Then, she decided on a whim to enter a stand-up comedy competition. Though Gadsby performed well, the competition wasn’t exactly life changing.
“Looking back, I can’t explain why I did that. It was a laugh. I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go,’ but it wasn’t like, ‘If I do this than I get to do something else.’ There was no pre-plan until I did comedy for two or three years. Then I was like, ‘Oh, I could probably just do this. I always set my goals and dreams in hindsight.”
Up until recently, Gadsby followed a traditional model of Australian comedic success. She worked the comedy festival circuit, performing light bits about Taylor Swift and self-deprecating bits about her own sexuality.
That self-deprecation, however, is one of the aspects of comedy that Nannette rebels against most fiercely. Throughout the show, Gadsby relates in jarring detail the ways that growing up in rural Australia was violently traumatic for a person who identifies as queer. Self-deprecating humor was a buffer against her trauma, a way of laughing off very deep pain.
But with the election of Donald Trump, a switch flipped for Gadsby.
“Donald Trump got elected and I’m like what the fuck is this? I smell bullshit. As someone who studied art history and feminism, I saw some arrogant aspect of history that treats feminism like it was ‘done’ in the 70’s. I’m like, ‘No, nothing has been done. It just hasn’t been. Like, shit, why are we still talking about this?’ I decided it was time to call bullshit on comedy because comedy was an art form invented by men to entertain men in between burlesque and other kinds of jerking-off activities. There was a lot to the art form that I saw as not being as grand as a lot of comedians think it is. I just wanted to call bullshit.”
And bullshit she calls.
Gadsby spends the first part of Nannette making fun of herself in a way that feels familiar to anyone who’s seen live comedy. The audience, comfortable with form, laughs. A third of the way through the show, Gadsby flips the script on the audience and makes a sharp turn into unfamiliar territory.
She goes into depth about the trauma of her experiences and the way that trauma relates to comedy. How comedy, ultimately, is an inadequate vessel for pain. Thus, instead of finishing her jokes at the punchline, stopping at the laugh, Gadsby imbues her show with a full narrative arc: beginning, middle end. Or joke, punchline, reflection.
This format sounds strange on the page, and unfamiliar it is. Gadsby, however, is a master of her craft. Her understanding of the intersecting emotional space between her and the audience not only allows the show to flow seamlessly as any comedy act, but lets Nannette transcend the comic form.
Really, we don’t use the word transcend lightly, but Nannette transcends. It is like a piece of futuristic technology that one must see to believe. It is, more than anything, the telling of a powerful story.
Part of Gadsby’s point, too, is the empathy building power of storytelling.
As she explained to us in a Manhattan coffee shop, near her New York home base:
“The more privilege you have, the more you need to listen. What we need to do is give space to the people who actually tell their stories. There’s so much debate about privilege and equality and equal rights but stories are what breaks down prejudice, not chat.
I’m from a world where industries go into small and regional places and rip out the resources and leave them without any infrastructure. People then get stirred up to hate gay people because they want jobs and hate people of color because they want jobs. That is a deliberate manipulation. Because minorities don’t have their own stories, those stories get to be manipulated. It seems like people are stupid for believing them, but we need to have an equal balance of stories, not conversations.
Letting people tell their story is a catharsis in itself. What I found with this show is that I’ve told my story and I thought that it was just going to seal me off into the margins…but what it’s done is it’s made me feel heard and that is amazing.”
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