“I am built like a brick shithouse,” Hannah Gadsby tells me over tea in a Hollywood cafe. “Solid, solid human.” She’s explaining how she survived being struck by five cars in the span of seven years. It would be a miracle for anyone else, but Gadsby, who’s been plagued by catastrophe her entire life, takes it more or less in stride. When she was nine, she crashed her bike and needed 56 stitches. When she was 15, she developed gallstones. After high school, she got a job at a supermarket, slipped on some chicken fat and tore ligaments in her knee. She developed pancreatitis. She was the victim of a hate crime. “I’ve had a lot of surgery, and I’m in a lot of pain,” she says, “but you get on with it.”
Trauma has been Gadsby’s constant companion. It has forged her experience, her self-concept and, more recently, her third comedy special, Nanette, which catapulted her to global fame after its release on Netflix last June. Nanette is a scorching deconstruction of the ways in which comedy — and art in general — serves power and perpetuates privilege, its stages functioning as an arbiter of who gets to look, speak and attribute worth; who gets to determine what’s true and legitimate. (Hint: It’s not usually working-class queer girls from remote rural areas.)
Performing her trauma — she revisits her assault twice in Nanette — has proved traumatic as well. As someone on the autism spectrum, Gadsby doesn’t just recall memories, she relives them. “When I think about things, I see them,” Gadsby tells me. “Nanette was excruciating to perform. It nearly killed me.” It felt like a risk every time she stood in front of an audience. “I was breaking the contract,” she says. “They were there for comedy and then I didn’t give it to them. That tension in the room, there’s no guarantee that I can hold it. There’s a fear every time I go onstage. Every show was alive and dangerous.”
Having gone from “extreme invisibility to extreme visibility” in a very short time, Gadsby now gets recognized in places like New York, where people attempt to trauma-bond with her on contact. “It’s not a lighthearted ‘Can I have a selfie?’ ” she says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, hi, I’ve been abused. Can I have a selfie?’ ”
Gadsby was shaped by a difficult childhood, but it was studying art history in college that helped her make sense of the world and her place in it. (In a nutshell: She didn’t have one.) “I take a really long time to understand things because I’m on the spectrum,” Gadsby says. “Until I understand the whole of it, I can’t quite commit to understanding anything.” So she started with modern art, went backward to the Renaissance, then backward even further. She began to see art as an expression of power, and the history of art — comedy included — as the history of a single, narrow (male) perspective. Once she was able to see the whole canon, “I disassembled the canon, because I hate it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction.”
Nanette, then, is the critical and comedic version of anti-ballistic missile designed to explode the dominant narrative, and it has sparked a big evolution in the form. In this way, ironically, Gadsby resembles Pablo Picasso, the arch-nemesis she dissects in the show, whom Western culture enshrines despite his unrepentant misogyny. But whereas Picasso was considered a genius for blowing things up, Gadsby is being challenged for it — something she expected even as she wrote. “I was keeping in mind that bullshit criticism always comes with those who step outside of the script. Like, ‘Aw it’s not comedy, is it? It’s just a one-woman show.’ No one ever says that to a man pushing [the limits]: ‘We can’t really call it comedy — I think it’s just a monologue.’”
Over the phone days later, the comedian Tig Notaro underscores the point: “Who cares what it’s called? Mike Birbiglia writes these one-hour, one-person shows. They’re accepted as stand-up albums. They translate on Broadway. Nobody is saying, ‘Mike Birbiglia isn’t a stand-up.’”
Gadsby was so convinced Nanette would tank her career, while working on it she asked her brother if he’d give her a job in his produce shop. “I was prepared to be poor,” she says. “That was incredibly freeing. If you care more about your reputation [than about telling your story], then you’re not really speaking the truth.”
Comedian Ted Alexandro, for one, welcomes Gadsby’s voice. “It’s rare when you see somebody who knows exactly who they are,” he says. “It was just someone who was really comfortable in her skin and in her power, with something to say.”
It wasn’t always that way. Gadsby grew up in a small town in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997. Her father was a math teacher who delivered papers; her mom was a cleaner at a golf club where Gadsby played whenever women were allowed to. As a child, she absorbed her culture’s hostility toward gay people as a public debate raged over whether people like her even had a right to exist. “It made me hate myself so deeply I have never been able to develop an aptitude for relationships,” she wrote in a Facebook post a couple of years ago, when discussion of legalizing same-sex marriage brought the experience back. “Instead I learnt how to close myself off and rot quietly in self-hatred. I learnt that I was subhuman during a debate where only the most horrible voices and ideas were amplified by the media. These voices gave permission for others to tell me that I was less than them, with looks, words and on one occasion, violence.”
The violence Gadsby describes in Nanette (once as comedy and then again as tragedy) took place during her first year at university, when she was assaulted at a bus stop. After the attack, she transferred to an art history course on the Australian mainland but struggled due to her autism and “ended up drifting and homeless.” She worked on farms as an itinerant laborer, picking broccoli and planting seedlings. Then she injured her wrist and was recovering from surgery when a friend signed her up for the Raw Comedy Competition. “I’d always told stories, I’d always been funny and I’d always failed,” she says. “So for me to fail at comedy didn’t seem like such a big deal. I was living in a tent.”
She won the contest. That was in 2006. Now she’s pushing comedy into its next phase — one in which ideas about who has the power to drive cultural narratives are shifting.
“Men are used to watching things that are for them,” says Alexandro. “They’re unaccustomed to watching things where they’re not the intended audience. Chris Rock’s last special was a lot more personal and introspective, and people didn’t question that. [With Gadsby], it’s almost like, ‘How dare you?’ It’s someone we haven’t heard of, a woman, a lesbian woman, so there are a lot of things people might get their backs up about. But I think what we’re seeing is that the lid that was placed on who got to tell stories was, if not an imaginary one, certainly an illegitimate one.”
“My issue with Picasso is not that he shouldn’t exist and that he should be erased from our collective consciousness,” Gadsby tells me in the restaurant, which has suddenly gotten noisy. “Quite the opposite. I think he should stay there, but we shouldn’t be weaving a positive angle onto his misogyny and violence. That is part of the story.” A man on the other side of the café suddenly bursts into laughter. It’s loud and grating, and Gadsby loses her train of thought. “I’m sorry,” she says with a grin. “That is an awful laugh. Someone should tell him.” Nobody does.