Published on July 10th, 2018 | by Lauren Allen0
Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’
Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, ‘Nanette,’ is no joke. What starts as your average stand-up comedy routine becomes an explosive piece of performance art.
If you are think comedy shows are formulaic and boring, you need to watch Nanette. Comedian Hannah Gadsby will take a big ol’ hammer and shatter that preconception in minutes.
From an unassuming beginning to a powerful ending, you won’t believe how quickly comedy can turn into commentary that makes you question everything you have just watched.
When Nanette came out, I was eager to watch it. I had seen Hannah Gadsby’s appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers and recognized her from an Australian show I enjoyed called Please Like Me. I was keen to learn more about this artist and her view on the world. I ended up watching the special three times in as many days, and leaving the experience crying but hopeful every time.
We start in the realm of the familiar — after a short introductory cut scene of Gadsby, settling in at home with tea and her two dogs, we watch her come on stage for her (what appears to be) sold-out show at the Sydney Opera House. If you watch closely in the cut scene, you will see a sign that says, “Your barista for the day is Nanette,” which is a small part of the story about the show’s name that we never actually hear in the special. Basically, the name has nothing to do with the show. Gadsby says “I named it before I wrote it.”
We then dive into traditional stand up that is very funny. Commentary about the feedback she’s received from previous shows, musings on how unhelpful the advice she’s received from male comics has been, and how she doesn’t understand how to flaunt her tea-loving quiet life as a lesbian in a pride parade. You will laugh out loud multiple times, as Gadsby’s delivery of dryness mixed with sincerity is endearing and surprising. You feel like everything she says will be hilarious, and it is. Until she says something truly profound (I am paraphrasing here):
“I think I have to quit comedy. You see, I built my career around self-deprecating humour. And when it comes from someone already living on the margins, that’s not humility, it’s humiliation. And I won’t do that any more, not to myself or to anyone who identifies with me.”
Gadsby identifies as lesbian and refers to herself as gender not normal. In this one moment she acknowledges that she feels the full weight of responsibility that is upon her to represent a whole group of people who are often not well represented. And this is where the first big shift occurs. Suddenly a hall that has previously been filled with laughter becomes still and they can hear something new and different — like a heartbeat, a strength of purpose, a persistence. It is powerful. I can only imagine what being in that room would have felt like.
And then we are back to jokes, and they are only getting better. They are also getting deeper. More analysis of Gadsby’s life as a lesbian in a place where it was illegal until 1997 (yep, shame on you, Tasmania!), explanations about how a joke is constructed (it’s two parts, a question and a surprise answer), and lengthy examinations of what she learned through her art history degree. The art history jokes are some truly unique bits of comedy and brings one of the best lines of the show (that Gadsby thankfully repeats): “You’re just painting flesh vases for your dick flowers.”
Finally, the tables get turned again. Gadsby reveals that she has, essentially, been lying this whole time. In order to make her stories funny, she had to make them less true. But the truth matters. And in the last part of the show, where she is really telling you the truth, you feel for her. And for yourself. And for the people that Hannah Gadsby represents.
I don’t want to give away the jokes or the revelations, because this special is truly an experience worth living over and over. I will tell you that it is revolutionary, and reminded me more than once of Tig Notaro’s Live and the legend that that show became. Nanette is another mold-breaker, much like Live was. It shows that comedy is, in fact, limitless. It’s not always going to come out the way you expect. It also pushes us to consider that maybe we deserve better than to always try to separate the art from the artist. This is one of the most important takeaways from this special, that the artist DOES matter. And in this case, Gadsby herself is a masterful work of art.
Nanette is streaming now on Netflix and will soon be playing at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.