Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette is Stand-Up Comedy With a Message

Hannah Gadsby's Nannette

Written by Tyler Clark Hannah Gadsby
Images courtesy of IMDB.com

Comedians have a talent for giving us reprieve from the hardest stories.

The ones that have no closure. Stories that leave us emotionally adrift without any promise of land or rescue. Comedians, Hannah Gadsby explains, tell simple, compartmentalized stories, each with rising tension, and emotional release: jokes. Jokes are some of the simplest stories told. Most of the time we come away from a comic’s stand-up routine feeling lighter for having experienced a rapid fire of one emotional release after another in the form of jokes.

This is a comedian’s bread and butter.

Jim Carrey, as an example, would open his sets in the earlier part of his career by shouting, “How’s everybody doing? ALRIGHTY THEN,” dismissing his own question as fast as he posed it along with any introspection from the audience. People loved it. He knew that audiences do not attend stand-up comedy shows for self-reflection. They show up for a distraction. They come for sanctuary from the difficult narratives of life.

But what happens when a comedian does not give us a release from the emotional tension accompanying real-life narratives?

We have a few examples. Comedian Tig Notaro’s Netflix special “Tig” (also worth watching) recounts Notaro’s experience being diagnosed with breast cancer within a short time of her mother’s death. Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” tells very different stories, but accomplishes something similar. These comics understand that everyone’s story deserves to be heard. Every perspective matters. And when you bring people together to laugh and hear each other’s stories it connects people.

Gadsby starts her Netflix special by saying “Welcome to my show. My show is called Nanette.” Hannah Gadsby explains that Nanette was a very interesting woman she once met in a small-town café. Gadsby then proceeds to tell us nothing about Nanette. By the end of the show we’ve forgotten entirely about this woman. Gadsby emphatically makes the point that every perspective matters. People need to be heard–women need to be heard. So, what about Nanette? Who is she, and what is her story?

Perhaps part of the point is that we should wonder.

Beginning with much of the same self-deprecating humor that has fed her entire career, Gadsby’s show is funny and light-hearted until about the seventeen minute mark where Gadsby announces she no longer feels comfortable doing stand-up comedy. The jokes continue, albeit at a slower pace, intermingled with serious reflections about the homophobia she internalized as a child, her relationship with her mother, and encounters with ignorant and violent people.

She makes the observation that her way of coping with these traumatic experiences has been to only tell the parts of the story that can be used as self-deprecating jokes. In order to do justice to her stories in their entirety, Gadsby realizes, she must quit comedy.

Gadsby’s last gift to her audience is not another release from tension in the form of a joke, but more tension in the form of frustration and anger. “This tension? It’s yours. I’m not helping you anymore,” Gadsby declares at the end of her show. But intermingled with Gadsby’s closing tirade is hope. Hope for a change that can only happen if we, the audience, listen to people’s stories and believe them. Listening to people like Hannah Gadsby when she speaks–not to respond or get defensive, but to understand–is exactly what the rest of us need.

It chisels away at the barriers between us and our humanity.

Hannah Gadsby (2018)
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