Comedians Explain Why Hannah Gadsby's 'Nanette' Is So Groundbreaking

The Netflix special questioned the nature of standup as an art form, forcing many people to ask themselves uncomfortable questions.

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Jul 13 2018, 8:39pm

All photos courtesy of the subjects

Hannah Gadsby, a queer female comedian from Tasmania, probably wasn’t on most American comedians’ radars until her Netflix special, Nanette, was released earlier this month. But now she's all we’re talking about.

The special, if you haven't seen it, starts out like most others. Gadsby delves into her personal life, and packs vulnerable material about coming out and being a lesbian with plenty of jokes, in order to do what all comics aim to do—lighten the mood. However, as her performance continues it gets more blunt. She comments on the nature of self-deprecating humor, stating that self-deprecation from someone who already exists in the margins is not humility, “It’s humiliation."

“I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak," she says. "And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself, or to anybody who identifies with me.”

Gadsby proclaims multiple times that she feels she has to quit standup. In her eyes, things like abuse and discrimination should not be turned into jokes. She brilliantly points out how standup has been guilty of helping problematic men. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lewinsky was turned into a punchline, and her life was ruined. Gadsby asks comedians to think about their involvement in situations like this.

The special has sparked a lot of debate, especially in the comedy community. The main (ridiculous) complaint I’ve heard is that this shouldn’t be considered a comedy special because there aren’t enough jokes. For me, a lot of what Gadsby says rings true, and I'm glad she said it.

I was getting sick of standup for some of the same reasons she outlines, but rather than make me want to quit, her special pulled me out of my funk. I was reminded of why I got into standup in the first place—so I could be heard. The comedy stage is one of the few places I knew a man would have to sit down, shut up, and listen to me speak. While I'm on stage, he is forced to listen to the words of a woman he doesn’t want to have sex with.

As a woman who mostly does comedy that is critical of straight dudes in their 20s, I'm very accustomed to alienating large chunks of my audience. Most comedy fans are men, and are still not used to hearing a woman speak her real, unabashed truth. My style of comedy becomes “female comedy” as opposed to just plain old comedy—it’s considered niche, simply because it’s the perspective of a woman as opposed to a man. Nanette was a personal reminder to me that to say what I am really feeling is more important than getting a laugh from every person in the crowd.

I spoke to some of my peers in comedy to see how they feel about Nanette. Do they agree with Gadsby’s thesis? Was their takeaway similar or different to mine? Here’s what they had to say.

Photo courtesy of Guy Branum

Guy Branum

It must be first said that Nanette is a great and powerful work of art. It is brutally honest and brutally smart, which are both things I aspire to in my standup. Gadsby's Picasso metaphor is so brilliant and true: So much of what is moribund about standup comedy is the singularity of perspective. It is only through diversity that this very, very subjective art form can reflect a real world. That said, why she gotta quit comedy?

The fundamental thesis of the work, that standup comedy is an inadequate tool to reflect the complexity of human life, that it turns people into trite objects instead of telling their whole story, is inaccurate. It's nihilistic. Stories are great if you're talking to people who are ready to hear those stories. Your editorialization of your pain, heartache, or dehumanization can be received by audiences who are already on the same page with you. Standup is reductive, but it's also ambiguous. Gadsby criticizes standup because it doesn't end in a moral. I like the fact that standup ends in a tension. A joke ends in multiple truths weighing against each other, asking the audience to participate, to ask questions of themselves, to grow.

Look, I LOVED Nanette, and was fascinated by it. That I disagree with it doesn't mean it's bad art, it means it's great art which made me think. But it continues a narrative that queers don't do regular standup, and regular standup is no place for queers. I loved Nanette, and I love that it PROBLEMATIZED standup, but I didn't love that Hannah had to declare she was leaving standup. You can't revolutionize an art form by shitting on it, unless it's the late 80s and you're getting an NEA grant for it.

Guy Branum's new book, My Life as a Godess , is out later this month.

Photo courtesy of Jenny Yang

Jenny Yang

I was watching this special on a flight and was ugly crying in my airplane seat. I was so moved. Not so much because she was telling me something I didn't know, but rather because she was so artfully confirming how I have always felt. Before standup, I performed poetry. For me, doing poetry was a direct line between how I felt and what I wanted to express. When I started doing standup, I knew I would become a true standup if I have the same experience doing standup as I did performing poetry. A direct connection between my heart and my story, and what gets presented on the stage. Her point about self-deprecating humor being a huge engine of standup is spot on. It’s the first thing you learn. Playground rules. You have to acknowledge that you understand what you look like, and how you come off. If you’re anything outside of the norm especially, the first lesson is that you have to make fun of yourself first so people feel like they can trust you, and you show that you have self-awareness.

I’m in the process of rethinking my view. I’m not fully content with the persona I present with my material right now. The key part of it has been thinking about my needing to put in self-deprecating humor to convince people that I am palatable. I am now struggling with this idea that I have to let people know that I can make fun of myself before I can make fun of other people and other things that matter to me.

When she said she was going to quit, I didn't take that literally. I took it figuratively. That’s how it feels. It feels like you need to quit this form of standup in order to truly be able to express who you are when you want to joke about the realest and toughest things in a way that liberates your story and still entertains. There’s a limit to standup as an art if we only think about it in terms of set-up and punchline. And if you don’t represent a mainstream story, that need to make fun of yourself as a standup can ultimately feel doubly oppressive.

Photo courtesy of Riley Silverman

Riley Silverman

As someone who spent the first half of her career in the closet before coming out as a woman, I definitely felt the gap in self-deprecating humor as a performer. It was something I did a lot pre-transition, partly because I was so miserable and partly because it worked. But after I came out, I felt like there was way more of a need to flat-out own who I was onstage. I felt like any time I came across like I had some shame in who I was, the audience would pick up on it and bring back an energy of perhaps there was something wrong with me. But when I was confident to the point of comedic arrogance, the crowd was super on board with me too.

I don't think that means self-depreciation is off the table entirely, and I definitely feel like often some of the things that are worth poking fun at about myself about are the things that people outside of my specific experience suddenly find themselves surprised at how much they relate to, and that bridges gaps in ways that I love, and is part of why I enjoy comedy. But like Gadsby, I've also been physically assaulted for who I am, and like her I've also struggled at times to find the way to talk about it onstage. Struggled to both make it work as a comedic bit but also remain as true to life of what happened. I think where she and I veer off is that her ultimate realization is that comedy may not be the best art form for dealing with one's legit traumas, and I'm still internalizing it as a shortcoming of my own comedic skill that I just haven't found the way to make it work yet.

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Gill

Caitlin Gill

I enjoyed Nanette very much. It felt like some inside baseball connected on a very broad level, which is interesting. It's powerful, vulnerable, brilliantly composed, and funny.

It's a pleasure to watch people who didn't enjoy it melt down about it. It clearly gets under your skin, whether you thought you liked it or not. Gadsby's thoughts on self-deprecating humor are spot on, and her exploration of standup as a balance of tension and release were perfectly articulated. My own style and approach to comedy means I have some different theories. She distills "joke" down to its simplest definition: a question with a surprise answer. My distillation is a bit different. Insufferably, here it is: two contradictory ideas that both appear to be true. I'm splitting nerd hairs here. Basically it's just two ways of saying cognitive dissonance.

This is the kind of extra specific thought that popped up while I was watching. I didn't disagree with Gadsby, I thought about how my own thoughts or tricks are different. The special made me think a lot about how and why I do comedy. I do it with love because I love it. That can be vulnerable, but this is a great special to watch if you need a reminder on how powerful vulnerability can be.

I am thankful for any piece of work that is written for someone other than 18-49 year old dudes. I'm thankful for a woman's perspective not written by or "approved of" by dudes. As a comedy fan, I am much more likely to connect with someone like Gadsby than a long list of boring clones with bloated popularity, so I get a giggle watching people punch their keyboard about it.

Another thought: Since the Me Too movement has been moving through comedy, I have felt this pressure to “fix it” on stage for scared male peers. To write jokes that will make it all OK, or make them feel better, or to make the crowd feel better about it and it’s fucking exhausting. I didn’t realize how much I needed a long, strong, unapologetic set.

Danielle Radford

I am a storytelling comic. There is a long line of storytelling comics. I don’t understand why this special made folks suddenly cranky.

Nanette made me feel stuff. It’s OK if it didn’t make you feel stuff. Comedy is subjective. Some comics yell other comics’ innermost insecurities in front of large crowds for sport and then take them out to breakfast and that’s comedy. Some lay themselves bare in sets about their family life and failures in a set up/punch style and that’s comedy. Some folks show up to open mics buck ass naked because *Tim Allen noise* and that... happens. There’s room for ALL of it. Comedy is a large umbrella. Enjoy what speaks to you. Don’t stress about the rest because it doesn’t affect you, you weirdo.

Quotes lightly edited for length and clarity.

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