December 10, 2021

Comedy

Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Body of Work’

By Daniel Herborn
Image of Hannah Gadsby. Image supplied

Hannah Gadsby. Image supplied.

The comedian’s latest show is a work of self-love

“This is a love story,” Hannah Gadsby insists in the scene-setting stretch of Body of Work. “It’s a feel-good show … I feel like I owe you one.”

Body of Work is, almost by necessity, a lower-stakes show than what’s come before. With its meta-comedy and visceral power, Nanette propelled Gadsby into the heart of the zeitgeist and altered the course of stand-up comedy, although it was conceived as a farewell to the form. The follow-up, Douglas, was in large part a reaction to the unexpected success of its predecessor, both doubling down on the convictions of Nanette while also deftly manoeuvring her away from what could have been an albatross for her growth as an artist.

There’s a strong argument that Gadsby is the most compelling Australian comic of her generation, and was so even before Nanette. Many of her stylistic tics – the unhurried drawl that goes up an octave in moments of exasperation, the sentences that twist around numerous qualifications and sub-clauses, the anecdotes generously stuffed with digressions – were all in place before she became a household name and favoured target of internet trolls.

This time around, Gadsby’s no longer focused on her haters but is casting her gaze inward, as she finds herself cocooned in a contented relationship albeit with all the strangeness of the lockdown era. She remains sceptical of the institution of marriage and becomes borderline queasy at public displays of affection, though she enjoys the “administrative privileges” of wedlock. Gadsby had never expected to find herself married. The new terrain has inspired some of her sharpest writing; the way she deconstructs the social norms around proposals, for instance, is dizzying in how it throws new light over the seemingly familiar.

Aldous Huxley famously opined that other people’s happiness is curiously boring, but Body of Work is a reminder that the ways in which people scrap their way to a measure of contentment can be endlessly fascinating. In Gadsby’s case, she met her now-wife when the latter produced the US run of Nanette. It quickly emerged that the pair shared a rare simpatico, a fact underlined by a lovely vignette in Body of Work of Gadsby’s partner talking her through a panic attack that ends up somewhere entirely unexpected.

The relationship material in Body of Work will be particularly satisfying to long-time Gadsby watchers who recall her frustration at not being able to connect with someone romantically, which is a theme that animated previous shows. (In an interview with Gadsby before Nanette, I mentioned that I still thought of some of the bits on dating from her old special Mrs Chuckles years later. She told me she thought that show was rubbish.)

Gadsby loops back to some unsatisfactory past relationships, stories that we can enjoy safe in the knowledge that better days lay ahead. In the intervening years, she was diagnosed with autism, providing something of a skeleton key to understanding some of those missteps and casting in a different light what she had previously seen as her awkwardness and brusqueness with people. Writing in 2014 about her art history/autobiography hybrid The Exhibitionist, I’d praised her “savagely self-effacing” approach. Here, however, the self-effacement remains but the savagery has given way to a wry empathy.

Similarly, there are memories of her blunt, prickly mother and vague father, recounted with affection and an eye for how their quirks may have informed her personality. There are also juicy stories of meeting Hollywood A-listers in the whirlwind of Nanette, with commentary on how Gadsby’s autism shaped these encounters. One such gem is a meeting with Jodie Foster, who gave Gadsby the Bananagrams word game, only for Gadsby to inform the actor she already had a copy.

Other stories are low-key but enjoyable confections; there’s some hilarious material around her American partner adjusting to life in country Victoria. At one point, she joins an Australian Rules football team and her observations on the new sport rate as some of the most amusing cross-code confusion this side of Ted Lasso. There’s also some stuff about netball being a weird sport. I’m not sure there’s anything deeper going on here, but it generated howls of laughter, and she is right – netball is pretty weird when you think about it.

Never really a crowd-work comedian, Gadsby did have a couple of auspicious interactions with her audience on the first night of this Sydney run. She asked for a name to use in a story about an ex at one stage. A crowd member proffered the name of a partner’s ex and, almost unbelievably, said ex-partner was also in attendance, and chimed in with her version of events.

More poignantly, there was a point where Gadsby experienced a brief onset of mutism, a condition which renders a person unable to speak and is related to autism. But then an audience member yelled encouragement, the moment passed and Gadsby seemed genuinely touched by the emphatic support, a palpable sense of her audience willing her on.  

The show’s denouement sees Gadsby and her wife encounter a wild rabbit while walking their dogs on a lockdown stroll. When one of the dogs goes on the attack, Gadsby tries to intervene without alarming her partner. This sets in motion a set piece that could be taught in comic writing courses as a superlative example of squeezing every laugh out of a moment of confusion, not to mention how to execute a callback perfectly.

It’s an ending that delivers on the promise of this being a love story, not only focused on Gadsby and her wife, but also as a work of self-love (a term Gadsby would likely gag at) and evidence of that rare connection between performer and audience. 

 

Hannah Gadsby’s Body of Work is showing at the Sydney Opera House until December 12. For 2022 show dates, see here.

Daniel Herborn

Daniel Herborn is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.

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