There's a good chance that if you make the mistake of getting into a conversation with me, I will somehow steer it towards telling you to watch Nanette. Nanette, you ask? It's on Netflix. It's the special from Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. She was in Please Like Me. You haven't seen Please Like Me? Oh my GOD, it's on Hulu. You need to watch it. But first, you need to watch Nanette.
The special dropped on Netflix June 19, and the comedian is currently finishing up the final week of her run at the SoHo Playhouse in New York City. It is stand-up, in the sense that Gadsby spends the entirety of the performance standing and, at the start at least, keeps up a typical rhythm of jokes. It's called Nanette, she explains at the beginning, for no other reason than the fact that she met an engaging woman with that name whom she thought she'd base the special around, but then she...didn't. The subject is abandoned. Instead, her sexuality is at the center of most of her anecdotes — how she doesn't identify with the partying aspects of being LGBTQ+, the way she's often mistaken for a man, the various pitfalls of coming out. At minute 17, however, is when we get our first taste of what's to come. Gadsby says that she's quitting comedy.
"I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humor…and I don’t want to do that anymore," she tells the audience to applause. "Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I won’t do that to myself anymore. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me."
By minute 40, the room is silent. By the end, everyone's crying.
Much of Gadsby's initial jokes are about growing up as a lesbian in Tasmania, where homosexuality was a crime until 1997. This means most of her adolescence was spent in tortured confusion. When she came out to her mother, her mother replied, "Why did you have to tell me that?" She "forgot" to come out to her grandmother. A man once tried to fight her for hitting on his girlfriend, before realizing she was actually a woman. The stories are dark, but Gadsby tinges them with humor in a way that makes them palatable.
And that's the problem.
For a joke to work, Gadsby explains, it needs tension. A setup and a punchline. Tension and relief — something she's acquainted with having grown up as the tension her entire life. And if she wants to tell her story in a comedy club, she has to keep it that way.
"In a comedy club, there's no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending," she says. "In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punch lines. Like, take my coming-out story, for example. The best part of that story is the fact that Mum and I have a wonderful relationship now. More than mother and daughter, we're friends; we trust each other. Look what I've done to the room. No tension. You're just going, 'Good on you.'"
So instead of telling it that way, she's previously had to stick to just the first parts of the stories: the beginning and the middle. However, the middle is often the hardest part.
"Comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence," she says, adding, "What I had done with that comedy show about coming out was I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point, and I sealed it off into jokes."
"You learn from the part of the story you focus on," she says. "I need to tell my story properly."
Telling the story properly means telling the truth, and the truth of Gadsby's stories is far from comical.
"Do you remember that story I told about that young man who almost beat me up? ... In order to balance the tension in the room with that story, I couldn't tell that story how it actually happened," she revealed. "Because I couldn't tell the part of the story where that man realized his mistake. And he came back. And he said, 'Oh, no, I get it. You're a lady faggot. I'm allowed to beat the shit out of you.' And he did. He beat the shit out of me, and nobody stopped him. And I didn't report that to the police, and I did not take myself to hospital, and I should have. And you know why I didn't? It's because I thought that was all I was worth."
Gadsby continues, giving her unfiltered and honest thoughts on misogyny, sexism, politics, and art. Her voice wavers but never cracks, swelling into a powerful condemnation of the status quo. Just as as it reaches its climax, she stops herself. She realizes she's yelling, that she's angry, that she has maybe dragged out the tension for too long.
"This is why I must quit comedy," she admits. "Because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger."
Gadsby says her comedy career may be over, but I don't think that's the case. I don't think anger should be discounted, or considered inappropriate for a Netflix special. I think the career of comedy as we knew it, comedy as we perform it and seek it and consume it, is changing. Or at least it will now, because Gadsby is leading the revolution for what comes next.