Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ – musings on comedy, stories, art and connection

Hannah Gadsby and images of thought

So, I went to see Hannah Gadsby on Saturday night. It was one of the best hours of entertainment I’ve ever seen… but not because it was funny.

It was raw, emotional and incredibly thought provoking. It was obliterating comedy and I’d like to think through some of the issues she raised. So *SPOILERS* below for Gadsby’s show ‘Nanette’.

The show starts innocuously enough, some pretty typical gags following Gadbsy’s typical self-depricating style. For those who don’t know Gadsby is a non-identifying lesbian of literally immense stature and these aspects of her identity have typically provided her with comedic material. This show began with her quite typically recounting how others react to her presence, or discussing how her sexuality, quiet disposition and physicality alienated her from various communities; then making jokes about how that process resolved.

Straight white men did not come off well throughout. But it was funny, and honest observational humour – she did a lot here to establish the relative meaningless of the various identities she is ‘ascribed’. ‘I don’t identify as Lesbian, I identify as “tired”, she says, and at another point ‘Did you know, men and women have more in common with each other than they don’t? Men and women are more alike than people and dogs; so stop separating us in to separate teams from day dot.’ And finally ‘I would not like to be a straight white man. It’s the worst time in human history to be a straight white man right now. I wouldn’t be a straight white man if you paid me; although the pay would be substantial’. Good, funny stuff – observing social malaise and commenting on it with laffs.

Towards the middle of the show she started discussing the process of comedy. All jokes, she maintains, are composed of the two parts ‘set-up’ and ‘punchline’. The set-up, she argues establishes a tension in the listener audience. It makes them feel uncomfortable about something, or many things, by painting a picture of an absurdity, an injustice or an apparent contradiction. The set up ‘artificially inseminates’ the audience with an anxiety or dissonance that makes them uncomfortable.

The punchline is the thing that defrays that tension. The comedian comes riding to the rescue of the audience by saying something that allows a laugh to remove the tension. Everyone laughs, feels better. But Gadsby spent the rest of the night exploring what resolving that tension is doing to her, and justifying her decision to quit comedy as a result

Gadsby’s success in comedy comes from an intensely personal tension. Because of her ‘situation’ (as she describes it) she has been defraying tension all her life; ‘I didn’t have to invent the tension, I was the tension’. This has equipped her for comedy as she has become expert at making people feel at ease with her and the tension she creates. However, she has found that what actually happens during comedy is that when she dissolves the tension in the room, the audience feels better but she does not. As a marginal figure, she argues she is constantly using comedy to make people feel at home with their prejudices and their contradictions. ‘Self-deprecation from the margins’ she says, ‘is not humility, it is humiliation.’

After spelling this dynamic out in the middle third of the show, the final third is a harrowing, brilliant and relatively humourless exploration of how this comedic mechanism relates to art and story-telling. Gadsby maintains she can’t do ‘angry’ comedy, because she understands the intellectual pointlessness and moral danger of using the ‘set-up’ to create tension and identify a category of villains that can be used to resolve that tension. She points instead to storytelling as a mechanism of power and change. And in some great riffs on art history, she also identifies that the powerful have always been attracted to artists because they understand the importance of stories. Stories are different to jokes because they have three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. (A set up, a complication and a resolution). It is the resolution that differs from the joke because it fully considers the aftermath of the events. It tries to relate what happened in the story to what is happening now and in this way, it does not necessarily resolve the tension.

The last few minutes of the show consisted in Gadsby relating the ‘real’ non-joke endings to a number of the stories she had used to establish tension in the first third of the show. Whereas in the first part of the show, Gadsby expertly relieved the tension with one liners and humour, in these final minutes she retold these stories including details of her molestation, rape, bashing and associated self-loathing. These revelations of jokes as stories was the end of Gadsby’s time on stage and, despite a standing ovation, she would not return to relieve our tension and make us comfortable again.

So, it was a hugely powerful experience. And as well as the central argument about what is happening in comedy/stories Gadsby also did great work on the various myopias of art criticism, individualism, reputation, identity politics and straight white men. All of it was intelligent, passionate and the end result was highly compelling. It’s probably the best piece of ‘comedy’ I’ve ever seen; but not because it was funny.

And when I say it was compelling, it compelled me to want to get drunk because of the force of Hannah’s exposition (although IRL I didn’t/couldn’t). It also had me convinced she was on to something about an inherent problem of comedy. However, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to disagree with the premises of her argument about quitting comedy, while admiring the hell out of it nonetheless. I agree with just about everything else she said, particularly on the unheralded importance of humanity and connection in all stories.

Things get a bit wordy below, so only read on if you’re into philosophy or critical theory.

The basis of my disagreement with Gadsby’s position lies in a Deleuzean argument about (against) the ideal image of thought constructed by Hegel. That is, categories and ideals pre-exist our consideration of those things, and our deviation from them always involves a dialectic reconciliation back toward those ideals. Gadsby refutes this categorisation throughout most of her comedy and yet she maintains that the ‘defray/resolution’ always gravitates back to the preconceived categories i.e. I’m always and invariably understood as a minority. She spells this out particularly when she discusses a conversation she had with her mother that helped her decide to quit comedy.

 The thing I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight. That must have been so confusing for you. I knew well before you did that your life was going to be so hard and I wanted more than anything in the world for that not to be the case.  But I now know that I made it worse, I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.

Here, Hannah, her mother and the world and their roles are cast as impervious to change. These things exist as categories that always have primacy over experience, that will always drag experience back toward their centre.

I’d argue that this is a misunderstanding and while I don’t begrudge Gadsby her perspective I’d advance a different model of thought, where the realisation of difference opens up a space for connection and ‘becoming-other’… of escaping from the category that you’re in and becoming something new. Gadsby, I’m sure is aware of this possibility, even if she doesn’t name it, possibly because she doesn’t want to let the audience ‘off the hook’ of thinking through how their ‘categories’ are defined. Gadsby’s resistance of identity tags is one indication of her resistance to the Hegelian image of thought. She also betrays this philosophy in some of her more powerful concluding comments:

To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. To render someone powerless is what destroys that humanity.

I do believe we can make a better world if we tried to see if from as many different perspectives as possible.

And of course, as a straight white man, I’d prefer not to think that our categories are non-negotiable and that an engagement such as ‘Nanette’ can indeed be productive of new perspectives, new connections and a redeemed humanity. Thanks to Gadsby for a real piece of art.