In her Netflix special, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby talks about tension, trauma and quitting comedy while also pointing out issues in society regarding sexuality, gender and mental health – particularly the trope of ‘tortured artist’, putting her art history degree to good use.
The hour-long special starts with a brief introduction to the title of the show, a mention of meeting the show’s namesake, Nanette, in a small town cafe.
Gadsby makes seemingly throw away comments regarding the tension that she feels whilst in a small town and also to being mistaken for a male. The show is cleverly put together in a way that builds towards the final and emotional climax that the audience – both in the theatre and at home – do not see coming.
Gadsby speaks about her experiences, both personal and professional, with self deprecating humour and while everyone watching will be laughing along with her, we know that there are people in our society who would rather laugh at her. A point that Gadsby makes quite clear when discussing quitting comedy:
“Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. 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.”
The majority of the Netflix special is very funny – Gadsby is a well practiced comedian who has honed her craft. However the real power comes at the end where she allows – no, demands – the audience to feel what she feels.
She speaks about the basics of joke telling – setup and punchline. She builds tension to then defuse it with a laugh. There is a story she tells at the 10-minute mark that highlights some of the prejudices and ignorance that she faces.
The punchline comes quickly and we are left laughing, partially at the ignorant man featured in the tale but also out of relief – knowing that these stories can so often end horrifically. Gadsby knows this and later comes back to the same story, telling us that in comedy she can’t tell the real ending because it is not funny. But then she does.
The tension builds and she refuses to defuse it this time, telling us:
“This tension, it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension is what ‘not-normals’ carry inside of them all of the time. Because it is dangerous to be different.”
The last ten minutes are an impassioned speech that everyone should listen to. Particularly those who do not see a problem with the patriarchal status quo.
Gadsby has created a poignant and thoughtful look at both the craft of stand up comedy and the shortcomings of our society. You may laugh, you may cry, you will certainly think.
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