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For Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’ and her new show are more ‘stand-up catharsis’ than belly laugh

For Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’ and her new show are more ‘stand-up catharsis’ than belly laugh
Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 Netflix special “Nanette” caused a sensation with its searing, personal discussion of sexism and homophobia. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“If you only know me from ‘Nanette,’ what are you expecting?” Hannah Gadsby asked the audience seeing her new comedy show, titled “Douglas” (after one of her beloved dogs) at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre.

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“Some good drama?” Gadsby pauses. “Well, I’m all out of that.”

The question and the punchline, impeccably delivered, addressed the dilemma that Gadsby faced following up “Nanette,” the stage show-turned-Netflix special that challenged the nature of stand-up comedy. Sharing her stories of gender and sexual trauma as a queer woman growing up in Australia, Gadsby became a word-of-mouth sensation almost immediately after “Nanette’s” premiere on Netflix last June, powerfully (and unintentionally) connecting with the #MeToo movement.

“I was suddenly something I’d never anticipated,” Gadsby says over breakfast the morning after her San Diego “Douglas" show last month. (The tour comes to Los Angeles in July, though both shows are sold out.) Largely unknown outside her home country before “Nanette,” people now recognized Gadsby in public, asking for selfies and wanting to share their own stories of trauma.

“Often in the same breath,” Gadsby says. “And I can’t process people’s trauma with a cute face. I’m sure social media is filled with pictures of me with strangers looking like I’ve been kidnapped.”

Dressed entirely in blue, essentially the only color she wears, and wearing a baseball cap adorned with an octopus that she purchased at San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences (“I’m going through a real octopus phase,” she says. “They’re smart and adaptive.”), Gadsby is, as you’d expect, a lively conversationalist, talking about her new long-form show, which she describes, with no small amount of relief, as “playful” even while noting that it functions as “stand-up catharsis.”

Was it hard to wrap your head around writing a follow-up to “Nanette”? I’d imagine it’d be daunting.

Following that show was impossible. It was painful to write and painful to perform, but also enriching and healing in a lot of ways. But it’s its own beast. And I thought about it plenty. I thought: “I now live in the shadow of my own work.” But instead of approaching it like I must escape the shadow, I thought, “How ’bout I just call it for what it is?” So I’ll just honestly talk about what I want to talk about. Essentially, that’s what most comics do.

Since most people in your audience — outside of, say, Australia and England — know you just from “Nanette,” they are, in one respect, seeing what you do for the first time.

And that’s exciting! I don’t know what they expect. And I don’t think they know what to expect. So we’re in this together, sharing the same problem. The world Jerry Seinfeld navigates and thinks about is more accessible than where I live, which is off the planet. It’s lovely. But I can’t say, “You know what it’s like when you haven’t spoken to someone in four days and you’re quite happy about it?” I have to explain why that’s fun. And I do.

You do, and in a way that connects with a wide variety of people. The makeup of your audience at the show was all over the map — young and old, straight and queer, women, dads, the whole gamut.

I am shocked how people responded to “Nanette” in so many different ways. I thought the show would be alienating. But I think, fundamentally, everyone feels a bit different. I have been astounded by how many guys have told me “Nanette” resonated with them. That gives me confidence to explore my idiosyncrasies. It’s nice. That’s not the strongest word I’ve ever chosen. But it’s nice.

You establish the comic tone early in “Douglas,” saying you quit comedy the same way Louis C.K. said he was sorry.

He is a joke now. And I think it’s important to keep making that joke. This is dangerous to talk about, but I’ll give it a go. What the issue is, for a long time Louis C.K.’s comedy platform was that he was this hopeless guy bumbling through the world. And at some stage, he was no longer that, but that was still his voice. And I think he still believes that. He has not reassessed his position of power, and that is why he was able to abuse it. It’s difficult to see a shift in your own power and privilege. It’s not something we’re trained to do. He still honestly thinks he’s the victim in all of this.

That comes through clearly when he’s performing. There’s a real anger there now in his delivery.

He’s saying the same kinds of things. The material hasn’t changed. He’s just angry and bitter. I always struggled with his work because I’m a visual thinker. And there’s just so much semen. So I literally couldn’t see the humor in this waterfall of body fluids. That’s my issue. I never blamed him for that.

But then I think, “Gosh. That’s on his mind a lot too.” The guy clearly had an issue. And that’s sad for him. So why are we trusting a man who has a compulsion like that where it diminishes the humanity of people around him? Why do we care what he thinks about the human condition? He needs to worry about his own condition a bit. Just sit quietly.

I’m guessing he believes he has done just that, though there’s evidence to the contrary.

If you’re used to controlling a narrative and then you’re witnessing it go to a different place, you will not let go. He’s a trapped man. He’s doing his comedy from a position of defensiveness.

I could never advocate censorship. Censorship is useless because it leaves a gap where we learned a lesson. Let’s say Picasso. I’m not a fan. But I am a fan. I’m not a fan of the gap that was left in his story, that he was a toxic, hostile individual and that his behavior was enabled by the community around him. But if you were to wipe him from our collective memory, we not only lose what he did well, we lose what he did badly. And we can learn from both.

“Nanette” came under scrutiny from comics who wanted to classify it. “Call it a lecture. Call it a TED Talk. Just don’t call it comedy.” How much did that backlash inform the writing of the new show?

When I think about people saying, “Oh, it’s not stand-up comedy,” I say, “Let’s not define what comedy is. Let’s define what the purpose of comedy is.” And that’s, I believe, to laugh. And what’s the purpose of laughter? Catharsis. To feel better about something. Laughter is not the only way to reach catharsis. One of the ways I get it is to finally understand something or someone says something in a way that crystallizes what’s been worrying me — though I didn’t know it was worrying me. So maybe I do stand-up catharsis.

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Was there an aspect of gatekeeping behind some of what was written about “Nanette”?

I don’t think we talk enough about how comedy is accessible. I’m from a low socioeconomic background, and comedy is something that you can earn a little bit of coin from very early on and keep yourself afloat. There’s no other art form that I could participate in as creatively coming from where I come from. So when people want to exclude people from comedy, I think that’s a really dangerous idea.

Because you know what, it’s really cheap to run a comedy club. There’s low overhead. This is a place where people can find their voice. That’s what I did. Stand-up comedy is an incredible place for different voices and young voices, and it should be more alive than it is. But I think it’s going through a changing of the guard.

In addition to “Douglas,” you have a memoir coming out later this year. Did writing a book provide a chance to process your life a bit differently than writing a comedy show?

It did. I realized that I take a longer time to sift through things. I’m not a social media person. Processing things in real time is not how I function. So it makes sense that I write a book.

I feel like I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t remember which writer said it, but she said, “I have ideas like rabbits have orgasms.” That’s me. But maybe she should have said “sex” instead of “orgasm,” because how do we know every time a rabbit has sex it has an orgasm?

[Laughs] Good point. You talked earlier that we’re not trained to respond to a shift in privilege. Have you been able to do that in the last year since “Nanette”?

It’s amazing how a little financial freedom can help ease your mind. And also being heard, having the world say, “We appreciate you being a part of this world.” That is a great feeling. I wish everyone could have that. Like, “I belong in this world and I’m valued.”

I’d never known that feeling and now, all of a sudden, I do. Like, I felt I belonged in certain pockets of the world. But now I’ve struck a chord on the human condition that’s resonated. It’s not what I planned to do, but it’s what happened and it feels good. If I was to lose it, I’ve had it. And I think that’s enough. If all of this were to disappear and I went back to Melbourne and lived with my dogs and worked in my brother’s shop, I’ve had it. And that’s going to stay with me.

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