“Oh Hannah, why did you have to tell me that?” Hannah Gadsby’s Mum said, “I didn’t need to know that! How would you like it if I told you I was a murderer?”
“You’d hope that was a phase,” quipps Gadsby.
Hannah Gadsby’s trademark is her self-deprecating humour. Her stories of growing up in a small town in Tasmania, are told with a droll tone and a wry smile. She does this thing where she shares something of her past, like her coming out story, and stops. Her brows are raised and her eyes wide as she lets the audience absorb the absurdity of the false equivalence. Naively, I’d pictured a young Hannah jotting these things down in a notebook as future comedic fodder. What a ridiculous and insensitive assumption I’d made, in hindsight. And hindsight is, as Gadsby explains, a gift. She’s right. It is.
We sat in the third row at Sydney’s Opera House as Hannah Gadsby took to the stage to perform Nanette, her swansong; a departure from stand-up comedy. Nanette is named after a beady-eyed barista in a small town who embodied the sort of mentality that Gadsby grew up surrounded by.
I purposely didn’t read any reviews, wanting to experience it for myself without any expectation. I had expected laughs and I wasn’t dissapointed.
In the first part of the show, Gadsby takes the audience through a series of rollicking laughs with the occasional moment of seriousness. Gadsby mentions of leaving comedy and reminds us that the self-deprecating humour we so love is actually a self-imposed humiliation and a minimisation of her real-life traumas.
Then throws in a joke about the Tasmanian gene pool.
Growing up in the bible belt of Tasmania at a time when homosexuality was still illegal obviously wasn’t easy for Gadsby, who clearly remembers the public debate on the issue.
Add to this a funny story about being mistaken for a man in a shop.
Gadsby observes that, as a nation, we do not debate sensitive matters with humanity. This was also a stark reminder of the marriage equality debate that Australia just subjected the LGBTIQ community to. Then a few more jokes at the expense of Tasmania. We were in stitches, it’s true, but we could see this show might not take the shape we expect from stand-up comedy.
The audience gets a thumbnail sketch of what comedy is; Gadsby has undoubtedly mastered it. It is, she explains, the careful building of tension, then expertly released by a surprising ending; a punch-line. The audience, she explains, is grateful to the comedian for releasing the tension that the very same comedian created. This paraodox amused and delighted Gadsby as well as the packed room experiencing it first-hand.
We were spell-bound in the initial part of the show, roaring with laughter as Gadsby released the tension she had built, over and over. But comedy and laughter is, as Gadsby explains, not the medicine we might think it is. Laughter is good and positive, but building a career out of laughter at your own expense is perhaps not good for one’s health.
At a point, the show becomes something much more than a night of laughter and jokes. Gadsby is angry and unapologetic as she takes through some of the reasons she wants to leave comedy behind. Her observations, such as that perhaps comedians did the world an injustice when they spent a decade or so ridiculing Monica Lewinsky, instead of the president who abused his power over her, struck a chord. The show darkens considerably. Her disillusionment with comedy is clear but doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our world, our culture, has a lot to answer for in Gadsby’s story.
Telling her story
Hannah Gadsby’s anger, her fury, is directed at the patriarchal, hetero-normative culture that we live in. We live in a world that doesn’t care about women or children, she tells us. And in a handful of examples that no one could deny, the audience can see that she is absolutely right. From abuse, to homophobia, to gendered violence, she is bang on the money. Hannah Gadsby used her consummate skill to continue to build the tension as she shared parts of her personal history.
Gadsby is fearless and vulnerable as she takes the audience headfirst into mental illness, shame, homophobia (external and internalised) and gendered violence. She plunges the audience into the depths of her rage and, for once, does little to diffuse it. Our comfort is no longer her responsibility.
You MUST see Nanette
The good news is that last night’s show was filmed for Netflix, so if you missed out on tickets, you can still see it when it comes out. It’s a must-see.
I laughed, yes, as I had expected to. Even the darkest parts of the show were peppered with a humour that pulls laughter from deep in your belly. A portion of the show was turned over to Gadsby’s art degree and her dislike of Picasso (“Fucken hate ‘im”) for his deep contempt for women, his “affair” with a teenage girl and this quote:
“Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them. They wouldn’t be around to complicate my existence. Maybe, that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.
Charming, no? But when she described cubism as Picasso putting a kaleidoscope on his dick and painting the results, she brought the house down. Was it the release of the not insignificant tension in the room? Maybe it was, but it was also bloody funny.
I also sat still and silent as tears streaked my face and Gadsby spoke of connection, of trauma and of the need to tell her story on her own terms. Hannah Gadsby might be drawing the curtains on her comedy career but I feel like (perhaps it’s just a hope) we will hear a lot more from her.