Hannah Gadsby: Nanette, a Netflix stand-up comedy special that premiered in June, leaves a lasting impression. The special has been called anti-comedy. An antidote to stand-up. A deconstruction of stand-up. The future of stand-up. The best version of stand-up. And, a slew of other superlatives all in praise of its lacerating treatise on humour and humanity. The consuming nature of the praise made me immediately self-conscious of my own cautious response to the special. I was moved, but not wholly convinced. Charmed, but not transformed. And I kept trying to interrogate why that was. Central to the many positive responses to “Nanette” is the certainty that with it Gadsby has done something that stand-up, and comedy, is in need of 2018. Something that transcends the genre. And I could not help reflecting on that word: Transcend.
Transcend – verb; meaning: to go beyond the range or limits of a field of activity. It’s a common word in criticism often used within genres considered to be less than prestigious. Take romantic comedies. Or superhero films. Or biopics. Or horror films. The good films within these genres are good because they go beyond the limits of the respective genre. The implicit suggestion in this being that the genre itself, without anything transcendental, is inherently limiting. It’s not the central thesis of Nanette, but it is a key one. Gadsby’s special does go beyond the parameters of stand-up comedy. It goes beyond it to the point of not really being a stand-up comedy, and even as it mixes some hilarious anecdotes within its 70-minute run-time, its lacerating end-game is one that moves beyond comedy into theatrical performance that makes it an unusual beast of a thing to critique.
One of Gadsby’s running themes is the space for the queer element in her comedy. She grew up as a closeted lesbian in the deeply religious and deeply homophobic Tasmania, where the homophobic culture elicited profound self-loathing years after her “coming out.” In the first third of the special, often about her sexuality, Gadsby cuts with both humour and sadness. She points out early on that she’s tired of using self-deprecation as a means of her humour because it speaks of humiliation rather than humility. And, yet, much of her riffs on sexuality feel like punching down in a way that makes me amused but also sceptical.
Early in her set, she recalls a review of one of her earlier pieces from a well-intentioned lesbian: “Not enough lesbian content!” She delivers the line with the subtlest of eye-rolls. The moment is hilariously familiar for every queer person who has struggled to straddle the line between the dominant heterosexual culture and the alternative but still demonstrative elements of traditional queer culture. Her joke on the pageantry of Pride hits in the same vein as she mulishly jokes, “Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?” It’s a sly nod to the otherness that has marked Gadsby from childhood to her comedy career. Whether in the heterosexual religiosity of Tasmania or the colourful boldness of macro gay culture, Gadsby stands apart. Her presentation of that aloneness amuses because she encourages us to identify with her loneliness, and also to be emboldened by it. The moment, though, becomes a twist as being apart as prideful becomes dangerous.
The deftest artistic trick of Nanette is the subversion of a story she tells early on where an irate hyper-masculine drunk berates her for what he presumes is her flirting with his girlfriend. The joke is that he mistakes the butch Gadsby for a man. “I thought you were a f****ng faggot trying to crack on my girlfriend,” he apologises.” The linguistic ironies of his sentence are both hilarious and appalling. The deployment of “faggot” as a catch-all term for homosexuality, but also sexual deviancy, is ridiculous in its stupidity, but sobering in familiarity while still being funny for its ridiculous. Gadsby upends our laughter in her climax, though, when initial almost blithe silliness of the version she tells us is revealed as a weak bandage on a lacerating wound that goes deeper. It’s the most effective punchline of the show as the moment of verbal assault gives way to a punchline about a teenage rape. But it is not a punchline in the way of a joke but a punchline in the way of an attack. It is pulsating and devastating. And it is not funny. At all.
That particular story is one of a number of reasons that Gadsby decisively explains why she has to quit comedy. The boundaries of comedy have been taken to their limits and have been found wanting. Comedy cannot sustain Gadsby anymore, and yet the recurring theme of Nanette suggests that comedy cannot sustain anyone. Gadsby never says this but her monologue implies it. Nanette does not feel like a personal choice but a public castigation. Even though her argument with comedy is framed as personal, the criticism becomes public and societal. It’s clear that Gadsby, like many women and queer persons, has been marginalised by the patriarchal heteronormative nature of comedy but inviting audiences to a comedy show and then turning their need for laughter as balm on them feels weaponised in a way that perplexes me, especially in light of many other women, especially women of colour, who have turned the limitations of comedy on its head. Incidentally, one of them, Mo’Nique, was in crossfires with Netflix for offering a low price for her own comedy special that never came to fruition. I finished Nanette yearning to know (perhaps unfairly) what a Mo’Nique might have to say about deprecation and humour and patriarchy. Comedy cannot provide the scope for what Gadsby wants to do with her stories, but I balk at the idea that comedy cannot hold the weight of issues of such profound depth. Still, the question as to the way that the promise of humour has calcified into something ugly remains relevant.
Last year, television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote an excellent piece, “How Jokes Won the Elections,” which examined the role humour played in the 2016 US presidential election but on a larger scale interrogated how figures make jokes at the expenses of the constituents, jokes that see no one but the ruling class laughing. It’s an idea that is as evocative in the toxic American political landscape as it is in the Caribbean, and Guyana. But has the weaponising of jokes, irony and double-entendre buckled under the weight of the terrible ways they have been used? Comedy, stand-up comedy, has been used as a weapon for a limited, oftentimes sexist perspective. Guyana’s “comedy” is built, to a large extension, on a patriarchal, often homophobic, sometimes anti-feminist stance, which Gadsby exists in direct opposition to. But comedy, stand-up, at its core, is not rotten. Is it?
Perhaps it’s due to Nanette and its power that I’m thinking about it in the first place. Gadsby’s searing and angry monologue demands a platform. In a world of limited perspectives, it is essential, and everyone on Netflix should investigate it to consider where they stand on it. Stand-up comedy, like many sectors dominated by patriarchal limitations, needs to evolve. But, I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s best interest – least of all Hannah Gadsby’s – for us to throw out the jokes with the patriarchy. When Gadsby’s special was done, I was intrigued but I was not amused, informed but not tickled. Was my desire for some comedy to relieve the tension a sign of weakness or strength? Is there anything to laugh about anymore? Honestly, I don’t know.
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette is now streaming on Netflix.
(Email your questions, or comments, to Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.)