Jul 05

Hannah Gadsby: “Nanette”(Serious Comedy)

Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who is already 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. Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette” (Netflix special)

I and many others have only recently become familiar with Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby via her new Netflix special Nanette,” an atypical show featuring the expected stand-up humor mixed with some unexpected not-so-funny messaging—with a purpose.

I rarely watch comedians’ specials. I just don’t find them “special” enough. This one is.

Hannah Gadsby is a lesbian, a gender-bender, a self-admitted larger type of person, an experienced laugh-getter—and she’s also had some terrible stuff happen to her. In “Nanette” she risks putting this hard stuff out there and winds up finding that audiences can relate.

I agree with Linda Holmes, NPR, who concluded, “Suffice it to say there is a reason why people are so urgently telling the people they know to watch it.” Start with the trailer:

More from Holmes:

Gadsby begins with a riff on what it was like, as a kid growing up in Tasmania, when she ‘found out [she] was a little bit lesbian.’ The general attitude, she says, was that gay people were not welcome: ‘You should just get yourself a one-way ticket to the mainland, and don’t come back,’ she summarizes…

…What, exactly, is funny about feeling unwelcome in your own country because of who you are? What, as she continues in another anecdote, is funny about being angrily confronted by a man who believed she was another man hitting on his girlfriend? The humor is in the way she tells it; the humor is her choice. She is making the decision to make it comedy. She could make another choice instead.

And so she does. Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic: “Nanette is the kind of work that leaves you shaken. Not because it’s really funny (it really is), or because it’s equally heartbreaking, but because it finds a fusion of those two modes that’s incandescent. It feels not coincidental that some of the most beautiful, innovative works of art of late have similarly balanced light and dark. In this moment, where news feeds oscillate back and forth between dog memes and human-rights atrocities, we’re used to shifting moods in a heartbeat. In Nanette, Gadsby shows how full of power and potential the space in between can be.”

What’s it been like for Gadsby to have continually addressed stories “about homophobia, assault, and other traumatic experiences” on her extensive tour, Jackson McHenry, Vulture, asked the comedian.

I am basically reliving trauma, quite significant trauma, every night. I’ve had psychiatrists and psychologists reach out to me over the course of the 18 months I’ve been touring, saying ‘Nobody’s done this, we don’t know what you’re possibly doing to yourself.’ It’s like an extreme form of CBT, or neurobiological rewiring, or something like that. It’s never easy to perform. It has not gotten easier on the stage. I’ve really upset audiences, and I can feel that. That affects me in turn…

But it has, over the course, gotten easier for me to leave it there. In the first 12 months, I was going home and, you know, rocking myself to sleep. I felt very vulnerable, I felt very unsafe. It felt like a risk every time I stood onstage. That part has gotten easier, and that comes from, just basically, audiences caring. I have had a less and less hostile audience.

Connecting with others, she adds, has been helpful. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed,” she tells her “Nanette” audience. “What I would have done to have heard a story like mine … to have felt less alone.”