Hannah Gadsby: People were angry that I ‘wasn’t doing comedy right’. I’m angry I got raped
Comedian coming to Dublin with Douglas, the follow-up to her groundbreaking show Nanette
Hannah Gadsby attends the 8th AACTA International Awards on January 4, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AFI
Thousands of people had seen Hannah Gadsby’s landmark stand-up show, Nanette, live, but the recorded version on Netflix last year brought it to millions.
The Tasmanian writer, actor, and global comedy star’s visceral detailing of her experience of misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, pain and trauma dismantled and rebuilt the very form of stand-up, imploring the audience to witness, share, and empathise. On stage, she detonated something, and people are still picking through the debris.
Multiple facets of contemporary culture were projected onto the show. Everyone had an opinion, and Nanette was labelled many things: genius; the manifestation of confessional culture; staged Millennial narcissism (hardly, Gadsby is 41); solipsistic; performative pain; not even stand-up.
Gadsby had “broken” comedy, apparently. Two curious emotions underpinned much of the commentary: fear and anger. People were genuinely enraged by Gadsby’s audacity. The conservatism of stand-up was exposed as a crumbling male skeleton.
In the mushroom cloud that dissipated in the aftermath of this detonation, Gadsby took a step back. Speaking over the phone from New York ahead of bringing her latest show, Douglas, to Dublin later this month, Gadsby describes that period. “First of all, I got a team around me who shielded me from a lot. It was sort of overwhelming. I went to ground. I went into hiding. What have I done?
“I went from extreme invisibility to extreme visibility, and that makes a mess of the sort of person who went into making a show like Nanette – someone who watched the world, processes, thinks about things, and then presented it to the world. Suddenly my life was people telling me: this is who you are, this is what you do, and I think that’s a dangerous thing. So I turned it off.”
Male stand-ups who make a career talking about themselves are rarely accused of indulgence. The scrutiny and level of analysis Gadsby encountered in the wake of Nanette must have been disorientating and wild. The show was not some freewheeling avant-garde experiment. It was expertly constructed, edge-of-the-seat stuff.
One of the problems with stand-up culture is that 'it’s such a boys club'
Criticisms of form, like tone policing, are often a veneer for the real root of the audience’s discomfort: the content of what is being said. Gadsby was talking about her sexuality as a lesbian, her gender as a woman, and how society punishes that. For many, that seemed hard to take.
“I think it’s so funny,” Gadsby says. “People are going: we’re really angry! You’re not doing comedy right! I’m angry I got raped. Let’s have some context here fellas!”
There’s a big difference between people watching in a theatre and those watching Netflix on their laptops. The latter, she thinks, can be where “the empathy gets lost. When I was performing in the room, the empathy was alive. Nobody who saw that show would be involved in this discussion, unless they lacked the capability of empathy.”
This is why live performance, she believes, is “such a critical part of stand-up culture”.
“I didn’t write Nanette with Netflix in mind. I wrote it to talk to an audience I had built over the past 10 years before I did Nanette. I’m talking to that audience. I don’t know them as individuals, but they’ve followed my career, and most people who saw the first iteration of Nanette had seen all of my other work.”
One of the problems with stand-up culture is that “it’s such a boys club”, she says. She hopes shows like Nanette, and now Douglas, “can shake it up a little, and create a less competitive environment on the ground”.
Despite the maelstrom of commentary, Gadsby isn’t mad at the internet. “The internet is one of the reasons many women finally have a voice, because media gatekeepers are men,” she says. “Nanette wouldn’t have been made in any other time, simply because of how I had direct access to a huge audience, and the audience decided very democratically.”
The show has received some rave reviews from the British press, meaning her instinct to move beyond people’s expectations was correct.
Throughout history, Gadsby says, narratives about the human condition have largely been told by men. Men have invented what stories are, and how they “should” be.
“I’m not interested in creating work like men,” she says. “The way we communicate, the way we invented ourselves has only been done through the prism of the male experience for centuries, millennia...
“The problem with male narratives is that they have always excluded the collaboration; art history, invention, every single heroic male artist has what they call a muse. History only ever looks at the muse as somebody who was there and was nice to look at. These women actually were intimate to these men’s lives, and therefore they influenced the aspects of their art. A lot of them were artists themselves, and a lot of their work was taken by the men. These grand narratives always put one person at the top. It’s simply not true.”
How to tackle this, and follow Nanette? She wrote Douglas – which touches on Gadsby’s autism, classical art, her dog (after whom the show is partly named), patriarchy – not caring if it failed. The show has received some rave reviews from the British press, meaning her instinct to move beyond people’s expectations was correct.
“When I started the creative process, I realised I was going ‘what are people expecting?’ as part of the launching pad. When I wrote Nanette, I just never considered that. So I scrapped that, and launched this project going, ‘I’m not thinking of what people are expecting ... I don’t care if this fails, I’ve got something to say.”