The most talked about comedy special of 2018 came from a comedian most Americans had never heard of: Hannah Gadsby. Her special Nanette, which was released on Netflix last summer, begins almost conventionally, but over the course of an hour, becomes poignant, confrontational, and gut-wrenching as she addresses trauma, violence, homophobia, and the nature of comedy itself. Nanette turned Gadsby into an overnight sensation and just won her an Emmy, beating out Beyoncé’s Homecoming.
On Studio 360, Gadsby sits down with guest host and fellow comedian Hari Kondabolu to discuss Nanette , her new show Douglas, and the controversy over whether her work should be considered comedy at all. Below, some highlights from their conversation, which has been edited and condensed. The full episode is available here.
Hari Kondabolu: What was your life like before Nanette?
Hannah Gadsby: It was so quiet. I didn’t believe I’d ever be able to afford a home of my own. So I decided, about a year before I wrote Nanette, “I really want a garden. I’m just going to plant out this rental.” And so before Nanette, it really was dogs and gardening and tea, and a lot of alone time. I spent a lot of time alone. I think I was exhausted. I’d been diagnosed with autism. So I was adjusting to that new sort of framework of understanding myself. Of course, diagnosis doesn’t come with a change. You just have it.
That happened before Nanette was released?
Oh yeah. Before it was written. I mean Nanette was pretty much the show I could write once I understood what was setting me apart, because I was always very confused. I just felt like there was something really deeply wrong with me, so I was always just scrambling to get to the starting line of “normal.” And then once I was diagnosed, I’m like, “Oh, I’m never gonna get there.” You know, there’s a brain situation. So I began to look at myself with a lot more empathy. Because all my work prior to that was going, “I’m sorting out what’s wrong with me,” whereas then I’m like, “Oh, I know what’s wrong with me. I know my limits.” But then I turned my critical eye onto the world. And I’m going, “I can also see your limits.”
You got so much love for Nanette, but there was a really loud backlash from mostly dudes complaining that it doesn’t count as comedy. “There aren’t enough jokes! Comedy isn’t supposed to be this serious! It’s supposed to make you laugh!” How do you respond to that?
I think if the only reason you speak is to make people laugh … what are you saying?
And we hear it from our peers, too. “Look, I want to be able to destroy in every room. I want to make people laugh in every room.”
But if you want to then build an hour long show that you want people to sit down and watch, it’s very arrogant to think that just destroying every room you walk in is going to be enough for people who are not in a room with you. It’s a different form. Because people get bored laughing, believe it or not. You can be wall-to-wall funny for 70 minutes, and they’ll either get bored or mindless.
They don’t remember a thing that was said.
And that’s also fine. But these arguments about, you know, “This is not what comedy is.” Comedy was invented so recently, it’s a literal joke. It hasn’t been around long enough to be getting this high and mighty about something you just made up. Like all art, eventually if you dig deep enough, it is made up.
Shaped by where it was performed, the context it was performed in.
Well, I mean if you look way back, way back before even the written word, you have oral storytelling. That is how culture was passed through. And that was something that women participated in. And then historically, women have been squeezed out of the sharing of stories and the writing of stories through not being able to access education, public spaces, etc. So really stand-up comedy is the logical conclusion of centuries of men writing their own rules for themselves. Which is fine. Good on ya, fellas. But you made a mistake by letting women be educated. And now we are, so back off.
Because the accusation has already been made, like, “Oh, you killed comedy. You’re killing comedy.”
But if one person can kill comedy, comedy can’t be that robust. It’s in an iron lung anyway. I just pulled the plug.
And comedy, first of all, there must be some evolutionary benefit, because why else are we still laughing? Clearly there is something. You cannot kill that art form.
Well, you can. Because people are okay at making themselves laugh. They don’t actually need to outsource, particularly now. Like, friends and family make you laugh more than any comedian ever will, absolutely. Unless you’re lonely, which a lot of comics are… speaking from experience. But it’s also like, people are able to make themselves laugh in their own circles quite easily. Particularly now with the Internet, you can have access to laughs anytime you want. So you can go, “I need a laugh.” You look on YouTube. Whatever floats your boat, you can find that laughter there. So I think that the live art form has to evolve because the world has what it needs at its fingertips. If you want to take comedy seriously, then it has to move into a more mature form. Otherwise, just do fart jokes against a brick wall.
For people who know you from Nanette, when they see Douglas, what are they getting?
Well, first of all, they’re getting a performer who’s not, you know, frightened. Every time I stood on stage to perform Nanette, I knew what was coming. So I was carrying a lot. And it was never easy to perform. With Douglas, it’s a fun show. Like it is a playful, silly … It’s showing another facet of who I am.
There are so many jokes.
It’s a really joke-heavy show.
I mean that does respond to like, “Oh, she doesn’t have jokes.” What do you think they’re going to criticize you about now, since you’ve proven you’re funny and you have even more jokes in this hour?
Oh, that’s why I’m doing it. I’m fascinated. They will have something to say and I need to know what it is.
So you’re trolling them.
Hate-baiting. I call it what it is in the show. I’m deliberately hate-baiting. Sort of like, I take a poignant moment and then I sort of destroy it.
That’s the most talented trolling I could’ve possibly imagined.
I mean, if you’ve got a platform, what are you going to do? You either are going to do good, or you’re going to troll trolls. I’ve already done good. So why not troll trolls?
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