Note I: Distinctly possible this will end up incorporated into an IBWT video piece (UPDATE: Yes it has!!!) in the near-future, but packed-weeks being what they are wanted to get the text up just in case.
Note II: Given that this is an overview of a comedy special, it includes the discussion of both jokes and punchlines. If you’ve yet to watch NANETTE and feel inclined to, consider that your Spoiler-Warning.
If you follow the world of comedy and Netflix standup comedy specials at all you’ve probably seen or heard the chatter about NANETTE, an intentionally nonsensically-titled special by Tasmanian comedienne Hannah Gadsby that – depending on who you ask – is either an unfunny lecture devoid of laughs launched by an angry vindictive lesbian who wants to destroy comedy forever or a glorious medium-redefining masterpiece that will change the way you think about the very concept of humor… because it’s an unfunny lecture devoid of laughs launched by an angry vindictive lesbian who wants to destroy comedy forever.
You may think I’m being hyperbolic but the reaction really has been that extreme, with the special and Gadsby herself alternately celebrated and attacked in equal measure with language that suggests nothing so much as the “Social Justice Left” having finally found it’s own answer to the late Sam Kinison. So imagine my relative surprise – coming, it must be said, from my own position of relative privilege and general unfamiliarity with Gadsby’s previous work – in sitting down to watch the thing and discovering that this supposed cluster-bomb of stand-up comedy antimatter was something so “normal” and approachable… that is, of course, until it no longer wants to be, i.e. when Gadsby tips her hand as to the true nature of her set – but then that’s the the whole point.
To be sure, there’s an element of staginess and even (for lack of a better word) “pretense” to the proceedings: At first glance, the logic behind the title (she started out trying to write the entire special around an encounter with a barista named Nanette, realized there weren’t really any jokes there, but kept the name) has an insufferably Wes Anderson-esque quality; and the narrative-arc of the show carries the similar whiff of theater-student overreach: “What if a stand-up comic announced that they’d come to hate telling jokes in the middle of their set and were quitting comedy – but then they just kept going?” But then she does keep going, and you realize she’s actually going to stick the landing, and that even with the aforementioned point being that NANETTE *isn’t* strictly-speaking “only” a standup set and features more than just joke-telling; the best joke it gets off might be the demonstration of how much controversy can be ginned-up simply based on the teller and tone of joke-telling apart from the jokes themselves.
At one point early on, amid a segue from describing the professional-comedian’s toolbox of repurposing everyday annoyance and embarrassment for humor and half-seriously lamenting the lack of stand-up comedy use for her seemingly-wasted Art History degree, Gadsby begins to rail against a tendency of culture to fetishize performers and artists suffering from mental illness as a kind of creative “gift,” zeroing in on an obnoxious acquaintance pontificating on the often-repeated falsehood that Van Gogh couldn’t have painted his flowers so spectacularly if he’d been medicated for his schizophrenia. Seized by the opportunity to put her personal and academic knowledge to use, she describes a verbal eviscertation of the blowhard in question; correcting him that Vincent Van Gogh was in fact seeking treatment at that point in his life, that he didn’t see his mental illness as a creative aid, that the doctor treating him was one of the subjects he painted and that the medication he was taking to help his condition was known to have side-effects involving the perception of color that could be the actual explanation for the vivid way he perceived and painted the world.
It’s a righteous “mic drop” moment, even as rendered in Gadsby’s soft-spoken Aussie accent and measured Middle School Teacher diction. But what occurred to me as it reached crescendo is that everything about the bit – from the Liberal Arts Degree subject-matter to “medicine and doctors are actually GOOD you pretentious asshole!” subtext to the overall nerdy-booksmarts-as-triumphant-beatdown framing – felt like exactly the sort of stand-up most beloved by the fans most-incensed by NANETTE’s apparent existence… except, of course, for Gadsby herself: The same routine, repeated in a snarly, confrontational masculine register – perhaps spiced with references to Jenny McCarthy (or whomever the anti-homeopathy/psuedoscience punching-bag of the moment is) and a callback to some “psycho ex” who believed in “healing crystals or some bullshit” – would be a guaranteed instant-classic “bit” from the seemingly endless waves of Dennis Leary wannabes who tend to catch fire among the “I-Fucking-Love-Science” crowd. (A subsequent riff on the absurdity of gendering pink and blue as colors versus the actual place of such hues in nature, chemistry, the light-spectrum and color-theory would be right at home in the thoroughly-uncontroversial “Dad jokes plus astrophysics” realm of, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed – but I imagine you get the idea…)
That’s not to say that NANETTE isn’t boundary-pushing and quietly-revolutionary in it’s own way – after all, it sets out to be exactly that and largely succeeds. But one of the key things it ends up illustrating is that Gadsby might as well “burn down” the stand-up scene, since she’s clearly going to be framed as doing so anyway even if she did stick to standard-issue “pissed off over-educated Millennial” material that would be otherwise right home in any of a dozen college town open mic nights.
Of course, it would be disingenuous (to say nothing of a disservice to the material itself) to suggest that NANETTE owes its polarizing reaction entirely to the teller and not to the story: Though pitched as a stand-up special, it’s much more like a “one woman variety show” wherein Gadsby segues (sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually, always with a point) from a straight standup set to “TED Talk”-style lecture on the mechanics of joke-telling to soul-baring personal essay that spins out from introspective self-criticism at sanitizing her own life-story for comedic-consumption and into indictment of “comedy culture” for demanding it before snapping back into different jokes entirely and… well, also things that are decidedly not jokes.
In terms of other comics, the approach is probably most similar to when stand-ups whose set incorporates music-performance (think early Steve Martin, Adam Sandler’s arena shows in the 90s, the myriad vaudeville and lounge acts who also sang and played piano) would slip a serious number into the set for effect. Except Gadsby’s instrument remains only her voice, and her “serious number” is a set-length interrogation of the stand-up scene itself and her frustration at inhabiting it as a gay woman expected to deliver a certain amount of (she glumly groans out to words) “lesbian content.” En route to her point, she ultimately opts to shatter two of modern (here meaning post-1960s) stand-up comedy’s ultimate taboos: Questioning the act of recounting tales of one’s own personal failings and humiliations for the amusement of the audience as a therapeutic act (for the comic) and – more “unforgivably” – revealing that such stories can be (gasp!) exaggerated, embellished or even stripped entirely of their actual truth in the name of getting a laugh and indulging the crowd.
A single example of this forms the “long-game” gut punch of NANETTE’s dramatic arc (this would be the SPOILER, folks): Having lead the all-jokes opening act of the show with a lightly-amusing anecdote about having been threatened by an angry man for “flirting with his gal” only to see the would-be attacker awkwardly back off upon realizing Gadsby was not a rival male but rather a not-especially-feminine woman (the punchline being that she was, in fact, flirting with “his gal” after all – ha ha ha jokes on him!) as an example of the audience-friendly easy-laugh “lesbian content” she’s tired of doing; she returns to the story near the conclusion to reveal her finishing blow: That the process of making that experience into a “funny story” for mainstream stand-up audiences involved leaving off the real ending… where the angry man realized his mistake a minute later, returned, and violently beat her near-unconscious while multiple onlookers provided no aid or rescue. She was 17 at the time.
It’s an extreme case, to be certain, but by the time it arrives it comes backed up by a well-made case that, in Gadsby’s view, the supposed mutually-therapeutic audience/comic relationship of “life anecdote” stand-up isn’t all that mutual for comics who’re already themselves living marginalized lives… and while being able to laugh at herself may be one thing, she no longer sees reframing such things so that (mostly) straight audiences can laugh at them too as an act of “sharing her pain.” Rather, she contends, it’s more like giving them permission to laugh off something they already don’t take all that seriously.
It’s not hard to see why that sentiment is anathema to many comedy fans (and plenty of fellow comedians) entire sense of self: “Stand-up” (as opposed to clowning, slapstick and other forms of performance comedy) was born with self-effacement as its fundamental stock in trade; developed and nurtured by (mostly) Jewish vaudeville pros who recontextualized the classical downbeat-irony of their own cultural theater tradition into a mainstream-palatable “hard luck” aesthetic that today forms the bedrock of Western “adult” humor: With rare exception, the stand-up comic tells you an embarrassing/degrading story about themselves (this can be defined pretty widely, everything from “my marriage is miserable” to “I’m socially inept” to “my priorities are so askew I spend time thinking about airline food”) and invites you to laugh – “in recognition,” sure… but also just simply “at them.”
And for comics who also happen to be women, minorities, part of the LGBTQ community, etc; that’s always meant a somewhat uneasy tradeoff when playing to mainstream audiences: You’re sharing your truth and welcoming them to laugh, but you know some of them already just see a clown. It’s no accident that the so-called “stand-up boom” of the 80s and 90s neatly paralleled the emergence of gender/ethnic parity elsewhere in society – suddenly “ordinary” middle-class white guys also had social-displacement to feel perplexed and anxious about! (“Whoa-ho! Gender-politics at the offices, amirite fellas???”) – but in saying these things out loud Gadsby is, in some ways, breaking the stand-up rules even more subversively than copping to the lie in her mistaken identity anecdote because she’s breaking all the tiny “silent agreement” between marginalized comics and mainstream audiences: To be publicly embraced… as reward for being public in an “acceptable way,” to have one’s anger celebrated… so long as the audience is invited to “join” it and not simply bear witness, to have surviving pain affirmed… providing the audience is absolved of any guilt for the same.
More than anything, NANETTE’s aim is fixed on the notion of “therapeutic” confessorial stand-up as a transitory exchange: That contextualizing their unique experiences in the familiar rhythms of “Just my luck, huh?” White male comic boilerplate, marginalized comics are not only baring their souls and letting in the sun – they’re allowing the “normals” in the audience to understand the pain of The Other as a reflection of their own; the romanticized self-ideal of the mainstream attendee of a “niche” stand-up show: Laughing in surprised recognition, wiping away tears between the applause, thinking to yourself “Wow… I don’t think I ever really understood the heartache of a gay person struggling against their own socially-ingrained self-disgust to come out to their parents – but now that I’ve heard it sound exactly like the awkward self-hating arguments I had with myself about telling mom and dad I was changing my Major I can relate so much!!!”
No, Gadsby – through NANETTE – effectively ends up saying, you don’t; and she’s tired of propping-up the stand-up formula fantasy where minorities and the marginalized must be one-part group-spokesperson and one-part funhouse-mirror reflection of the broader audience. And even as she’s (ironically) vastly less confrontational of the audience itself in tone and language than most conventional stand-ups of the moment, the accusatory implications cut clearly through: “I really do have to quit stand-up comedy,” she keeps repeating as transition from subject to subject (though how absolutely she means it appears to be an open question) and “you” – the demands of the mainstream audience, the “standard” world at large and straight White men especially – are the reason she’s so damn tired of the whole thing and needs to get out…
Except she can’t. Or, at least, the other subtextual joke appears to be that the desire to tell truths in the form of funny stories has a stronger pull than her own self-preservation (another trait she’d share with “normal” stand-ups, or most of them): The “I need to quit’s…” are segues into digressions on serious pain, but they’re also outros to asides about the obscurities Gadsby would rather riff on if the medium would permit her to abandon self-deprecation: She’s not kidding that she could get a whole set from her art history background, and there’s a whole other kind of nerdy-transgressiveness to an extended bit that starts out on her disdain for cubism (“overated,”) zeroes in on the cult of Picasso specifically, segues into a slapdown of his historically-downplayed misogyny and then soars up into a unified theory of the two points (“we can see every perspective at once – but not one those perspectives is a woman’s”) and a rejection of the mantra to “separate the artist from the art.”
At the core of it, the point NANETTE keeps returning to is Gadsby’s revelation that – in spite of all she’s managed to accomplish and survive – she’s still beset by a sense of shame and self-hatred (what some might even identify as “imposter syndrome”) that continues to haunt her and, as she tells it, led her to interrogate her earlier self-deprecating material: As much as softening/editing her anecdotes were lies for the benefit of the audience, she was also lying to herself that the benefit reflected back – the last and greatest myth of the stand-up “contract” (that it’s okay for the audience to laugh because getting to tell the story is healthy cathartic therapy for the comic) doesn’t hold true… For people who exist where society places her, she matter-of-factly explains, the expected self-deprecating humor that generally plays as “humble” for a straight male comic “isn’t humility – it’s humiliation.” And she’s not going to make humiliation (hers or others) “okay” for the audience anymore.
But even amidst all the talk of quitting and deconstruction, I’m still inclined to feel like it’s diminishing in its own right to either elevate or decry this one woman and her one-woman show as the “wrecking ball” here to sweep traditional stand-up off the stage of history. For all the handwringing NANETTE has inspired, it’s not as though Gadsby spends any length of time “calling out” the material of other comics (as did beloved firebrand Bill Hicks, though as he approach death he apparently made effort to reach out and apologize to some of his more frequent targets in the business) or trotting out entire genres of joke-telling for mockery (a huge part of Andy Kauffman’s live sets) – indeed, the point she keeps returning to isn’t “stand-up needs to be destroyed! …or even just “upended;” it’s that the rules and expectations governing the medium created by, for and around straight White men, isn’t a space where she feels she authentically fits. How anyone else should or shouldn’t feel about it… isn’t really part of the show.
Writing for Vulture in one of the many, many pieces lauding NANETTE as the grand-reordering stand-up comedy demands, Matt Zoller Seitz contrast’s the specials’ originality and boldness with his decidedly less enthusiastic appraisal of Bill Maher’s most recent offering, “LIVE FROM OKLAHOMA,” describing the aging, grouchy “Real Time” host’s railing against the “political correctness” of younger Millennials as representing comedy’s “past” as much as Hannah Gadsby represents its “future.”
“If you segue from Oklahoma into Gadsby’s Nanette, you’ll hear lines that sound like direct criticisms of Maher and other comedians of his ilk, men who worked for decades to acquire the platforms they now possess, yet seem to take them for granted and are rarely caught pondering politics except as it relates to their ability to get the primo bookings they believe they’re entitled to. Gadsby says that whenever she’s mistaken for a man, she feels briefly grateful, because “just for a moment, life gets a hell of a lot easier!” She warns, “There’s too much hysteria around gender from you gender normals,” and tweaks the “can’t you take a joke?” brigade by asking, “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?”
An attention-grabbing comparison, to be sure, but one that I think overlooks the fact that Maher’s act – really, the act of the every “Left-of-center but anti-P.C.” comic who came to prominence in the 90s – was always fundamentally backward-looking even when it was new.
Indeed, like all the others toiling in that style (an entire generation of middlebrow talents who wanted to copy Bill Murray but settled for impressions of Peter Venkman,) Maher’s “righteously-angry” poise has never stopped being that of the frustrated late-period Boomer male annoyed to discover upon reaching his 20s that the best-of-both-worlds manhood promised him by JFK, Sinatra and Hefner (the one where the nominally progressive-minded straight White man was still the presumed ruler of the world, head of his household, architect of all culture, free and clear to speak any opinion, take any number of Martini lunches and flirt with any secretary at work but also not be held guilty by themselves or anyone else for the Patriarchal sins of their forefathers by dint OF that nominal progressive-mindedness) …wasn’t waiting for them after all.
In the end, the more honest subtext to the era of “rage against political-correctness” comedy has always been less about the erosion of free speech and more about “Wait a minute! I thought we had deal!? Voting for Democrats, supporting Roe v Wade and not any of the really BAD racial slurs was supposed to mean I get some leeway on being an asshole about other things – what happened??” Hannah Gadsby and NANETTE aren’t what make Bill Maher feel like an angry old man, being a standard performer from a generation of “edgy” comics where being a young man with the grievances of an angry old man was the definition of “edge” did.
NANETTE is a hell of a comedy special – or whatever you feel it should be categorized as. It’s funny, touching, smart, enormously well-performed and staged and it has fascinating, biting and often hilarious things to say about art, culture, shared humanity and the medium of comedy itself. And all of those things are more interesting – and offer more interesting discussion, than some hyped-up doomsaying (or grave-dancing) for that matter, over whether or not one comic has burned down the whole village by asking the audience to take stock of what they’re laughing at and why.