As a young girl raised on stand-up comedy — mostly stand-up comedy performed by straight white men — I received a thorough education in the importance of not being earnest. The funniest (and therefore coolest) people turned life into a punch line. This was the lesson I look from the Lenny Bruces and Larry Davids and the Louis C.K.s and the Norm MacDonalds of the world, who viewed everything that happened to them — including the awful things they experienced and the awful things they did — through a screen of ironic detachment. Through comedy, flaws became something to laugh about; through self-deprecation, the ugliest things in life became palatable, redeemable, even cool. I took this message to heart, and for a long time, it informed the way I interacted with the world. Nobody could put me down if I put myself down first and funnier, I thought, and ultimately it was okay to be a dick if you got a good story out of it. It was better to be funny than to care.
Of course, in 2018, it’s harder than ever to believe that ironic detachment is the best way to view the world — or that detachment is anything but a luxury of privilege, one not everyone can afford. But whatever nostalgic attachment I still might have to the idea of a life lived through punch lines was punctured by Hannah Gadsby’s incredible new stand-up special Nanette, now on Netflix. It might be the most remarkable subversion of the medium since Tig Notaro’s game-changing cancer set, and it’s further proof that queer women are comedy’s most important innovators working today.
Gadsby, a well-known Australian comic, begins the set with a series of funny riffs on her gender and sexual identity, material that will be familiar to fans of her work, talking about what it was like growing up lesbian in Tasmania in the ’80s and ’90s, in a conservative community where 70 percent of people thought homosexuality was a sin. “For a long time I knew more facts about unicorns than I did about lesbians,” she jokes amiably. She deftly unveils stories about the hardships she faced growing up — for instance, the time a man threatened to beat her up for talking to his girlfriend at a bus stop — and then punctures them with a laugh line. Upon realizing she wasn’t “a faggot,” the man apologized and said “Oh sorry, I don’t hit women, I got confused, I thought you were a fuckin’ faggot trying to crack onto my girlfriend.” “What a guy!” she riffs. We laugh along with Gadsby, as she makes her story of suffering entertaining for a mass audience.
Then, midway through the set, a switch flips. She turns suddenly serious. She announces that she thinks she has to quit comedy, and she offers us no punch line to defuse what she’s said. Why is she quitting? Because to be self-deprecating when you’re already someone who lives in the margins “is not humility, it’s humiliation,” she declares. “I simply won’t do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”
The impression Gadsby gives in the first part of her set is that of someone who has come to terms with the way the world has treated her (she can make jokes about it, she’s fiiiiine!) Yet in reality, she explains, she has never gotten over the trauma that defined much of her life. “Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker?” she asks, rhetorically. “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.” As Gadsby told Time magazine recently, there is a disconnect between the power she has onstage and the lack of power she has in society, and it’s this disjuncture that she wanted to explore in in Nanette. (The title, she explains, comes from the name of a woman she initially thought would be interesting enough to build her entire set around, though suffice it to say it went in a different direction.) “When I came out of the closet I didn’t have any jokes, all I knew how to do was be invisible and hate myself,” she explains. By the time she had learned that she was allowed to take up space in the world, she had “sealed [this story] off like it was no big deal.”
What follows in the special’s next 45 or so minutes is a subversive deconstruction of professional joke-telling (though much of it is still very funny). As Gadsby explains, comedy is all about setting up a moment of tension and then deflating it through a punch line, providing the audience with a satisfying release. Yet comedy is an imperfect vessel for much of life’s material: The most important stories are richer and more complicated than setup and punch line, but comedy makes no room for these kinds of narratives.
“Comedy has suspended me in a particular state of adolescence,” Gadsby explains. In particular, her own coming-out story, a story told and retold in countless stand-up sets, has been made alien to her through the process of being made palatable for an audience. “What I did with that coming-out story is sealed that story off at its trauma point and froze it into jokes,” she reflects. “That story became a routine, and through repetition that joke version fused with my actual memory of what actually happened, but unfortunately that joke version wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to undo the damage done to me in reality.” By packaging her own traumatic coming-out story into a series of laugh lines and inflection points, the full reality of her lived experience is denied. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” she explains. “I need to tell my story properly.”
She talks, too, about Monica Lewinsky, who she has said was a major inspiration for Nanette, reflecting on what it would have been like if comedians had “done their jobs properly” and made fun of the man who abused his power instead of the woman on the receiving end. Maybe, if we had metabolized that story differently, a self-proclaimed pussy-grabber wouldn’t be sitting in the Oval Office in 2018. She also devotes much of her set to the fallacy of “separating the art from the artist” when it comes to men who abuse their power, from Pablo Picasso to Louis C.K. to Woody Allen. Ultimately, these men are not the exception but the rule, observes Gadsby, and it is they who uphold the collective belief that “we don’t give a fuck about women or children, we only care about a man’s reputation.”
“What about their humanity?” she implores. “These men control our stories and yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t mind so long as they get to hold on to their precious reputation.”
Near the end of the set, Gadsby returns to the story she told earlier, about the man who didn’t beat her up at the bus stop because “he doesn’t hit women.” In real life, as it turns out, that story didn’t end on such an easy laugh line. In real life, the man came back over to her after their initial conversation. “Oh no, I get it, you’re a lady faggot, I’m allowed to beat the shit out of you,” she describes him saying. Her eyes are full of tears. “And he did. He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him.” Gadsby goes on to describe a series of similarly horrific traumas she’s experienced in her life, rooted in other peoples’ homophobia and misogyny. The audience is silent, which is how Gadsby wants them. Comedy may be all about alleviating tension through laughter, but here there is no opportunity for the audience to dismiss her words as jokes. She wants us all to feel her discomfort, particularly the straight white men in the audience who don’t know what it’s like to live life in a state of permanent unease. “This tension, it’s yours,” she tells them. “I am not helping you anymore, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all the time, because it is dangerous to be different.”
The irony of the whole thing is that the success of Nanette means that quitting comedy probably isn’t in the cards for Gadsby. But perhaps the power of her performance will open the door for a richer and more humane kind of stand-up – one that sets an example for future young women deciding how they want to tell their stories to the world.