Before the gut punch and global phenomenon that was her standup show Nanette, Australians were already familiar with comedian Hannah Gadsby. She’d been gigging for 10 years and had appeared on Australian television shows Please Like Me (for which she also co-wrote episodes), and Adam Hills Tonight. But Nanette, and the Netflix recording that followed, took her stratospheric. It gave her the type of fame very few comedians achieve, never mind Australian comedians.
What Nanette did surprised Gadsby. But more than that, it seemed to strike by stealth. Nanette is a subversive, angry and sardonic deconstruction of standup and it looks trauma – Gadsby’s trauma – in the eye. In it, Gadsby says self-deprecation – classic comedic fodder, used by Gadsby throughout her career and even in Nanette itself to devastating effect – isn’t an option for her anymore; as a queer woman survivor of homophobia, violence and sexual assault, making jokes at her own expense makes her a collaborator in her own marginalisation. The show reveals a defiant intelligence that, when applied to rage and pain, proves a new type of comedy performance – and performer – is possible. Nanette’s “jokes” didn’t so much land as crash through audiences’ frontal lobes and lodge there, the wreckages still smoking long after people had left the theatre or turned off the telly. And they loved it.
On the phone to Gadsby in London I ask her if she had any idea how Nanette would blow up. Any inkling of how acutely it would resonate. Her answer is emphatic. “There’s no way. No way. I can’t even process it now,” she says. “I thought after Nanette I’d have to see myself out.”
She acknowledges the significance of Nanette’s timing. It debuted in 2017 at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and toured for 18 months. It was in part a response to the marriage equality debate happening in Australia (Gadsby was vocal throughout the lead-up to the vote about how damaging the “debate” would be to the mental health of queer people, particularly young LGBTQI+ people), and it dovetailed with debate in Australia about the Safe Schools program. And #MeToo, which started in 2006 but surged again in October 2017 with public accusations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. It all contributed to an atmosphere in which Gadsby’s show about abuse of power, privilege, sexual violence and the objectification of women was zeitgeist-pitch-perfect.
Nanette proved that audiences are hungry for something they’re not being given by traditional standup. “I discovered that by accident,” Gadsby says. “It was also loud and clear that there’s an audience that does not like me, and that’s fine. But you’d be a fool not to take notice of the audience response to Nanette. And that’s exciting. Audiences really want people to use their craft to hold their voices.”
Gadsby’s now-global platform gives her a louder voice than she’s used to. But she’s not confused about what to do with it. “When you have a platform, I personally believe you have a responsibility to use your freedom of speech. The more power, the more reach, the more seriously you have to take it,” she says.
Of course there was backlash to Nanette. People accused Gadsby of not making actual “comedy”. She has said in the past that it’s true she broke the contract between comedian and audience by exposing comedy’s manipulations and biases. And famously, she said she’d quit comedy because of them. For many, these conceits of comedy were sacred. “That’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Gadsby. “They’re more worried about protecting their own space and their own voice. And I think this is a patriarchy thing, where they think if someone else speaks then they’re not allowed to. If someone else gets something then that takes something away from them.”
Gadsby has been touring her new show, Douglas, since it debuted in Melbourne in March. She’s taken it through the US and Europe and is bringing it back to Australia in December. (Douglas is also the name of one of her dogs, although the show touches more obviously on James Douglas, an 18th-century medical man who named a section of female anatomy after himself).
“I’m enjoying it. It’s a lot more fun than Nanette. Fucking Nanette.” Gadsby says this with an exhausted sigh, like it’s a fire she passed though.
“I thought, ‘The world’s watching me now, so probably best I do something I know how to do’, which is comedy. And show that Nanette was not a one-hit wonder.
“And also just for myself to have fun on stage and make use of the freed up psychic space that Nanette made for me. It really did blow the cobwebs out.”
Gadsby was diagnosed with autism before she started writing Nanette, and that plays a part in Douglas.
“People don’t think women with autism exist,” says Gadsby. “And there’s a really interesting intersection between sexism and myths about autism, because there’s a certain expectation of what women are. And women with autism are just never that thing. So it’s like a double whammy: we don’t get diagnosed, and we’re struggling to understand why we can’t be the narrow definition of what a woman is supposed to be.”
Another misconception about neurodiversity, according to Gadsby, is that it’s a bad thing. “We think about it in terms of stigma, and that it’s a prison sentence and that it’s something awful. And personally I think that’s just a lack of effort trying to learn how to communicate with people who have a different way of processing the world.
“It’s a relational thing. I don’t have autism when I’m on my own. I don’t. It only starts when you try to connect with others,” she says.
So Douglas – like Nanette – is not a straightforward evening of standup LOLs. But it’s a different, lighter show that stays true to Gadsby’s intelligence, kookiness, empathy, instinct for absurdity, and her deftness at skewering hypocrisy and the status quo.
And regardless of how well it’s been received and reviewed (really well), Gadsby may never really believe her success.
“I just don’t think that if Australia had gotten together and thought, ‘Okay, you can choose one of your comedians to make it big in the US’ Australia would have had a team meeting and chosen me,” she says. “On paper you wouldn’t have put me forward as the one that America goes: ‘Yeah, we want a bit of this’.”
That self-deprecating humour – it’s either deliberate or a tough habit to kick. Both are possible with a comedian as human and smart as Gadsby.
Douglas is playing in Melbourne on December 7, Sydney from December 17 to 21 and Brisbane (sold out) on January 29 & 30. Tickets here.