Amid the glut of standup specials out there these days, it takes a lot for one to stand out from the pack. Hannah Gadsby may not be a household name in the States, but the Tasmanian-born comedian is kind of a big deal down under. Her new Netflix special, “Nanette,” shows just why that is.
“Nanette” isn’t a traditional standup special. The hour plays like an installment of “The Moth” — a deeply personal, confessional and visceral essay on gender identity, sexuality and trauma. Tonally, it oscillates between riotously funny — Gadsby has a chatty, disarming style that sneaks in extra laughs on her way to the punchline — to devastatingly raw and angry.
Early on, Gadsby reveals she’s quitting comedy. Her reasons are a combination of anger and exhaustion. “I identify as tired,” she says of being a lesbian, explaining that, too often, people in the margins use self-deprecation as a way of fitting in. She has decided to reject this premise, arguing that self-deprecation isn’t humility, it’s humiliation. “I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak,” she says.
Without naming it, Gadsby acknowledges the impact of the #MeToo movement, stating, “For the first time ever, (straight white men are) suddenly a subcategory of a human.” No longer able to exempt themselves from the rules they created, they are now subject to be judged and categorized like everyone else. Gadsby, who says she’s “always been judged by what I am,” declares she doesn’t have any sympathy for men who bristle at such critiques and decry it as reverse sexism or misandry.
“If you can’t handle criticism, take a joke or deal with your own tension without violence, you have to wonder if you are up to the task of being in charge,” she says at a particularly poignant moment in the hour.
In building her case against the toxic legacy of straight white men, Gadsby exercises great control and timing; her indignation is measured and contained, until she reaches a crescendo of righteous fury. The result is a searing indictment of the fragile, male-centric hegemony we all live within that serves as an essential treatise for the #MeToo era.
“You don’t have a monopoly on the human condition,” she says, “… but the story is as you have told it, power belongs to you.”
“Nanette,” then, is Gadsby telling her story on her terms. It’s a painful, tragic story, to be sure, but it’s a necessary one — one which Gadsby wishes someone had told her when she was younger and suffering through emotional and physical trauma.
For some men, Gadsby’s message will be too much to take. As a straight white male, I say these guys need to man up and, more importantly, listen up. It’s easy to paint Gadsby as a man-hater, but that’s a gross misinterpretation. She’s speaking a truth that too many of us men willfully ignore. Rather than diminish her, dismiss her or hide behind cowardly exclamations of “not all men,” maybe we should shut our mouths for a minute while someone else speaks.
Throughout the hour, Gadsby speaks of tension, and how it can isolate us from one another. Laughter, she says, connects us. Her comedic style is the play between tension and laughter, making the audience uncomfortable then giving release with a well-timed joke.
Eventually, however, that laughter fully gives way to tension as Gadsby refuses to help the audience find relief in another joke. She is unapologetic as she explains that tension is the reality people on the margins — the “not normals,” as she calls them — carry inside them their entire lives, “because it’s dangerous to be different.”
While Gadsby defiantly carries that tension through the back half of the special, it never veers into stridency or polemic. Yes, she’s angry — angry as hell! — but she knows anger is not a constructive solution.
“Anger, like laughter, can connect a room full of strangers,” she says, before warning that anger doesn’t relieve tension; it is tension, and it only succeeds at spreading hatred.
Her prescription is to tear down the arbitrary barriers created by straight white men that prevent others from telling their stories and sharing their experiences. In telling these stories, we forge connections that humanize us all. “Diversity is strength. Difference is a teacher. Fear difference, you learn nothing,” she says in the moving final moments of “Nanette.”
If “Nanette,” is indeed Gadsby’s final set, it’s a shame. She is a talented, deadly funny comedian who can command a room and captivate an audience. While she may no longer want to tell jokes, I hope she will continue to tell stories and speak truth to power. Hers is a perspective more people need to hear right now.