The most radical thing Hannah Gadsby does in Nanette is simple: She stops being funny. It’s about 35 minutes into her 70-minute comedy show, filmed live at the Sydney Opera House, and Gadsby, a 40-year-old Tasmanian comic, has riffed on the gay pride flag (“six very shouty, assertive colors stacked on top of each other”), the pointlessness of bald babies wearing pink headbands (“Would you put a bangle on a potato?”), and her home island (famous for “our frighteningly small gene pool”). Her jokes are riotous, but they’re laced with something darker, more caustic. There’s an anecdote about a man who called her a “fucking faggot” and threatened to beat her up before bragging that he doesn’t hit women. (“What a guy,” Gadsby quips.) She states, out of nowhere, that she thinks she has to quit comedy. After she delivers each joke, she smiles, winningly and with a glint in her eye, like a demented cherub.
And then she stops. She doesn’t just put her jokes on hold, she excavates them, showing the audience the rotten holes in her humor. She doesn’t indict people for laughing, but the subtext is clear. She indicts herself. Her entire 10-year career, she explains, is based on self-deprecation, but she doesn’t want to do that anymore. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins?” she says. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore.”
As a genre, comedy is accustomed to meltdowns, to public cries for help. But Nanette is different. What’s made the special such a striking word-of-mouth hit for Netflix (if you’re reading this, you’ve likely either watched it or been told by someone that you have to) is how precise, how surgical Gadsby is as she skewers comedy’s structural inability to make things better. Comedians like her, she explains, take their trauma and feed it into humor. But in doing so, they crystallize their lives within that moment of tension, that particular punchline, rather than allowing themselves to reach an endpoint of (unfunny) catharsis. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” she says. “I need to tell my story properly.”
Until now, Gadsby has been relatively unsung outside of Australia, where she won a national comedy contest in 2006 and has combined tours and TV work ever since. But Nanette, which has won multiple festival awards since it debuted last year, is arriving into a culture that’s more receptive to learning from stories about misogyny and abuse than it might have been a few years ago. What makes it so powerful, though, is that Gadsby barely alludes to topical events at all. The stories she tells, the instincts and hatred she unravels, predate them by so many years they’re impossible to count. In the second half of Nanette, Gadsby utilizes her self-mocked degree in art history to analyze how centuries of Western art have conceptualized women as objects.
The grist for her show, though, is her art. Here, it melds stand-up and storytelling in a way that makes Nanette one of the most extraordinary comedy specials in recent memory. Gadsby flips between moods and modes again and again, lining up jokes and then pushing them beyond the point of comfort. “I love Tasmania,” she says, “but I had to leave as soon as I found out I was a little bit lesbian.” Her vernacular is comical, as is her delivery. Then she explains that homosexuality was a crime in Tasmania till 1997, and the tenor shifts. A story about the “feedback” she gets from her lesbian fans turns into an recounting of the unsolicited “advice” she gets from men on the street, which is profoundly ugly and brutal in tone. No joke is allowed to simply land.
Toward the end of her act, Gadsby takes an anecdote from earlier on and reveals that she lied about it. Comedy is about balancing humor with the tension in the room, she says, and “in order to balance the tension in the room with that story, I couldn’t tell the story as it actually happened.” Because what happened isn’t just unfunny, it’s horrific and painful just to hear about, let alone to experience. “This tension,” Gadsby concludes, “it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore.” It’s a confrontation with the audience that asks a question: What is comedy for? Watching Nanette, I kept thinking about Trevor Griffiths’s 43-year-old play Comedians, in which an elderly stand-up, Eddie, tries to teach budding comics to aspire to more than racist, sexist humor. A true joke, Eddie explains, “ a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.”
Gadsby’s similar desire to change comedy, to maybe even change the world, is what leaves Nanette ending on something like hope. She acknowledges the damage that’s been done to her. She communicates how badly it still affects her. She owns, and expresses, her anger. But she also owns her power. “My story has value,” she says. “I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine … to have felt less alone.” Laughter, she says, “is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure.”
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.