I was just in Stockholm and it popped into my head — “Could I nominate Hannah Gadsby for the Nobel Peace Prize while I’m here??? That seems like the kind of thing you could do in Stockholm.”
Turns out … no. You actually have to be somebody important to nominate a Nobel candidate to the Swedish Crown. Here’s me being pissed off about that, both at the Royal Palace and at the Nobel Museum.
The reason the Nobel Prize occurred to me is because an Emmy Award … a GLAAD Media Award … they just don’t feel big enough for what Gadsby achieved with Nanette. The Nobel Peace Prize is actually the only thing I could think of that fit. Especially considering that Nanette was possibly career suicide for Gadsby, in the best way possible. I mean, how do you follow that?
Gadsby’s native Australia is still under the British crown, so maybe a knighthood …? But somehow I felt like the Swedes would bite before Liz ever did. She knighted Elton John, but there’s “Candle In The Wind,” and then there’s Nanette.
There has never been a stand-up comedy special like Nanette. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, but Gadsby introduces early on that she’s considering quitting comedy. The laughs keep coming even after that strange announcement, but by degrees it becomes clear that Gadsby is doing something completely different – baring her soul about her personal trauma in the face of a gross cultural climate of abuse. It’s a one-woman play with the tropes of stand-up comedy replacing bad impressions and interpretive dance. And by the time Gadsby takes the show full-tilt serious — “That is your last joke!” she deadpans after a humiliating bit of fashion advice to the straight men in the audience — she has cast a spell that will captivate all but the most stone-hearted of viewers, the kind convinced that any story of rape or sexual abuse has to have been made up by an inherently dishonest sex as a plea for attention, the kind whose ego is too fragile to weather being called out for privilege and for whom a violent retaliation is the only option.
Going serious in stand-up comedy is not new. Tig Notaro made headlines for riffing on her cancer diagnosis and her mother’s death in an impromptu set that was not video-taped but went down in history … and one she could never reproduce. In Homecoming King Hassan Minhaj turned his immigrant experience into an unexpectedly moving journey while remaining gut-bustingly funny throughout.
Hannah Gadsby has a different story to tell. It’s the show Margaret Cho wishes she could have done, but probably not the life Cho wishes she could have lived. It’s a harrowing tale of childhood shame and self-hatred in the Australian Bible Belt, the threat of beatings and murder, loved ones becoming antagonists, rape and childhood sexual abuse. Hilarious, right?
Gadsby’s personal anecdotes – coming out to her mother, failing to come out to her grandmother, getting called out by other lesbians for not being lesbian enough, getting hectored by the boyfriend of a girl she was hitting on – are placed in three different overarching contexts, all of which Gadsby uses with nothing short of genius to not only mine laughs, but also to trap her readers into deep compassion. First, a meta-commentary on comedy itself; second, the much-commented-on #metoo pushback against cultures of sexual harassment; third, her art history degree. Yes, you heard right. Bear with me.
1) Meta-Commentary on Comedy Itself
Gadsby breaks down what a joke is – a question with a surprise answer. The humor comes from a release of tension. Gadsby pokes at the audience for using laughter as an expression of gratitude for the release of tension. “I made you tense” with her joke setup, Gadsby reminds us. “This is an abusive relationship.”
So why must Gadsby quit comedy, at which she is obviously so gifted? Because through jokes she “froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point,” while having to gloss over the shame and the rape and the violence so as not to create a tension that was impossible to resolve into a laugh. “This tension is yours,” she practically shouts, reliving the horrors of her past before our eyes. “You have to learn what this feels like, because I paid dearly for a lesson that no one seems to have wanted to learn.” The front half of the special has been funny and humane enough that when she finally goes there, knowing that there is no laughter at the finish line, we are willing to go there with her. That she even tries is heroic; that she succeeds is masterful.
2) Pushing Back on Sexual Harrassment
My favorite joke of the night (spoiler alert) was the one Gadsby set up to trap the straight men in the audience, as she suggests that they learn to lighten up when called out for male privilege … maybe learn to be less defensive … maybe to have a sense of humor about it …
“You know what might help? A good dicking! Get a cock up in you!” Gadsby says gleefully, paying off her earlier recount of the unhelpful advice lesbians get when they are told that they need to lighten up. After all, “lesbian” didn’t used to define a sexual identity, it was just “any woman not laughing at a man.”
Gadsby knows the criticism she’s in for, because she’s heard it all the time. “‘If you hate men so much, why do you try so hard to look like one?!?!‘ …. Because you need a good role model now, guys!” And she doesn’t mind the occasional holiday from being a “fat ugly dyke” when she gets mistaken for a man – “For a brief moment, life gets a lot easier! I’m top-shelf normal! King of the humans! I’m a straight white man! I’m about to get great service for no fucking effort!”
She’s right, though … this shit isn’t funny. “Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski … these men aren’t exceptions, they are the rule,” and the collective story is that “we don’t give a shit – we don’t give a fuck – about women or children, as long as a man gets to hold on to his precious reputation.”
Oh, it goes on and on. “People call me a man-hater. I don’t hate men, really, I don’t … But the story is as you have told it. Power belongs to you, and if you can’t handle criticism, take a joke, or respond to tension without violence, you have to ask yourself if you’re up to the task of being in charge.”
3. Her Art-History Degree
Gadsby introduces her art-history degree pointing out that quitting comedy is probably not a good career move, since she has no skills to fall back on. “My CV is basically a cock and balls drawn under a FAX number,” she jokes.
But she praises her degree for helping her understand the world she lives in and her place in it – “I don’t have one.” And it unexpectedly helps her with an epic takedown of an ignorant audience member, who criticizes her after the show for having taken anti-depressants. “You shouldn’t take medication, because you’re an artist! It’s important that you feel! If Vincent Van Gogh had taken medication, we wouldn’t have the Sunflowers!” Gadsby describes tearing that self-appointed critic “a college-debt-sized new asshole,” about how Van Gogh was medicated by psychiatrists, including with foxglove for his epilepsy that might have caused him to experience the color yellow a little too intensely – which might have lead directly to the Sunflowers popping the way they do.
The bigger point is that mental illness is “not a ticket to greatness – it’s a ticket to fucking nowhere.” Why else did Van Gogh never sell a painting in his lifetime? Not because he was “ahead of his time.” “No one is born ahead of their time!” Gadsby roars. “Maybe preemie babies, but they catch up! Van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter, painting at the peak of post-impressionism, while Peter was picking his pickle pepper!” (Say that out loud.)
Van Gogh never sold a painting, Gadsby asserts, because due to his mental illness he couldn’t network, unlike the Renaissance masters that Gadsby hilariously refers to as “the Turtles.” She’s building pathos for Van Gogh so she can stick the needle in our hearts and inject an adrenaline-dose of compassion with the very last line in the special, which I won’t spoil. Just get your fucking hankies ready.
Contrast that with her opinion of Picasso – “Picky-Asshole” as she calls him – whom she hates for his misogyny; for his musing speculating that he should burn his ex-lovers to erase the past; for his referring to his 17-year-old lover as “in her prime,” etc. Inventing Cubism is no excuse, Gadsby says as she pushes back against the notion that masters of craft should be forgiven for their nastiness in order to protect the reputation that bolsters the work (and its resale value).
Gadsby spends a lot of time offering alternate narratives on Van Gogh and Picasso – and by extension, suggesting that Picasso and Kevin Spacey deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, with the same level of scandal. But her show is all about reframing stories.
Stories that reinforce misogyny and guard reputation at the expense of humanity. Stories that give some people the right to be violent and other people the impetus to hate themselves.
Gadsby wants to quit comedy because she needs to tell her story properly – to include the beatings and rapes that actually happened, the coming-outs she avoided because she was still ashamed, and the relationships that eventually came to places of healing (healing isn’t funny).
Nanette is what it is because Gadsby wanted to tell her story properly and entrust it to people who might care for it and pass it on because it was too big for one person to bear.
Gadsby’s story is now my story. It’s my responsibility now, and I’m passing it on to you. Don’t be scared. As responsibilities go, it’s so worth it.
Have you seen Nanette yet? If not, what are you waiting for?