Brow Beat

Hannah Gadsby’s First Netflix Comedy Special Is About Why She’s Quitting Comedy

The Australian comic’s Nanette delves into subjects where setups and punchlines aren’t enough.

Hannah Gadsby at a microphone.
Hannah Gadsby in Nanette. Netflix

In the early hours of June 13, Eurydice Dixon, a 22-year-old stand-up comedian from Melbourne, Australia, was raped and murdered while she was walking home from a gig. She’d spent the evening making people laugh in a city bar. “She was on top of the world because her gig went so well,” said the last friend to see her alive. The week before she was killed, she joked onstage about worry. “I have a tendency to worry a lot, about things that I shouldn’t worry about. Sometimes I worry we’re going to end up in a slave society—you know, just girly things.”

Her murder caused a wave of outcry in Australia, and a few ripples in the U.S. The following Monday, about 10,000 people attended a vigil in the Melbourne park where she was killed, with smaller vigils held in cities across the country. Everyone in Australia knows her name now, but because of her violent death, not her talent or her jokes. I can’t help but wonder: Had she survived her attack, had she escaped, had it only been rape, had it only been assault, could she have turned the incident into material? If she lived to tell the tale, would she be telling it?

It’s not unusual for comedians to make material out of misery, reducing their traumas to a setup and punchline. For marginalized people, these stories are often tied up in identity, in the trauma of being anything other than a cisgender straight white male in a world in which difference means danger. Women, LGBTQ people, and people of color take their stories of violence, both physical and emotional, and shape them into jokes, turning their pain into our pleasure—and leaving important, less funny details untold.

It’s for this reason that Hannah Gadsby is quitting comedy—or at least so she says, many times over, in her new Netflix special, Nanette. The popular Australian comedian is no stranger to self-deprecation: As her site puts it, “Generally, I like to take a story of woe from my actual factual life and make it hilarious.” But these are no everyday stories of woe. Gadsby grew up gay in Tasmania, “the little island floating off the ass end of mainland Australia” known for its “frighteningly small gene pool,” where homosexuality was a crime until 1997.

Gadsby has been performing on the comedy circuit for more than a decade, with much of her humor centering on her sexuality. She jokes that her first show was “classic New Gay Comic 101: my coming out story. … I told lots of cool jokes about homophobia. Really solved that problem.” But in Nanette, which has landed her awards, and international acclaim, she says she can’t do it anymore.

At first, Nanette appear to be a regular comedy special, unless of course you’ve been reading the reviews, which have been singing its praises since the 2017 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where it won most outstanding show (it picked up the same award at Edinburgh). Gadsby spends the first part of the set showing off her comedic mastery, retelling hilarious tales of hardship: her “gender not-normal”-ness, her childhood in homophobic Tasmania (she calls letters to the editor “slow Twitter”), her coming-out story, and the time a moronic man at a bus stop mistook her for a bloke and threated to beat her up for hitting on his girlfriend. But once the audience is warmed up, once they’ve had a taste of her “lesbian humor,” she flips the script:

I do think I have to quit comedy though. It’s probably not the forum to make such an announcement, is it? … But I have been questioning this whole comedy thing. I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore. I built a career out of self-deprecating humor. That’s what I built a career on. And I don’t want to do that anymore. Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists 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. And I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or to anybody who identifies with me.

It’s not clear whether Gadsby’s insistence that she has to quit comedy is serious—in fact, it hasn’t always been entirely clear to Gadsby. In a recent interview with Vulture, she says that the “quitting” theme has been through various iterations. “At the start, at the beginning of last year, it was more furious: ‘Well, I’m quitting!’ It’s like throwing a grenade, so it became that. Whenever I really sold it, it went better than if it was just a throwaway line. So I completely sold it, and I sold it to myself. Over the course of my first three weeks of performing it, I really liked the idea of quitting. It felt really freeing.”

It’s ironic that this show (billed as her “farewell tour,” her “swansong”) is the one that has catapulted Gadsby to international renown. “I think I’m taking a break from comedy,” she told Australia’s Radio National in March 2017, just before her show blew up. “I’m starting to worry that searching for jokes for jokes’ sake. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Over a year later she’s still performing Nanette, after unforeseen runs in London and New York, and a Netflix and book deal along the way. She’ll be taking it to Montreal in July in what is being billed as its—not her—last ever performance. That break, temporary or permanent, is long overdue.

Gadsby’s renunciation of comedy may not be 100 percent serious, but neither is it merely a device for the show. Nanette gets at a major problem with the way she has been managing her trauma, at the way so many do. If stand-up is about condensing complex personal narratives into repeatable jokes, leaving out the parts that don’t serve the purpose of making strangers laugh, what does that mean for the human up on stage? Whether or not Gadsby gives up comedy, it’s clear that she’s done with using her pain as a punchline.

Gadsby is not alone. There has been a wave of female comedians of late turning around to say, “Actually, that’s not funny” of their own jokes. In her stand-up special Rape Jokes (which has drawn comparisons with Gadsby’s Nanette), Cameron Esposito recounts the story of her own sexual assault. But she tells it, rather than jokes about it. “I used to tell this story at parties as, like, a funny thing that happened to me—that’s how disconnected many people are from their own agency. … Until someone said to me, ‘That’s a not funny story.’ ” In a recent conversation with Oprah, Amy Schumer reflects on her former tendency to joke about her “grape,” or “gray-area rape,” in her stand-up, something that she figured could help people “laugh while they learned.” In her conversation with Oprah, she tells it straight, calling it what it is. “I didn’t consent. I lost my virginity while I was asleep. And that’s not OK.” Feminists have been arguing about the appropriateness of rape jokes for many years now. Perhaps, these women suggest, there is no such thing as a good rape joke. In the wake of a young comedian’s death, it’s hard to imagine rape being funny no matter which direction you’re punching.

For Gadsby, it’s not just that packaging her suffering into laugh lines is self-destructive and dismissive, an act of denial. And it’s not just that it’s fundamentally unfunny. It’s that the medium of stand-up is ill-equipped to deal with stories like hers—deep traumas that left lasting damage. It simplifies them, forcing them into a restrictive format. Like a retiring magician revealing the secrets behind her tricks, Gadbsy draws back the curtain on stand-up, a manipulative process she is very good at. The setup is all about creating tension, while the punchline is about breaking it. It was the comic who made the tension, just so that her punchline would come with maximum release.

The problem, for Gadsby, is that these carefully honed zingers often miss the most important part of the story: the ending. “The way I’ve been telling that story is through jokes,” Gadsby says. “And stories, unlike jokes, need three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jokes need two parts: a beginning and a middle. … In a comedy show there’s no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending. In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punchlines.” Good or bad, the ending matters.

And with that she returns to some of her earlier jokes, from her childhood to her coming-out story to the bus stop incident, and she tells you the ending, not the punchline. Some have more positive outcomes than her jokes would suggest, but far more of them are simply devastating. They’re not funny—they’re true. She shares other traumas, previously unheard stories that had no chance of being made palatable through punchlines. She shares the damage that can be done to a person growing up gay in a homophobic society in visceral detail.

Endings matter, and so do voices, and it’s clear that art hasn’t always done a great job of telling the stories of marginalized people. But nor has Gadsby been representing her own pain accurately. She may have controlled the narrative, but only within comedy’s very limited form. “I need to tell my story properly,” Gadsby says, urgently and repeatedly. “I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood.” Having seen the show live in the tiny SoHo Playhouse, I wasn’t sure if Gadsby’s anguish would translate to a Netflix special shot inside the Sydney Opera House. But even through the screen, it’s impossible not to feel her pain.

Early in Nanette, Gadsby explains how comedy works, how tension is broken to bring relief. By the end, there is no relief for the audience. But perhaps there is some for Gadsby. After years of telling jokes, she is finally telling her story.