“You won’t hear too many extended sets about art history in a comedy show,” Hannah Gadsby says towards the close of her Netflix standup special Nanette after a searing segment in which she explains the central tenet of Cubism and eviscerates its founder Pablo Picasso for his uncurbed misogyny.
A deep dive into the lessons that art history holds for us is, however, far from the most unusual part of Nanette – an hour of transformative television that first transcends, and then actively rejects, the very core of stand-up comedy.
Gadbsy, who grew up in Australia’s island state of Tasmania, has been well-known in her home country for years – a regular on the stand-up circuit within Australia as well as internationally for over a decade. But for avid television watchers, she’s best remembered for playing a fictionalised version of herself – the depressed and darkly humorous Hannah in fellow comedian Josh Thomas’s television series Please Like Me.
Nanette is named after a woman Gadsby briefly met in a cafe but the show has nothing to do with. Instead, Gadsby begins with a lot of material that she has performed over the course of her career. She jokes about growing up gay in a conservative small town and how pride parades and rainbow flags are too overwhelming and exhausting for her. “Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?”
Gadsby laughs about having forgotten to come out to her grandmother and about how a drunk, dim-witted man almost beat her up at a bus stop when she was 17 because he thought she was a gay man trying to hit on his girlfriend, He left sheepishly, she says, on realising she was a woman. Gadsby marks herself repeatedly as the odd one out and turns it into comedy, convincing her audience they’re “in” on the joke. It’s material polished over years, sharpened by time and talent. It’s also a form of humour that comes all too easily to many queer people. We’re trained our whole lives for it.
To grow up queer is to quickly learn you are a “not normal” oddity – an object of ridicule and the butt of jokes. As that oddity, you begin very early on to laugh along, to downplay the barbs, to participate yourself, even while burning on the inside with shame. To be queer, for many of us, is to feel like an outsider whose very presence makes people uncomfortable, like someone who is taking up too much space and can only earn it through a heady, toxic cocktail of self-deprecation and second-guessing, stirred with a biting humour sharpened by necessity, which too often turns inwards. It’s why, Gadsby says, less than one-thirds of the way into the show, she must quit comedy, why she must end a career built on self-deprecation.
“Do you understand what self-deprecation mean when it comes from somebody who already exists at the margins?” she asks, all trace of jollity gone. “I put myself down in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that to myself anymore.”
And just like that, Gadsby upends everything the audience is expecting from her, turning the show into unsparing commentary on sexual violence, misogyny and the acute toll of an existence that deviates from the norm, laced almost impossibly, still, with streaks of humour.
If you break it down, Gadsby explains, a joke consists of just two components – a setup and a punchline. The setup involves making the audience tense and the punchline releases that tension through laughter. The problem with that is, Gadsby adds, comedy shows don’t leave room for the full story. You have to cut it off at the laugh and she simply cannot do that anymore. “I have to tell my story,” she says firmly – the full story, with a beginning, middle and end.
The anecdote about the man at the bus stop from earlier in her set only works as a joke, Gadbsy explains, if she ends it at a punch line – that he was no more than a dumb homophobe to laugh at. In real life, the man realised she was a homosexual woman, came back and brutally beat her up. Nobody stopped him. And she never reported it because at 17, she felt that was all she was worth. “This is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give another permission to hate,” Gadsby says, shaking with anger and pain, refusing to make it better for her stunned audience, to release the discomfort her story is causing them. “This tension,” she declares, “it’s yours, because you need to know what it feels like.”
As she continues to dismantle her own jokes, Gadsby explains that the reason she didn’t come out to her grandmother was not because she forgot but because she is still ashamed. “Not intellectually, but I still have shame,” Gadsby says. Homosexuality was only legalised in Tasmania in 1997 but from 1987 until then (effectively her adolescence), the state was at the centre of a toxic national debate about the criminalisation of homosexuality.
Gadsby vividly recollects a public poll in which 70% of the participants said it should be a criminal act, that it was a sin. “You internalise that...you learn to hate yourself to the core. It took me ten years to know that I was allowed to take up space in the world but by then I had sealed it off into jokes like it was no big deal.” It’s a heartbreaking revelation and a very familiar one.
Gadsby’s words resonate sharply in India as a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court begins hearings for petitions filed against Section 377, which criminalises “unnatural sex”. It will hopefully be the final leg of a legal battle that’s been going on for nearly two decades, marked by very public discussions and debates on dignity, humanity and yes, polls about whether it’s “natural” or okay to be gay. Whether it’s a psychiatric disorder or not is still being discussed.
“This is bigger than homosexuality,” Gadsby emphasises in the show, “this is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things – it’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive.”
Shame is a sharp blade we’re fed early on if we don’t exist according to the rules. It burrows itself deeper and deeper with time, hollowing us out. Overturning Section 377 is a very welcome step, but what are we going to do about the millions of queer people who’re carrying that blade around? What are we going to do about survivors of sexual violence who’re subjected to debates on “false cases”, about the “right way” they should be behaving after being assaulted. What are we going to do about people who have always been pushed down by caste and have to witness public discussions about whether they are deserving of education, whether they’re sullying the worth of “merit”. About people who have known only one home their whole life and suddenly find their identity as citizens as a matter of public debate?
Gadsby says she’s been learning the art of diffusing tension since she was a child, because she was the tension. What does it mean to inhabit a body that is different, that is queer, that doesn’t conform to gender, that is Dalit, that is disabled but still seeks to carve out space for itself? When your very existence is the setup, but you refuse finally, to be the punchline?
At its very heart, Nanette, by asking this question, is an excoriation of power and a culture obsessed with protecting the reputation of those who wield it – a force of anger and sensitivity stemming from the Me Too movement. Gadsby runs through a roster list of the “men who control our stories” – Harvey Weinstein, Pablo Picasso, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski – dismantling in the process, the poisonous fallacy of how we must separating the man from the art he has created. She is unapologetic about shattering the veneer of amiability, about deviating from her role as an “entertainer” and her fury has direction and purpose, holding those in power accountable. “To the straight, white men in the room,” she says “the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you. And if you can’t handle criticism, deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you’re up to the task of being in charge.”
Nanette’s triumph lies not just in what it says but also in the command Gadsby holds over the room. Even as she makes her audience aware of how comedians manoeuver audiences, she does exactly that, a magician who does not lose anything by revealing the trick. She diffuses particular moments of suffocating tension unexpectedly and with ease, while leaving others bloated and festering, reeking of the complicity of her audience. She follows the golden rule of punching up, not down – making those in positions of power the butt of her jokes. She singles out men, particularly straight white men, who are for the first time a “subcategory of human”, pointing out their inability to take a joke at their expense, because they’ve never historically been the object of them.
“Just jokes though, guys, don’t feel intimidated, just locker room talk. Just jokes,” Gadsby says with mock intimidation, earning uproarious laughter. It’s a thrilling, giddy reversal of power. “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has built herself up, would you test your strength on me?” she challenges. She is telling her story, Gadsby asserts, not so she is thought of as a victim but because it has value. “Yes, I’m angry and I have every right to be,” she says but the anger is making her sick and she doesn’t want to spread it anymore. She just needs her story heard and understood. “Laughter is just the honey to sweeten the bitter medicine. Stories hold the cure,” she ends “Please help me take care of mine.”
It’s a staggering final act of vulnerability and strength to close a show that has struck home for viewers across the world – women exhausted from everyday misogyny, survivors of abuse, “quiet gays” who have been putting themselves down too often to fit in. Nanette’s most enduring lesson is for us to feel worthy enough to tell our story, yes, but also that we be alert and open to the stories of others, particularly those who have rarely been given the chance to tell it. And we need to listen to all of it – beginning, middle and end.