“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.” This was the first line in Hannah Gadsby’s smash-hit 2018 stand-up special Nanette that made people shift in their seats. It’s not a joke, and it’s the first of many not-a-jokes that Gadsby made the audience sit with in their hourlong show about their journey to coming out as a lesbian and living in the world as a queer person, a show that many comedians credit with changing the genre altogether. Where most stand-up sets rely on the repeated build and release of tension through setup and punchline, Gadsby refused. “This tension? It’s yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like,” they said, anger and hurt simmering in their voice.
It was a perfect commentary on the nature of humor and the nature of trauma, and the uncomfortable relationship between the two. As part of the set, they told a story about a particularly hurtful reaction to their sexuality from someone close to them. “The way I’ve been telling that story is through jokes. And stories … unlike jokes, need three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Jokes, they said, need only a beginning and a middle. Telling it like a joke had been holding them back from reaching that end: from giving that trauma a place to come to rest.
After the wild success of Nanette, in which the stand-up declared that they were quitting comedy, the question, for Gadsby, was where to go from there. They had “cleared the table for necessary regrowth,” the comedian Tig Notaro told the New York Times. But what form would that regrowth take? Their next hour, Douglas, tackled this problem head-on. “What the fuck are you expecting from this show? Because, I’m sorry, if it’s more trauma, I am fresh out,” they admitted, and then told the audience exactly how the structure of the show was going to work: meeting and mitigating expectations as part of the joke. They talked about how they were accused by their naysayers of delivering a “lecture,” and they responded to that accusation by smuggling an art history lecture into Douglas—albeit a very funny one about a painting featuring a woman clenching a piece of fabric between her butt cheeks. And Douglas was still an angry show. Talking about their own autism, and hatred for anti-vaxxers who would deny children vaccinations to avoid “ending up like her,” they yelled: “If you honestly think that your child, your only, single child, is more important than all the other children collectively, you’re not playing for the team. … Get a pet rock and delete your fucking blog.” (The special was developed and recorded before COVID-19 conquered the globe, so Gadsby had no way of knowing how timely its spring 2020 release would be.)
So now we arrived at their third televised set, Something Special, which comes out on Netflix Tuesday, May 9. And this time, they tell us right at the beginning, they’re going for something different. It’s still Gadsby, all impish grin and large glasses, but something has shifted. “This is going to be a feel-good show, because I believe I owe you one,” they say. And it is. A lot has changed in Gadsby’s life since Nanette. Their late-in-life diagnosis of ADHD and autism (which was also a subject of Douglas) has helped them understand themself, and they’ve gotten married, to their producer Jenney Shamash, with whom they spent the pandemic locked down. The show is about the couple’s life together, the awkwardness of meeting the family, bungled past relationships that have led them here. There’s still yelling: There’s one bit when they’re despairing over the fakery inherent in most proposal stories. But the anger is gone. (They’ve also begun to publicly identify as genderqueer or, more specifically, as an “autistic Australian genderqueer vagina-wielding situation,” and their publisher and management company began referring to them using they/them pronouns, but in Something Special, the subject hardly comes up.)
It’s still funny. A particularly good section involves Gadsby wishing they had more social wherewithal to interact with famous people. Turning down a birthday gift from Jodie Foster—Bananagrams—because they already had a set, and telling the director Richard Curtis (the man behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually) that they don’t like rom-coms because they don’t like how the kissing sounds. Despite its lack of their signature bite, it’s also still smart and carefully thought out. Cleverly structured around a central story about how they proposed to their wife, it’s satisfying as a whole.
Gadsby’s comedy has always involved exploring vulnerability: what it can do onstage. In Nanette, Gadsby’s vulnerability in talking about their life’s foundational traumas onstage and refusing to make a joke of them was so raw it was shocking. In Douglas, they explored how the success of Nanette itself made them vulnerable to people taking it in the wrong spirit. Here, they’ve done something different but just as vulnerable, in its way: allowed the audience to see their joy, not their anger.
It may be a less revolutionary kind of vulnerability than we saw in Nanette. But it’s nice to see Gadsby reveling in something of a happy ending. Or, if not a happy ending, a happy middle of the story. If Nanette was a scream of rage, Something Special is a sigh of relief. They’ve earned it.