The Transformative Comedy of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”: An Autostraddle Roundtable

Feature image courtesy of Netflix. 

As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to talk to some folks about Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, Nanette. And I knew pretty quickly I wanted those people to be “my people” because there’s some processing to be done here. So. I emailed a few folks and put together a panel. Representing those of us who come to comedy as spectators, we’ve got me and Autostraddle Staff Writer Lex. And representing folks who come to comedy as professionals, we’ve got: Brittani Nichols, TV writer, actor and comedian. You might know her from her role on Transparent or for feature film Suicide Kale. El Sanchez, standup comedian and podcast host. You might know them from their show Bi-Geekly Report, or at least I sure do, because we are both huge nerds. And we’ve also got Gaby Dunn, author, YouTuber TV writer and podcaster. You might know her from — well, a lot, but if you like thinking about queer economics as much I do, you might especially know her from her hit podcast Bad With Money.

This might go without saying, but here be spoilers. All of them, all the spoilers. And this is a comedy special that, I feel, is best experienced without a lot of foreknowledge. So if you haven’t watched it yet, I strongly recommend you bookmark this roundtable and come back to it once you’ve watched it. And y’all, please, comment your feelings regarding this amazing special below. I’m super stoked to talk to even more queer people about Nanette.

How did you find out about Nanette? Were you familiar with Hannah Gadsby’s work before?

Lex: I’d heard about it about a month ago when I was up in the middle of the night going through Netflix and that feature banner showing what’s coming to Netflix is where I saw remember in the preview she said, “I don’t want to humiliate myself for comedy anymore.” And I wanted to see it because I was like, well what else can you do to stay in comedy? I’ve never seen anything with Hannah Gadsby before, so this was my introduction to her work.

El: I saw the automatic trailer that played when I was flipping through Netflix, actually. I stopped on it because just visually I thought, oh, this appears to be a stand up special by a gender non-conforming queer person, I wonder what they’re going to say. I wasn’t familiar with her or her work at all, to be honest. I figured she must be a big deal filling out the Sydney Opera House for a stand up special though.

A.E.: I first found out about it because our beloved DJ Carlytron was tweeting about it, and in the back of my mind I put it on my list. But then two of my friends, a straight couple in my gaming group, were like YOU MUST MOVE IT TO THE FRONT OF YOUR LIST RIGHT NOW. And so I did. I actually did not come to it through the trailer, so I had nearly NO knowledge before I pressed play. I hadn’t interfaced with Gadsby’s work before, and now I want to go back and experience everything I can get my hands on.

Brittani: I watched all of Please Like Me this past winter and that was my introduction to her. When the special popped up on Netflix the first day I was like, “Oh! She does stand-up? That makes sense!” And since I figured she was queer IRL (in addition to on the show), I figured I should watch.

Gaby: I heard about it in an email from Jill Soloway who was hosting an event for Hannah, promoting the special. I’d never heard of her before the last few months.

When did you realize you weren’t watching a normal Netflix standup special? What constitutes a normal standup special anyhow?

El: The trailer gave that away quite a bit. In fact, I was surprised the beginning started as a standard stand up special. Not only that, but the straight jokes portion lasted for so long, I started to wonder where the genuine content was the trailer promised. She even came off as kind of nervous and I was honestly thinking, these jokes aren’t that great. When it started to take a turn and she broke that fourth wall, she suddenly had so much confidence and passion I feel like her stage presence at the beginning was a calculated move to sort of make the audience comfortable (and maybe herself) even before she made herself (and maybe them) completely vulnerable. A “normal” stand up special has sort of a pretense to it, I suppose. One where the comedian can veer off into sensitive topics or self-deprecating humor, but the audience never feels like they lose control. The control is the pretense. The false agreement that we make as comedians and performers and the audience makes with us that even if we get real, all of this is fake and everything is going to be okay. It’s a weird sort of pact between a bunch of strangers who trust you to toy with their emotions, but ultimately with good intentions and for the greater good which is providing them with relief. Most of the game is essentially being really good at hiding the fact that you’re the one as the comedian seeking relief from the audience. They’re there to make YOU feel better rather than the other way around and we’ve all agreed to pretend that’s not what’s happening.

A.E.: So I knew there had to be a reason that everyone was raving about it, that my friends were actively seeking me out to make me watch it (and I’m glad they did). So I settled in to enjoy it the same way I settle into most comedy specials: with my breath half held. Standup is a space where I am PREPARED to be personally offended by someone’s isms, and I’ve always just considered it the price of admission for finding most of an hour funny. The only times that’s not true are when I’ve seen my friends on stage performing live; people like and including El, Gaby and Brittani. I know they — tread lightly isn’t the word, there’s no mincing about any of their sets. But they walk into the world with humor that’s, at its core, kind and in solidarity with those on the margins. Understanding of a multiplicity of perspectives. Punching up, and with a purpose, rather than punching down with wild swings. Something to decrease isms instead of magnifying them.

I realized pretty quickly that, if I had to hold my breath during this comedy special, it wouldn’t be because Gadsby was magnifying her audience’s isms for a few laughs. If I had to hold my breath, it would be because she knocked the wind out of me so good.

Lex: I tweeted while I was watching so it took about twenty minutes before I realized this wasn’t a normal Netflix special. Literally, all I can think of when I think Netflix special is how Kevin Hart’s ending joke in one of his specials is about someone r**ing his kid and me not coming back to myself until two days after. I guess with standup specials, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like, with Kevin Hart. Yayyy a black man! Oh, but look how he talks about black women. And LGBTQ people. So not for me, but some parts were funny. Like, with Netflix in general, when I heard they were paying under a million dollars for Mo’Nique and Wanda Sykes but paid Amy Schumer 11 million. What I’m expecting, I suppose, is that every comedy special is going to leave me out (if we even make it to the stage) and if it doesn’t, is going to use my identity as a punchline (cause people like me definitely don’t get punched down enough). When I came away from this special crying, it was because there was a little weight adjusting in my chest. It didn’t disappear but it didn’t hurt like it usually does. I was seen and it wasn’t demonized and it wasn’t played like it’s not that bad. I was seen by a comedian and for the first time ever, I was glad they saw me.   

Gaby: About 30 minutes in, I’d say. When the camera became a tight close up rather than the far away shots and audience reactions that usually constitute a stand-up special. I think a “normal” stand-up special isn’t really tonally appropriate for the times we’re in and frankly, I’ve always found them a little predictable and boring. I really only like comedy from marginalized people anyway because they tend to be better joke writers, their stories are more relatable to me, and there’s more to punch up and comment on. I think if you’re putting out a stand up special that isn’t really saying something nowadays, you’re wasting the beauty of the medium. (That’s not to say classic jokes aren’t good or needed for relief, but it feels like a strange time to be neutral with your art.)

Brittani: I think Netflix actually houses some other abnormal specials. Whereas a lot of the others play with form more than content (thinking of specials from Maria Bamford, Chelsea Peretti, and Tig Notaro specifically), Netflix has been a great platform for women to do weird shit.

What’s different about Nanette, I think, is how meta it is. Any good special has a narrative that’s weaved throughout and a central thesis that the material is hopefully pointing to. But usually when these specials have serious moments, they lead to a joke; there is very little laying it bare for the sake of laying it bare. And for me, her ultimate thesis is that the state of the world is such that there can’t be a button at the end of the painful story to “relieve the tension” because we need to stop hurting people in these predictable traumatic ways.
A lot of lesbian stand-ups talk about coming out in their early sets because so much of comedy is making trauma useful. There’s this little voice saying, “If I can make this pain productive, then maybe one day I can be ok that it happened.” And that same voice is what leads to, mostly straight cis dudes, saying, “Why do you all tell the same story? We are tired of this story.” I think Hannah is also tired of that being an integral part of the lesbian comedian journey but unlike those dudes, she’s not placing blame on queer women. She’s placing it on the people that enact the hatred that forces it to be one of our most important stories. Before queer women can tell other stories, people have to stop leaving so many with the same scars.

What, if anything, resonated with you? Were you grateful for anything about the experience of watching it? Is there something that set your teeth on edge?

Lex: Oh my God what didn’t resonate with me? We have a butch lesbian calling out straight cis white men for being the worst and also demanding that they show the fuck up and also shut the fuck up for marginalized people. I am a butch lesbian who would love to do the above things publicly (but I also want to be alive afterwards…so) and am also tired of people laughing at me when I’m talking about traumatic shit! I’ve grown up talking about shit that really hurts me and people have laughed at me (they keep doing this!)! Told me to be a stand-up comedian about my trauma! And here Hannah Gadsby is like No! No more! We’re not laughing at this shit we’re gonna heal even if other people don’t believe us! And that is what I needed now and forever amen.   

El: So much. So many things struck a serious chord. When Hannah talked about growing up surrounded by homophobia and by the time she realized she was gay she was already homophobic and you can’t just switch that off. It struck me because even as a somewhat small-time public figure that tries to promote awareness and self-love, I still struggle with so much internalized homophobic shame and feel shameful that I feel that shame still. When she talked about her mother saying, “I wanted you to change because I knew the world wasn’t going to,” I felt that so incredibly hard. I thought about how I’ve fought with my parents so much in the past two years to get my pronouns right and how much every time they call me ‘she’ and ‘her’ how invisible it makes me feel with the two people who I’ve been the closest to throughout a very hard childhood growing up as a mixed-race Mexican queer in small towns where I’ve been berated and bullied incessantly.

My parents always loved me no matter what but coming out as trans non-binary has been very hard for them to accept. They’ve treated it as “one more thing” they have to support and that has been so hurtful, but that line really resonated because I thought, they haven’t stopped loving me, they’re just more scared for me than they were yesterday and that has been hard for them to take after 35 years of fearing how the world will hurt me for the identities I already have. When she shared the end of her “coming out” story about the man who yelled at her actually beating her up and how she left that out of the joke, I thought, holy shit, I have so many stories like that in my stand up where I make a punchline about traumatic events, but leave out the part that was too unpleasant for me so I don’t make the audience uncomfortable because there’s nothing funny about it. When she talked about self-deprecation in comedy and how it’s not humility, it’s humiliation I thought about how that is so much of what I do and about how the relationship with the audience is toxic, creating tension to provide relief I really started to question whether this art form of stand up that I thought had been healing me has perhaps been hurting me more than I realized.

Brittani: I love when people talk about the anatomy of a joke. When she spoke about how a joke freezes all that pain and doesn’t let you move past it, I was shook. I think this special will make people more aware of who they empathize with and furthermore, continues to show the importance of representation because it will teach some people to empathize with someone they previously may not have.

A.E.: In terms of humor, give me art history jokes forever. My taste includes anything that could be described as “definitely appealing to weird gay librarians.” Jokes that display a hard-earned understanding of Impressionism and a Post-Impressionist world are my gosh darn jam.

But of course, the jokes are only part of the reason we’re talking about Nanette. I have long been a champion of the idea that suffering is not required for art; suffering is waste product. Something that comes out of a learned desire to destroy. It produces nothing. Art, however, responds to culture. And we have created a culture of suffering, that says “this is just the way it is” and places some on top, and some below. Art will reflect that because it is the job of an artist to make mirrors. Artists are also humans, and romanticizing this culture has long been a way to rationalize what has happened to the artist. I resist this; I think it’s wrong. Gadsby does too, and given my background with the sad young literary men of New York City (I got my MFA in fiction, lordie lou), it’s not a position I hear often. I am grateful for hearing it.

Gaby: A lot of the lesbian content (lol) and the stuff about gender was incredibly relatable to me and to my life with my partner, who is often misgendered (and I’m always more angry about it than she is). I was grateful for the parts about great artists and men and sexual assault. I think her monologue about the narratives around genius men (Van Gogh, Picasso, namechecks like Roman Polanski, etc) and the way they control how we see everything was PERFECT. The linear translation from Monica Lewinsky’s treatment to Hillary Clinton’s loss was PERFECT. The way we laud Van Gogh without realizing his brother bore the burden of keeping him stable and keeping his work going. I mean, she’s right. We have to drop all of these twisted, incorrect mythical narratives around men, because they’re just not true. The romanticizing of Van Gogh’s mental illness/genius leads to people believing they have to work themselves to death and sacrifice their physical and mental health to be good at their art, or that psychopathy is necessary and the sacrifice of female bodies is necessary to make “great art.” It’s the perfect time for that shit to be SHUT DOWN, and she did it.

Do you think this special changes stand-up comedy as an art form at all? Why or why not?

Brittani: I don’t think so. I think it’s still pretty traditional in its execution. If anything, I think it showcases what good comics know is achievable through the art and will inspire people to achieve what she has with this special themselves.

Gaby: I hope it at least changes what women and other marginalized people feel they can talk about in their stand up. I hope no one thinks their story is too much of a bummer or too feminist or too black or too gay or too whatever for stand up comedy. Like she said, we need perspectives.

El: I really hope it will, but unfortunately I don’t think it will change the standard right away. I think many general comedy fans might ignore it entirely and never watch it since the content of it and how unusual it is has been revealed in its promotion. I know it will resonate with an audience that relates to her and that is meaningful always because it truly feels like representation in a way we haven’t really seen before. Not just from a similar perspective and relatable identity, but as genuine human beings who are angry and afraid and fucking tired. I know it will change how I view stand up from now on, especially my own. I do what I do not just to share my stories, but to tell the few people sitting in the audience at a comedy show who maybe didn’t want to be there in the first place because they struggle to even leave the fucking house that you are not alone. I build tension by reminding everyone how shitty the world is and then provide relief by making that fear of the unknown or the oppressive experience seem amusing or okay, not just to feel better for a moment because that’s fleeting, but to help a handful of people feel like someone out there sees the world the way you do and you’re not wrong or silly or too sensitive. I agree with you and I see you because after a lifetime of invisibility I feel like you finally see me.

Lex:  It definitely does. It’s like, what is it called, a Trojan Horse? Like all these people came to see Hannah Gadsby and she has gotten an arena full of people to sit down and listen about shit (I’m assuming) they don’t give two good kitties about. This is the art form I’ve been waiting for! Trick people with privilege into letting their guards down so they can learn some shit! Let them be uncomfortable for once! Call them out on their bullshit!

So, when the white guy comedian I can’t remember made those horrible jokes a few years ago, the only thing in comedy that ever felt okay to me when talking about that was Wanda Sykes’ bit in Sick and Tired. It definitely doesn’t hold up regarding gender/sexuality/etc. but it was a black (closeted) gay woman who was talking about how fucked up r**e was and putting the blame on the rapists, not the victim and it helped me a lot. Now, there are at least two specials where lesbian women are talking about assault, explicitly and not as a joke and I feel like it’s showing that comedy can definitely be a learning experience as well as a demand that people find some fucking empathy and maybe mAYBE take a second to think before they do shit.

When Gadsby said that the whole point of a joke is the tension, the giving of the beginning and middle and leaving out the ending, that shit fucked me up. It definitely makes me think that going into this kind of comedy is an art form because there’s a lot of bravery in telling the ending, in being honest about there maybe not even being an ending. This seems like more of an art form because it’s not just one person making you laugh for two hours straight, it feels like a conversation with someone you really care about, trying to think of ways to walk away from this as a better person so that one you just talked to doesn’t have to throw on a smile and blender their trauma, giving out only the digestible parts, so that they can make it to the next day in one piece.

A.E.: My initial response was yes, but I don’t think that’s fair to a lot of other comedians who are doing amazing, crazy, creative things with the form. Cameron Esposito comes to mind immediately, for instance, with her hour of Rape Jokes, available for free on her website. All of the comedians I asked to participate in this roundtable also come to mind. I actually, and this may be too hopeful of me given the week we’ve had in the U.S., think that there’s something even bigger to be said for this hour of standup. Artists don’t create zeitgeists; they respond to them. If Gadsby is responding to a greater shift in the culture of what humor means, that’s even better than her changing the space. If she’s responding a moment in our collective consciousness that helps us define what it means to be a human around other humans? Well. I hope this is the barometer I think it might be.

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Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 531 articles for us.