Hannah Gadsby is not a victim. Her story has value. She has a right to tell it, to be heard and understood. And she does it spectacularly.
‘Nanette’, Hannah’s Netflix special, is stand-up at its best, but it breaks all the rules of comedy as we understand it. It is a beautifully crafted tirade, a brutally honest lesson and a brilliantly funny show. Seamlessly weaving gender, sexuality and childhood trauma with art history and laughter, Hannah takes the audience through her story – the whole story, not one that has been sacrificed for a punchline – and uses it to demonstrate and rail against the abuse that she and others have faced. Growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997, meant Hannah was a gay woman who had been raised on homophobia. The internalisation of this hatred led to an adolescence “soaked in shame” and it is Hannah’s journey from this confused childhood to her mother’s apology in the middle of Target that forms the basis of ‘Nanette’.
A story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, but a joke, Hannah says, only has a beginning and a middle. The fact that she and her mother now have a fantastic relationship is no use to a joke that focuses on her mother comparing being gay to being a murderer – “well, you would hope it was a phase.” Breaking down the anatomy of a joke, Hannah describes how the comedian creates tension, and then saves the audience from the tension with a punchline. The best comedians are excellent tension diffusers, and Hannah has been diffusing tension all her life as a survival tactic. The story she tells of nearly being beaten up at a bus stop does not end where she leaves it, the potential threat dismissed in a funny quip. Later in the show she describes how the man came back to assault her, and the tension she creates is no longer diffused by cutting the story short with a punchline. She leaves it in the air, allowing the audience to sit with that tension as she has done all her life, refusing to save them from it. Stories, not laughter, is the best medicine, but only when told and heard in full. For years Hannah’s story has been frozen at its trauma point, the tension repeated every time she tells that story on stage – “you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In ‘Nanette’ there is no manufactured relief through laughter, but instead, an overwhelming sense of catharsis that can only come when a story is told in its entirety.
Hannah has been performing stand up comedy for a decade, creating a career based on self-deprecation. ‘Nanette’ is a declaration of her refusal to do so anymore. For those “existing in the margins” self-deprecation is not a show of humility, but a necessity to seek permission to speak, a required humiliation. Occasionally, Hannah is mistaken for a man, and is amused by those who frantically apologise after calling her ‘sir.’ Instead, she points out that the mistake allows her to briefly be “top-shelf normal, king of the humans…a straight white man.” And it is straight white men who are at the centre of Hannah’s anger. For the first time in history, men are a “sub category of human.” Campaigns such as #MeToo and podcasts such as The Guilty Feminist mean that they are no longer neutral category creators, but are a category themselves. The show ends on a piece she addresses directly to the white straight men in the audience. She doesn’t believe women are better than men; they are just as fallible, just as corruptible. But power is in male hands, and those hands are not up to the task of wielding such a weapon. When Hannah says “I am not a man-hater, but I am afraid of men” she summarises how many women feel. Being afraid when you are the only women in a room of men, or walking home, or waiting at a bus stop – it is not tangible and it is not hatred, but it is omnipresent and oppressive.
There is so much more to Nanette than I have explored here. Hannah makes her art history degree both hilarious and poignant, talks openly about how mental illness is ‘not a ticket to genius’ but a ticket to nowhere and brutally dissects the gendered boxes we create from day dot. If she does quit comedy it will be a monumental loss, but she is a sparkling addition to humanity. If you haven’t yet watched it I can only demand that you do; if you have already, I can only hope that you look at Van Gogh’s sunflowers in a new light.