Critics have praised Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special Nanette as radical and transformative, a game-changer with the potential to alter the way we think about comedy and the world. Over the course of an hourlong set performed at the Sydney Opera House, Gadsby, a masculine-of-center queer woman, shifts from mundane humor that relies heavily on internalized homophobia to a blistering indictment of toxic masculinity, rape culture, and misogyny. She lays her trauma bare, forcing the audience to contend with the horrors of her sexual abuse as a child, her assault as a teen, and her rape as a twentysomething. She confronts them with the story of her violent attack at the hands of a man who believed she was flirting with his girlfriend. She unpacks what it means for a person to realize they’re queer only after they’ve been indoctrinated with homophobia. And she manages to do it while eliciting laughter and manipulating tension with craft and control.
Audiences, both in-house and of the Netflix variety, were deeply affected by this hour of not-so-funny stand-up, serving them as it did something they’d never before witnessed. Media response credited Gadsby with subverting the genre and ushering in a new approach. Twitter couldn’t stop talking about it. But the mainstream cisgender heterosexual gaze seemed to be missing a crucial point: Nanette is nothing new. And the reason it felt like a radical new kind of stand-up is because, well, it wasn’t stand-up. Or at least, it wasn’t purely stand-up. Gadsby, knowingly or not, tapped into another discrete and firmly established genre with Nanette: queer storytelling. Her special is, as one queer storyteller put it to me, a magic trick.
“I don’t think it’s comedy,” says Drae Campbell, who hosts TELL, a New York–based queer storytelling show and the longest-running program at the Bureau of General Services, Queer Division, a queer bookstore and event venue. “I think [Gadsby is] purposely using your idea of comedy and doing — I hate to cheapen it — but she’s kind of doing this magic trick thing. It’s a way in, though. It’s a device that she’s using to engage people. It is marketable.”
The question of marketability is, of course, why mainstream audiences haven’t been exposed to work like Nanette before. Gadsby is a seasoned comic with 15 years of experience, technically brilliant in her command of the craft. But she herself says during the course of the special that she’s quitting the format because it no longer serves her. Whether framing Nanette as stand-up was a canny marketing ploy on her part or not, Gadsby’s set is ultimately a queer storytelling piece. But queer storytellers labeled as such are unlikely to land Netflix specials despite doing exactly same kind of work as Gadsby, because “queer storytelling” as a genre doesn’t garner the same mass appeal. Without the cachet of a “stand-up comedy” label, queer storytellers are left to do their work somewhat thanklessly in relative obscurity.
But there’s a long-standing, rich, and beautiful history of queer oratory. Performers like Ivan Coyote—a queer storyteller from Whitehorse, Yukon who has been called the KD Lang of Canadian literature—have been doing the kind of deep, trauma-revealing work that Gadsby deploys to subvert her “comedy” for decades. Kelli Dunham and Genne Murphy host Queer Memoir, a New York–based roving storytelling show founded in 2010. Similar shows can be found in Toronto; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; and Chicago. “People have been doing this for forever,” says Dunham, who herself has been doing stand-up since 2001. “Queers have been doing this for forever. This is how we do comedy. [With Nanette], it’s a little bit like, ‘Whoa I can’t believe you guys are doing this!’ Well, we’ve been doing it all along, you just weren’t listening.”
Necessitated by the queer community’s lack of access to formal historical record, queer storytelling is the beating heart of queer culture. The threat of persecution has always forced queer folks to rely on oral histories to share resources, connect, and navigate their own identities. “For many decades, queer artists have been crafting hilarious tales of trauma in bars, coffeehouses, festivals, someone’s apartment that became a theater,” Dunham says. “If you give us an opportunity to tell our own stories in our own words to a bigger audience of folks who are unaccustomed to this juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, you’ll be similarly amazed at the results.”
Queer storytellers like Jes Tom, Robin Cloud, Becca Blackwell, D’Lo, Danny Artese, and Craig Mangum are frequently relegated to the margins despite being extremely popular with queer audiences, and despite doing work even more boundary-pushing than Nanette. Many of these performers also identify as stand-up comics. Some of them are in the literary space, others in performance art. But Campbell says there’s a specific way in which queer folks are trained to use humor that makes traditional stand-up an awkward fit at best.
“There is queer storytelling in stand-up,” she explains, “but what Gadsby said specifically is, I took my trauma and I sealed it in jokes. And so I think that when you’re a person who has a story to tell and you look at what’s [available] in the world, you go, ‘Oh well, I guess I’ll do stand-up.’ And you have to sort of fit what your life is into this fucked up system in which the only way to get out there is to seal up your little traumas and make them into jokes. And that’s the way it always was.”
Tides are shifting as mainstream audiences get hungrier for queer content but, Dunham notes, that comes with its own set of tokenizing challenges. She gets called in to be a line-up’s “diversity” act now more than ever, but straight organizers’ actual literacy around queer folks leaves much to be desired.
“We belong in these spaces,” she insists. “But being able to bring all of myself to anything—to my day job or to performing—is new for me, because sometimes it’s not that fun to perform for straight people. We have to keep knocking on the door. People like D’Lo and Jes Tom are perfect examples of people who knock the fuck on the door and just keep knocking.”
The fact that straight audiences find frank discussions of personal trauma shocking, for example, demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of queer reality. Indeed, harrowing tales like Gadsby’s are pretty common first-date fare for queer women. Dunham, who lost two partners in a row to cancer, notices a stark difference when she plays that material for queer audiences versus straight ones: “You tell that to a bunch of queers and they’re like, ‘Wow, sorry about that, and also, you told it funny!’ And the straight people are like, apoplectic. They kept coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re so brave!’ But that’s like a Tuesday night [for queers].”
In truth, work like Nanette isn’t actually new or radical or groundbreaking; it’s just being discovered by mainstream cis het audiences for the first time because Gadsby had the foresight to frame it as stand-up and direct it to a straight, white, male audience (validating countless others, of course, with her vulnerability and sharp critique). If audiences feel moved and want more content like Nanette, then maybe it’s time to give queer storytellers a platform like a Netflix special without the sexy window-dressing of “stand-up comedy.” Alternatively, audiences craving more probably don’t realize they have a plethora of options in their own hometowns.
“If people want more like Nanette, just look for it,” Dunham urges. “For people who have access, queer storytellers are everywhere. We’re not hard to find! There’s so much more of this. Let’s not pretend like it’s brand new.”