Hannah Gadsby’s 'Nanette' will change stand-up comedy, and it may change you too

Sometimes, the most courageous and groundbreaking thing a stand-up comedian can do is refuse to be funny.

That’s what Hannah Gadsby does for about a third of her new Netflix special “Nanette,” filmed at the Sydney Opera House and released June 19.

Don’t get me wrong; she’s funny. She’s hilarious. “Nanette” is one of the funniest stand-up comedy acts I’ve seen in a while.

But her real stroke of genius is to capture her audience’s trust and attention with her smart, dry humor, and then to take her audience on a sobering, moving journey through some very difficult subjects.

Gadsby is an Australian comic from the island of Tasmania. She was far from being unknown before “Nanette,” but the show is undoubtedly launching her to a new level of international fame. Before filming the special, Gadsby toured “Nanette” in Australia and the U.K., and performed it for four months in New York City.

“Nanette” is hardly the first stand-up set to explore serious issues with dark humor. That’s what great comics have been doing for decades. What makes “Nanette” such a game-changer is that there comes a point when Gadsby stops letting the audience laugh and forces them to sit in discomfort for extended periods of time.

Gadsby explains how her stand-up works: she creates tension — the setup — and then releases it — the punchline. It’s a formula for laughs that she’s mastered. But after a jarring revelation later on in the set, she declines to tack on a punchline.

“This tension — it’s yours,” she says. “I am not helping you anymore.”

That’s what so many stand-up comics have been afraid to do for so long: deliberately refuse to be funny, even when they know they could.

She addresses issues of gender and sexuality with absolutely no fear of causing discomfort to men in the audience who might not be too keen on hearing harsh truths about patriarchy. She stomps on accepted wisdoms like the nobility of Pablo Picasso.

Gadsby explains her hatred for Picasso. He was a misogynist who had sex with a 17-year-old girl when he was in his forties. She insists that matters. Cubism taught us to view the world from a multitude of perspectives, Gadsby says, but in the case of Picasso’s work, none of them were a woman’s.

Strangely enough, the extended rant on Picasso was only part of Gadsby’s dwelling on the subject of art history, which she studied in college. One bit of the special that has been widely circulated on social media uses elements of Vincent van Gogh’s biography to shatter misconceptions about mental illness, such as the notion that medicating a mental illness prevents one from feeling. Van Gogh did medicate his mental illness, and that medication may have led to some of his best work.

Gadsby uses her own experiences as a lesbian who doesn’t conform to femininity growing up in a homophobic environment to create a social, political and human narrative. She makes her audience feel the pain and the strength of people she simply refers to as “not-normals.”

Don’t shy away from watching this special just because you know it gets heavy. Again, I promise, it’s hilarious. The most rewarding stories are often the ones that make you both laugh and cry.

Many people will be deeply inspired by “Nanette.” Gadsby shows mesmerizing strength and confidence. It’s as if Gadsby is the role model she herself so desperately needed when she was younger.

Ironically, Gadsby repeatedly announces in the special that she’s quitting comedy. She says she has based most of her comedy career on self-deprecation, a survival tactic she learned when she was young. Self-deprecation is funny, but she notes that self-deprecation for people who live on the margins is more like humiliation than humility. 

She says she has to stop.

If Gadsby really does quit performing after this work of genius and outstanding bravery, of course it’ll be unfortunate. But I’m not worried. As long as she continues telling stories in some format, I will be following her work. “Nanette” itself tests the boundaries of stand-up comedy. There’s no reason she can’t step outside of that form altogether.

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