To say that Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special Nanette leaves a lasting impression is to put it very, very lightly. I’ve watched this extraordinary show twice, on both occasions fighting back tears in its final minutes, struck by a range of emotions: shame, shock, consternation, compassion, something resembling hope for a brighter future. Taking the audience on a deeply personal journey that is controlled masterfully – with the precision of a scalpel and the impact of a chainsaw – ‘comedy’ as a description of Gadsby’s performance barely begins to cut it. ‘Special’ is a little better.
It is rare to watch an hour of stand-up and come away thinking: this is one for the ages; this will be remembered. In terms of cultural contexts, it’s impossible not to recognise the long history of the gay rights movement and the short history of #MeToo as informing the bones of Gadsby’s at times furious, gooseflesh-raising production.
It is told – to use the comedian’s own words – with the strength of a broken woman who has rebuilt herself. Among other accolades, Nanette was joint winner of the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and winner of the Barry Award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
“I’ve built a career on self-deprecation,” she says, but “I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”
The Netflix talent scouts in the audience were presumably, like the rest of us, trembling and tearful at the end of it, keen to give the Tasmanian-born performer a world stage. By god, does she use it. When Nanette lands on the streaming giant on June 19, watch it set fight to the internet, and wait for Gadsby to be embraced by feminists as a spokesperson for her generation.
The comedian grew up in Tasmania. Or as she calls it: “the little island floating off the arse end of Australia,” which is “famous for its frighteningly small gene pool.” She jokes about how, in general life terms, she “doesn’t lesbian enough.” There are numerous ‘being a lesbian in a backwater’ gags before Gadsby arrives at the conclusion that such humour is degrading. “I’ve built a career on self-deprecation,” she says, but “I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.”
There is something of an irony here, in that the start of Nanette relies on the very kind of comedy its creator denounces. Later, Gadsby will say she no right to spread anger because it leads to blind rage – at the end of the angriest monologue I have ever heard in a stand-up routine. At first glance Gadsby oscillating between invoking anger and speaking against its use could feel like hypocrisy, but even her lighter material (i.e. a bit about babies in headbands) reveals the show is built around contradictions, which she ingeniously digs into. She also shares culpability with the audience, making us partly responsible for the impact of her own material. Gadsby coaxes us into laughter and drives us to anger, before gently reprimanding us for laughing and schooling us about the cost of being angry.
Gadsby reveals the true target of her material: not just the patriarchy, but its biggest beneficiaries: straight white men.
A bit about what she considers the weirdness of gendering babies leads to analysis of the colour blue, demonstrating Gadsby’s knack for spotting contradictions – the kind all around us in daily life, so rooted in our ‘normal’ experience that they have turned virtually invisible. Innocuous observations about how blue is a calming colour, and yet the hottest part of the flame, get pushed aside when – about 25 minutes in – Gadsby reveals the true target of her material: not just the patriarchy, but specifically its biggest beneficiaries: straight white men.
On this subject she is unequivocal and brutal. The performer lays – occasionally with caveats – blame at the feet of straight white men for most of society’s ills. In an alternate world, and perhaps at some point in the future, the term ‘straight white guy’, used the way Gadsby does, would be accepted as a pejorative based on a person’s skin colour and sexual orientation. Here and now, it is a way of criticising the dominant power structure. So when Gadsby jokes about straight white blokes for the first time in history being ‘a sub category of human’ she is by anybody’s definition punching up.
Nanette oozes emotion, like a raw and weeping wound, but has the strength of a great mind and a canny comedian behind it.
The comedian takes audiences on a revisionist rollercoaster history lesson. High art is “bullshit,” she explains, arguing that “the history of western art is just the history of men painting women as if they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers.” On mental illness and Van Gogh: “This romanticising of mental illness is ridiculous…It is not a ticket to genius, it’s a ticket to fucking nowhere.” Gadsby condemns fellow comedians for making Monica Lewinsky the butt of their jokes at the time of the Bill Clinton affair, rather than doing what they ought to have done, which is recognising the then-President’s gobsmacking abuse of power.
The comedian’s devastating conclusion is a kind of inverted confession booth. Where the performer once felt distraught about her private life and sexuality, “soaking in shame” while she was in the closet, she now, as an adult, understands she had nothing to be sorry for and channels all these pent-up feelings into a white hot, blistering performance. Nanette oozes emotion, like a raw and weeping wound, but has the strength of a great mind and a canny comedian behind it. Perhaps our feelings toward Gadsby after watching this brilliant show can be summarised in a word: bravo.
Nanette launches on Netflix on June 19