Several years ago, my right wrist was shattered in a car accident—I had gripped the steering wheel before the moment of impact—and though the precise quality of the pain has now all but vanished from my mind, I vividly recall sitting in the waiting room and finding it more and more difficult to focus on anything besides the mounting physical agony. I was marooned on a kind of private island where pain demanded every ounce of my attention, and my increasingly frustrated and belligerent responses to my wife and those gathered around me were partly motivated by the resentment for anyone or anything that tried to interrupt this intense focus—anything that tried to pull me off my island.
In what basically amounts to a clever gloss on Anna Karenina’s famous dictum regarding unhappy families, Graham Greene writes, “The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” Though this sentiment is now so deeply woven into the warp and woof of our culture that it verges on being a truism, it’s actually a thoroughly modern perspective—one that’s by no means self-evident. Is it really true, for instance, that happiness effaces us and that pain alone distinguishes us? For that matter, is a person’s identity really contingent upon their uniqueness? Was I somehow more myself on that little island of pain in that hospital waiting room?Part of Gadsby’s subversive power consists in the fact she still manages to be hilarious even as she refuses to let us rest in the abridgments necessary to her former punchlines.
Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (Netflix) is a highly unusual comedy special, not least because it offers a robust challenge to some of the prevailing misconceptions surrounding pain. A self-identified lesbian who grew up in the geographically and culturally insular region of Tasmania, Gadsby’s early life was nothing short of harrowing. This is a place where homosexuality was illegal until 1997 (!), and the treatment that Gadsby endured over the years is appalling. I’ve got these contextual details in mind not because I’ve googled Gadsby, but because they form an integral part of Nanette.
If all this doesn’t sound particularly funny, know that part of the reason for Nanette’s status as a full-fledged cultural sensation is that Gadsby uses it as a forum to announce her departure from the world of comedy. Over the course of the special, she ruthlessly deconstructs her own brand of self-deprecating humor, revealing that nearly all of her former punchlines depended on truncated accounts of her own suffering. To this end, she employs an ingenious strategy to indict the audience’s laughter, offering up some of her early jokes, only to explode them later with the devastating details. Take one particular incident in which Gadsby was mistaken for a gay man at a bus stop by an aggressive male bigot in her native Tasmania. The actual joke turns on the bumbling nature of their misunderstanding and Gadsby casts herself as the ironic dilettante—“I’m only a man at a glance”—who narrowly escapes a beating.
But she didn’t escape the beating. Later in the show, in the wake of our recent laughter, Gadsby revisits this scene and gives the full account: “He realized his mistake, and he came back, and he said, ‘I’m allowed to beat the sh*t out of you!’ And he did! He beat the sh*t out of me, and nobody stopped him!” She then informs the audience that she didn’t report the man, and she didn’t seek medical treatment, so deeply ingrained was the self-loathing inculcated by her cultural environment. To say that this maneuver nullifies the joke is to speak too simplistically. Imagine a close shot of a couple embracing on a beach. Now imagine the camera zooming out to reveal a lone gunman slowly advancing in their direction. With Nanette, Hannah Gadsby zooms out from the joke to reveal the full picture. It’s a move that’s as bracing as it is courageous, and its implications go well beyond the world of comedy.
Much of the controversy surrounding Nanette has to do with categorization. Is it even fair to label this special as comedy? Is it a motivational speech—a kind of extended TED Talk? Or is it more like a confessional species of theater art on par with Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues? Should we mar it with the dreaded “post-” prefix and welcome a new generation of “post-comedy” specials from “post-comedians”? If Nanette is supposed to take us beyond comedy, it fails brilliantly: Part of Gadsby’s subversive power consists in the fact she still manages to be hilarious even as she refuses to let us rest in the abridgments necessary to her former punchlines.
Despite its overwhelming success, Nanette has had its share of critics and hecklers. At one show, an indignant man yelled out, “Where are the jokes?” As you’ve probably gathered, the answer is that the jokes themselves are part of Gadsby’s target. Throughout the special, she offers an acute analysis of humor as a delicate exercise in tension management. The details of the assault incident, for instance, are only funny if the actual assault is kept offstage. The threat of the beating, however, engenders the necessary tension for the joke to land. Keep that attack out of the picture, and we’re delivered from the tension with a laugh. Bring it in, the humor quickly evaporates and the tension grows unbearable. But Gadsby refuses to provide any humorous deliverance: “And this tension: It’s yours! I am not helping you anymore!” At this point, a haunting question emerges: What else is being omitted in the larger world of comedy? What exactly are we laughing at?
Commenting on her former habit of mining her deeply conflicted past for jokes, Gadsby says,
Part of my problem is that comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence. The way I’ve been telling my [coming-out story] is through jokes. And stories, unlike jokes, need three parts: A beginning, a middle, and an end. Jokes, only two parts: A beginning and a middle. I froze an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point, and I sealed it off into [sic] jokes. Punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma.… You learn from the part of the story you focus on; I need to tell my story properly.
Humorous detours aside, Nanette does feel like a kind of reckoning, a very adult conversation about the persistence of a culture that simultaneously fetishizes adolescence and protects the reputations of celebrity predators who exploit it. Think, for instance, of Picasso pedophilia. Under the aegis of the tortured artist, this man’s reputation has survived his indefensible behavior. It hardly needs to be said that he is one of many. In response to the injunction to separate the art from the artist, Gadsby asks whether any of Picasso’s cubist nightmares would be worth a dime without his coveted signature. Gadsby has no qualms about training her critical eye on comedians, either. In a heartbreaking aside, she wonders why ‘90s comedians were content to savage Monica Lewinski, rather than focusing their sardonic attention on the real culprit in the story—the then-president Bill Clinton who targeted a young intern and then attempted to discard her like a smoked cigarette. Years from now, academics and cultural historians will likely cite Nanette as a turning point in the “amusing ourselves to death” trend, the moment when comedy finally grew up.
In one of the show’s wiser segments, Gadsby shows us why humor simply isn’t up to the task of healing our deepest wounds. She reveals the wider shot of another story, this one involving her mom, whose initial response to her daughter’s coming-out was: “Hannah, I didn’t need to know that! What if I told you that I was a murderer?” On its face, this is both funny and appalling, and it plays well to the established conventions of gay humor, pitting the budding lesbian against the repressive traditionalism of her cloistered upbringing. But in this case, the full picture is more hopeful: Gadsby and her mom now have a wonderful relationship, one based on mutual respect and trust. While the joke terminated in the middle of this story, this is its unvarnished, unfunny end. We’ve now abandoned the joke for more holistic territory. The joke was the problem, you see. The joke required the tension that kept Gadsby—keeps us—suspended in a state of perpetual adolescence. Dysfunction is funny. Healed relationships require maturity.
Riffing on the laughter-is-the-best-medicine trope, Gadsby counters, “I reckon penicillin will give it the nudge.” But she soon grows more eloquent:
Laughter is not our medicine; stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. Because, like it or not, your story is my story, and my story is your story. I just don’t have the strength to take care of my story anymore. All I can ask is just please help me take care of my story. That is the focus of the story we need: connection.
Back to my private island of pain imposed by my damaged wrist: Was I really escaping the erasure of happiness to make my debut as a clearly defined individual? Taking my cues from Gadsby, a quick zoom-out is all it takes to expose the delusion in this line of thinking. There was no island—just a hospital waiting room filled with damaged people, many of them suffering in ways I couldn’t and can’t imagine. What about Gadsby herself? Having endured sexual abuse, rape, and assault, she’s certainly suffered much more than I have. And yet she doesn’t hesitate to zoom out and show us a picture that includes everyone: “Your story is my story and my story is your story.” If that’s true, there are no strangers, only neighbors. Stories are both universal and particular, and the thread running through all of them is our common humanity. In an era of radical individualism and factious identity politics, Nanette is a tonic from one of the least likely of sources: a “gender-not-normal” comedian from Tasmania.
Early on in the special, Gadsby tells a joke that’s emblematic of her overall response to the vociferous identity politics that impede so many relationships: “In a given week, I don’t do a whole lot of lesbianing. I do more cooking than lesbianing, but no one ever introduces me as ‘that chef comedian.'” Speaking as a Christian who has serious disagreements with Gadsby, my prayer is that the issues dividing us won’t obscure the common humanity that unites us. Our humanity is our shared story.
May the Lord grant me the strength to take care of Hannah Gadsby’s story.