Do you have an hour (and a bit)? Then go and watch Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special that started streaming on Netflix this month. Seriously, go. (Okay, maybe read this first, then go. Or go and come back and read this.)
To call it a comedy special feels reductive because it is so much more than that. Nanette is hilarious and devastating, a transformative lesson about humanity delivered with very funny jokes, perfectly timed patter, hilariously complementary facial expressions – but also well-earned anger and a whomp to your soul.
To haul out some critical clichés: You will laugh and you will cry. This is must-see TV. It is essential viewing.
And it is.
I knew exactly zero about Gadsby a week ago, before three smart people in my life independently told me I should watch Nanette.
Gadbsby, 40, grew up in Tasmania and later moved to Australia’s mainland. A former tree planter, in 2006, she won Triple J’s Raw Comedy, a national competition for emerging stand-up comics – and rose to prominence. She has an art history degree, which figures in this routine (if nothing else, watch this just for the way she goes off on Picasso).
She is gay – and that has been a central part of her shtick.
“If you were to plot my week,” she says, “not a lot of lesbianing gets done. I cook dinner more. I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody ever introduces me as that chef comedian, do they?”
Gadsby has been touring Nanette around the world. This performance is filmed at the Sydney Opera House, Gadsby onstage with the classic stand-up set-up: a microphone on a stand next to a stool with a glass of water on it. Her command of the room, of the audience, is masterful.
But about 20 minutes in, a bombshell. After making one quick joke a bit earlier (“I should quit; I’m a disgrace”), she slips in, pretty much out of nowhere, that she feels she has to quit comedy. The jabs at herself that she has been using to get laughs – even wearing as a badge of honour – have in fact been poisoning her.
“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour,” she says. “And I don’t want to do that any more. Because 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.”
The tone darkens as the show moves along. It’s still hilarious, you’ll still laugh – but what happens next is much darker than dark comedy and shines a light into the harrowing experience of being obviously different – “gender-not-normal,” as she puts it – and shunned – by family, by society, by the law. And herself. “You learn to hate yourself; hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame in the closet for 10 years.”
The routine is powerfully topical. But when she walks us through the trauma of her own experience, wow.
“I tell you this because my story has value,” she says. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine.”
Fortunately for us – and any “not-normals” who know firsthand the dangers of being different – we do get to hear a story like hers. We get to hear her story. Herstory.
Even if you consider yourself pretty woke to these matters (as I do), this is essential, eye-opening stuff; I felt ashamed at how little I have really understood this experience.
In the routine, she tells the same story twice, about a negative encounter. The first time she gets big laughs. She explains that a joke needs two things to work: a set-up and a punchline. Comedy relies on two acts. The third act is missing.
“I need to tell my story properly because you learn from the part of the story you focus on,” she says.
When she retells that specific story – with the third act, the way the story really ended – you understand why it has rattled her to deliver the punchlines that have been making Australians LOL for more than a decade.
“I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and I sealed it off into jokes. And that story became a routine and through repetition that joke version fuelled with my actual memory of what happened. But unfortunately, that joke version was not nearly sophisticated enough to help me undo the damage done to me in reality. Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension and tensions need trauma.”
Now the art she has become known for may be history, as she talks about quitting comedy – just as the world falls in love with her, and not just for her jokes. Her commentary on the patriarchy, on discrimination, on the trauma she has experienced is not funny, but it is vital.
Whatever she does next, whatever that looks like, I can’t wait for her third act.
Now go. Watch it.