Hannah Gadsby is quitting comedy. But first she has something to say and – I say this unequivocally – you are going to want to listen.
This is probably not the first time you’ve heard this – and it won’t be the last. Since it landed on Netflix last week, Gadsby’s internationally acclaimed show, Nanette, has had a reception like no other. The hour-long stand-up routine, composed by Gadsby a year and a half ago, has already taken the comedian from her native Australia across the globe to the UK, where (joint with John Robins) it won the Edinburgh comedy award last year, and, more recently, to New York, where Gadsby has been performing it at the SoHo Playhouse throughout June. Last week, a recording of the show was added to Netflix – and the upsurge of astoundment and awe began, immediately, all over again.
It is not easy to depict precisely what Nanette is. A comedy show, yes (it is very, very funny); an anti-comedy show, too (more on this later). But it’s also a radical, highly intelligent, somewhat poetic articulation of shame – of the things we keep buried, or are told to bury, inside of us and of the intricate workings of the huge systems that keep them there.
If that sounds overwhelming, it’s because that’s precisely what Nanette is. While I won’t relay the details of the show (the only way to comprehend its depths is for yourself), broadly Nanette begins as a relatively typical stand-up show. Gadsby kicks off her time with the audience by retelling her experience of growing up gay in homophobic Tasmania, in Australia, where homosexuality was outlawed until as recently as 1997. Exercising her brilliant wit, she shares jolly anecdotes about her appearance, coming out and even being verbally abused as she stood at a bus stop one day.
Naturally, taking Gadsby’s lead, the audience laughs along while she continues with the schtick – hilariously bemoaning the post-show “feedback” she’s received from fans who have asserted she doesn’t do enough “lesbian content” (“I was on stage the whole time,” she quips) and others who have written to her saying she “owes it” to her community to “come out as transgender”. And then, slowly at first, the show veers off the path of traditional comedy into something quite astounding.
I put myself down in order to speak. In order to seek permission to speak and I simply will not do that any more. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me
“I built a career out of self-deprecating humour,” Gadsby says on stage. “That’s what I’ve built my career on and I don’t want to do that any more.
“Because do you understand,” she asks a packed, now-applauding audience, “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 any more. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”
It’s a pivotal moment in the show and the beginning of a 45-minute-ish take down of the constructs of comedy – largely established by and for white, straight, cisgender men – and how they perpetuate shame within marginalised comics (and, essentially, the audiences who listen to them). With searing intellect, Gadsby explains for us what makes a joke different to a story: that it has no end, just a beginning and a middle. Jokes hang on trauma and to make a joke, she explains, you need tension. A comedian holds the audience at the trauma point of a story, allowing the tension to build. She is in control. And then, just as the tension reaches its peak for the audience, she releases them with a razor-sharp line that cuts through. The tension is numbed and soothed away at that moment; the audience relax as the laugh is granted. But the true ending of the story – one that is likely uncomfortable, upsetting, embarrassing, tense – is never told. Instead, it is kept locked up inside its owner.
“Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?” she asks. “It’s because I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a child … but I didn’t invent the tension, I was the tension … and tension is making me sick.”
“Comedy has suspended me in a particular state of adolescence,” Gadsby explains. “What I did with that coming-out story is sealed that story off at its trauma point and froze it into jokes.”
Now, she says, “I need to tell my story properly.”
And so she does. She tells the full stories that aren’t usually allowed to be heard on stage – for once, she doesn’t allow the audience the relief of a laugh, but lets us sit in the tension that has embodied her, and so many others, for a lifetime. In Nanette, Gadsby tells us the endings of her stories – the trauma and the humiliation that makes others uncomfortable and that we are beaten into hiding lest we invoke embarrassment in another. Somehow, she manages the difficult task of contextualising her trauma within the wider world – through art history, the maltreatment of Monica Lewinsky in comedy, and Bill Cosby. She does it all as a strong, sensitive woman who has been persecuted and prevailed. “There is nothing stronger,” she says, “than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”
But, while it is endlessly refreshing to see a woman (a queer, angry woman at that) standing tall and shouting on a stage and not being told to quieten, Nanette is not just a woman’s story. It’s a performance of inequality, the patriarchy and all of its repercussions. In Nanette, Gadsby curates a collaborative experience – no matter your privilege, as she draws out her own shame, our own shame quickly surfaces, too; shame that we have perhaps been taught to harbour by society and shame that we have (intentionally or otherwise) imposed on others. It’s not just a rallying cry, but a biting, sacrificial siren that demands all of us to wake the fuck up.
For me, it was nothing short of transformative – an exorcism and, hopefully, the beginning of a new era in comedy with Gadsby and all her rightful fury leading the charge. I will be watching her again tonight and willing her words to stay with me. I implore you to do the same.