August 2018

by Evan Williams

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’
Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

By now, someone in your life has urged you to watch Nanette, the Netflix special from Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. They would have described it in the same breathless way people describe their experience of a meditation retreat. It was confronting, revelatory, moving, life-affirming, transformative, unforgettable.

Well, whatever they said, they likely understated it.

It becomes clear quite early on that Nanette isn’t going to be your typical stand-up set. “I have been questioning this whole comedy thing,” Gadsby tells us. “I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore.” One of the reasons she doesn’t feel comfortable in it – to the point that the veteran comic says she will be quitting comedy altogether – is the expectation of self-deprecation.

You could argue self-deprecation is the lifeblood of not just Australian comedy but also Australian culture. Nothing is more frowned upon than not being able to take the piss out of yourself. It can be healthy when applied to the rich and the powerful, but what about when it’s applied to Gadsby, who grew up in a deeply homophobic part of Tasmania, “soaking in shame in the closet for 10 years”?

“Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins?” she asks. “It’s not humility; it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak.”

Gadsby wants to tell her story properly, and she’s had enough of self-deprecation stopping her.

She’s also frustrated by the confines of the comedy genre itself, explaining the restrictions of joke structure and how they have warped the stories she’s been able to tell about herself.

Often a comedian dissecting joke form can feel like a novel, look-at-me exercise. But when Gadsby does it here, it feels essential. We can see she is in possession of truths too large and unwieldy to fit inside simple set-ups and punchlines. Truths about everything from sexism and Pablo Picasso to homophobia, toxic masculinity and anger.

At times, the emotional power of these truths appears to – understandably – overwhelm the comedian. But while Nanette sees Gadsby at her rawest and most vulnerable, it also sees her at her most assured and masterful. It’s the rarest combination: a comedian who has something truly important to say and a truly unique way of saying it.

With effusive praise from The New Yorker and The New York Times, Nanette has proven to be a breakthrough moment for Gadsby. But it could also prove to be a breakthrough moment for Australian comedy.

In an encyclopaedia of comedy, what would realistically appear under Australia’s brief entry? Some guy saying “That’s not a knife, that’s a knife”, perhaps. Maybe a sentence or two about a man who does a crude impression of a Melbourne housewife. Our comedy has had a tendency to rely on the crass and vulgar, shying away from anything too cerebral or contemplative.

But now we have Nanette. We have someone who has delivered a grand statement on the most important issues of our time, all while bursting through the barricades of the very genre she’s performing in. And it’s the kind of show that could only come from a tough-as-nails, funny-as-hell comic from Tassie.

“My story has value,” Gadsby says towards the end of Nanette. This, like your friends’ reviews, is an understatement.

Evan Williams

Evan Williams is a New York-based comedy writer. He has contributed humour to The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s and SBS Viceland’s The Feed


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