If Hannah Gadsby’s name doesn’t ring a bell from last year, the name Nanette should. The Netflix comedy special became a surprise hit in 2018 and made the Australian comedian a household name.
Nanette starts as conventional stand-up, with jokes about everyday indignities and hilarities growing up in Gadsby’s native Tasmania as a queer woman. Then, without warning, she takes a dark turn.
Gadsby shares stories of trauma and assault without flinching or easing the tension — even though she acknowledges that is her job as a comedian. She’s done with that role, she says.
“I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humor,” she tells a stunned audience. “I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore — not to myself, or anybody who identifies with me.”
She announced that she was quitting comedy, then and there on the stage. But the public wasn’t ready to accept that. As word of mouth spread about Nanette, Gadsby had a sudden and growing fan base. They’d gotten a taste of her unique voice and were hungry for more.
So she returned with a new tour, Douglas. This time, she’s taking on the idea of success and public identity in the wake of Nanette.
Hannah Gadsby spoke with NPR as part of a special series on women comedians on All Things Considered.
On publicly quitting comedy in Nanette
Well, it was always a theatrical conceit … when I was writing the show, I’m like, “People are not going to like this.” So a way around that, intellectually, I’m like, “Well, if I quit comedy at the beginning, people can’t say that I did it wrong.” So I quit in the middle of the show, and then I stopped doing comedy. Because it was an exhausting show to perform. So there was a part of me that was like, “It would be nice to stop.” But things have happened.
On the traumatic story behind Nanette
It was when I was [a teenager] in Tasmania, at a bus stop, and I got mixed up in a man’s rage at the way I presented myself, which was not straight or feminine. So it’s about sexuality as much as gender. I tell the story in the show at first like it’s a joke, and then I strip it back. So I do what’s known as a callback. …
He was bit of an idiot, drunk idiot, who thought I was a gay man trying to hit on his girlfriend. Which still amuses me. It’s like: Dude, that’s not how it works. … It’s a funny trope, and it’s also laughing at the country bumpkins. You know, they’re the homophobe …
And then later on in the show, I go, “He beat me up.” And, you know, that’s what happened. And I was still sort of stuck in that trauma, and I realized it was because I’d been stopping short whenever I’d tell this story to the world. And the world’s going: “This is an acceptable narrative: a stranger who’s dumb, who’s from the country, who’s homophobic.” …We all too easily laugh at country bumpkins. But that’s where I’m from. There are people like me living there trying to grow up in those places. … You mock people, they take it out on vulnerable people.
On criticisms that she violated the rules of comedy in Nanette
Well, if they no longer make sense, I don’t mind breaking them. And I’m a student of art history, as well. I’ve seen this pattern in other art movements. It’s that, you know, changing of the guard. People break rules, they get accused of not being actual artists. And I was like, this is old news. …
You gotta make ‘em laugh. That’s pretty much it. End on a laugh. Everything has to be funny. But if the only thing you have to do is make people laugh, then you stop thinking about what it is you’re saying.
On women comedians
If you’re a funny woman, the world’s not necessarily easy for you to navigate. Men being funny is something that culturally, we accept and like. Women? It’s much more of a high-wire act. … I think men find it quite threatening, as a rule. I’m speaking very, very broadly but also — I’ve got a lot to back that up with.
On being diagnosed with autism, which she reveals at the start of Douglas
Well it was a long, slow process of just never quite knowing what I’ve done wrong … in social situations. So what people often see is rudeness — me caring, but caring wrong. And once I understood that, I’m more compassionate to myself when I make mistakes. It’s like, “Oh, this is just not a thing you’re very good at.” …
It dramatically changed [my approach to comedy], because one of the difficult things I had in my voice, my comedic voice, was how to manage this really intellectual part of myself with this childlike naivete that I have. You know, I see things that other people don’t. And I miss things that everyone else seems to get instantly. …
I don’t approach the world going: “I’m going to make this funny.” What I do is like: “I don’t understand what’s going on.” And so I study things. But sometimes I look into a problem and I’m like, “Well, this actually doesn’t make sense. The world is believing a stupid thing, right? This is made-up.”
On the potential opening in comedy in the wake of the #MeToo movement
Hannah Gadsby: I’m aware there’s quite a considerable backlash going on. I think I’m an outsider. And I think it’s a good thing for comedians to be reminded that that’s what comedy is. It’s being an outsider. So if you’re getting worried that comedy is so delicate that people can’t question it, then harden up.
Audie Cornish: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s a lot of: “The audience is too sensitive. The audience is too PC.”
Gadsby: No, comedians are too sensitive. If something as benign as political correctness can kill comedy, then comedy’s already dead.
This interview was edited for broadcast by Courtney Dorning.