Laughing Matters — Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.


When the most generous and laudatory assessments of stand-up comedy are presented, a view of the form as a habitat for uncommonly bold truth-telling is usually part of the conversation. That theory only looks more compelling as the various descendants of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show spread out use the heaping sugar spoons of raunchy punchlines to sweeten the medicine of their aggravated assemblages of investigative journalism that are otherwise likely to be missed by enormous chunks of the population. But most of the time, a heavy caution is obviously in place. These comedians might issue diatribes against a broken system, but they’re largely parroting the simplest social grievances. When the substance is really examined, there are few hard truths to be found, the sort that challenge the status quo rather than merely offer complaints.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which recently made its debut on Netflix, is an entirely different matter. It is bracing, transformational, inventive, defiant, and — a word I feel I must now reserve for creative art on this level — revelatory. Gadsby succinctly identifies the core reason for the show’s success. “I broke the contract, and that’s what made this work,” Gadsby recently told The Guardian.

In Nanette, comedy is not a means to soothe or to escape. A remarkable amount of the time, comedy is not even a tool to extract laughter. Instead, comedy — its rhythms, its structure, its basic presentation — is there as a vehicle for the rawest emotions, identifying pain and betrayal, not just on a personal level, but across the expanse of the shared, misbegotten culture. It shares some DNA with the more theatrical comedian shows on the nineteen-nineties, when there was a tendency to claim a veneer of added legitimacy by declaring barely modified stand-up sets as one-person shows. But those relied on rickety appropriations of stage plays. Gadsby’s Nanette is pure stand-up, from beginning to end.

Gadsby employs deconstructionist technique, calling attention to the grammar or stand-up while simultaneously mastering and demolishing it. The art history degree Gadsby holds is drawn upon brilliantly in a counter to the fallacy that emotional misery is necessary ingredient to the production great art, but it also informs the entirety of Nanette. It is the treatise of someone who’s been trained to the understand the patterns, subtext, and nuance of art, and who has further learned to adapt that knowledge to a myriad of forms.

Despite proclamations to the contrary, I don’t believe Gadsby’s Nanette is the sort of performance that can change everything about the form of stand-up comedy. I think it’s too great to achieve that. It’s beyond the grasp of other practitioners, more akin to the unhinged monologues of Lenny Bruce or the pure honesty of Richard Pryor. It’s an astonishing peak that can’t be reached again, even — somewhat by design — for the person made it there in the first place.

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