Hannah Gadsby knows how to put an audience at ease. The Australian comedian delivers her jokes mildly, dryly, with a gentle lilt and a reassuring smile that can crack the ice in the toughest of rooms. And it’s this gift that has uniquely positioned her to upend stand-up as a source of comfort or a salve for wounds – perhaps even the very notion of the medium altogether. In her Netflix special Nanette, Gadsby toggles between amiable observational anecdotes and blistering honesty, between belly laughs and righteous anger, to illustrate the ways in which comedy fails to grapple with the trauma of reality. It will likely go down as one of the greatest stand-up sets of our time – while also asking who, exactly, all these jokes and funny stories are serving.
Certainly not Gadsby herself. A lesbian who describes her gender presentation as “gender-not-normal,” she grew up in rural Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until the late Nineties. As a comedian, she taught herself to couch the very real traumas in her life, from homophobia to violent assault, in the soft cotton batting of humor. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” Gadsby says in her special. “I need to tell my story properly.” Partway through the special, she shifts from the comfort of humor to the brittleness of truth-telling, and the result is the kind of hard catharsis that leaves you physically shaken. (Which isn’t to say that Nanette isn’t also seriously funny, when it’s not seriously serious.)
And at the crest of the #MeToo wave, when more and more women are telling their stories and refusing to be silenced or disavowed, Gadsby’s frank admissions and admonitions feel more vital than ever. It seems less like coincidence than conversation that fellow lesbian comedian Cameron Esposito released her special Rape Jokes, which centers on her own experience with sexual assault, around the exact same moment – the time has never been more ripe for women and queer people to reclaim and reframe their own stories.
Having just finished an extended stage run of Nanette in New York City (her final in an 18-month global run that saw her win Best Comedy Show at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe), Gadsby is back home in Melbourne and ready to take a well-deserved break. But first, she hopped on the phone to discuss the overwhelming reaction to this groundbreaking set and to explain why, even after everything, she still loves stand-up. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What were the origins of Nanette?
She started out as being a really, really angry little blast. For the past 10 years, I’ve been writing one-hour shows. So it started [out] the same: Time to write another hour … what the hell am I going to talk about? Who’s my audience? That was one of the main questions I was asking: Who am I speaking to? And that was starting to get really kind of a difficult question for me to answer. As a human being, I don’t know how to connect to any sort of broad audience, you know? I don’t have a family or a past that looks like what most people have. So the connection between the personal and the political really informed what Nanette was. Donald Trump got elected and my grandmother died – those two things provided an emotional flashpoint for me.
So what audience did you ultimately have in mind when you were writing the show?
Me … and me only. I really was writing as though I was throwing a grenade and I fully expected for the show to seal me off in the margins. I am so shocked and overwhelmingly stunned. It’s become bigger than me. And I’m happy for that.
Did you initially conceive Nanette as a more traditional comedy special, or was that turn in the middle part of the plan from the beginning?
From the beginning. I was quite exhausted of this generating new material year after year after year. But I knew that the show that I was looking to write would be dismissed critically as being just a one-woman show – because I’ve seen it happen before. And then I thought, well, that’s a bad idea, to just jump down on it like that. I mean, nobody ever accuses men of doing one-man shows. They just do them. So I just thought, “Oh, fuck it. I’ll do it.” [Laughs]
Even though the show interrogates and criticizes the form, it’s also itself an incredible piece of stand-up. How did you go about building the structure of the show?
One of the first building blocks was the story at the bus stop [about a time she was assaulted]. My comedy has always been built around storytelling, and one of my favorite tricks is the callback – where you layer in a joke or a story, then you keep referring back to it. And the audience is going, “Oh, we’re all becoming part of the in-crowd!” It’s a really great tool to create a communal atmosphere amongst strangers. So that’s really the fundamental block that I began with: I want to show people what I’ve had to do in order to make my story funny by using this tried-and-true method – not to elevate the laugh, but to really pull the rug.
You also talk a lot about the power that storytelling has, and what’s it been like to reexamine your own stories.
Comedy has given me quite a privilege, because in order to define my personal life for comedy, I’ve been given the opportunity to interrogate my story. There’s a lot of stories we tell ourselves that we’ve set in stone when we’re quite young, and they remain with us all our lives. But I wouldn’t listen to me when I was 20. What the hell did I know when I was 20? A lot of the stories that we tell ourselves are really immature versions of events, but we build so much of our understanding of the world out of it. And I think it’s worth rewiring your stories that you set when you were immature.
“I was a bit concerned I might have upset people, you know? Because I really do tear comedy a new asshole.”
You’ve performed Nanette all over the world, from Australia to the U.K. to America. Do audiences respond to it differently depending on where you are?
You know what’s extraordinary? No. The response has been the same, in a very positive and connective way. It put people in shock. I’ve only just emerged from an extended run in New York, and I’ve been touring nonstop for 18 months … I’ve done maybe over 250 shows. And I think it’s going to take me a long time to really understand what I’ve done, both for myself and artistically.
What have reactions to the special been like from the comedy community?
One of the things that I’m most happy is that comedians – particularly my peers who I know to be comedy nerds – have just taken my deconstruction of the art form and thanked me, engaged with me. I was a bit concerned I might have upset people, you know? Because I really do tear comedy a new asshole. And comedy is a lot of people’s lives. It’s certainly my life. I did it for personal reasons, not to destabilize other people’s faith and belief and love of the art form. And ultimately, I think stand-up comedy has developed such an amazing platform for people to tell their story from their perspective.
What is it about stand-up that makes it such a useful platform?
There are no gatekeepers to comedy. You can be from a low socioeconomic background like myself. There’s no way I could get into theater; there’s no way I could have busted through to such a large audience in any other art form. Absolutely not. I’m not cut from the right cloth. So I think that’s what’s magnificent about stand-up.
In Nanette, you talk about how self-deprecating humor stopped serving you after a while, particularly as a performer from a marginalized background. Do you think there’s an alternative to that style?
I can’t imagine that I’ll ever completely step away from self-deprecating humor. I actually think it’s a great way to communicate, particularly if you are onstage with a microphone – you are in a position of power. But I personally felt like I needed to assert my power first. Because I am a really good performer; I do know my way around a joke, I do understand how the world works. [But] I thought, well, why am I undermining myself before I let people know that I’ve got this all up my sleeve? I think there’s a place for it, but it should part of a voice, and there should be more flexibility in approach.
You just finished a pretty grueling tour – do you have any idea what project is next for you?
A lot of sleep. [Laughs] I’m finishing a book, but then I’m going to take my time before I decide what I’m going to do next. Whatever it is, it will involve humor and it will involve telling a story. But I think … a good nap before I decide.