Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” Deconstructs Comedy, Self-Deprecation and Discussing Trauma

You shouldn’t watch “Nanette” just to laugh. This sounds counterintuitive, because it’s a comedy special. Hannah Gadsby’s first Netflix special is funny, don’t get me wrong. But it transcends funny. The Australian comedian continuously talks about quitting comedy in her special, and she tells the audience exactly why. Instead of making herself the joke, Gasby breaks down the trauma, humiliation and self-depreciation that goes into making funny jokes about life events that are, at their core, not funny at all. When talking about her sexuality, her gender expression and her childhood, she refuses to subscribe to making herself the butt of the joke. Hannah Gadsby takes the comedy into her own hands.

Hannah Gadsby openly discusses her childhood in Tasmania, where, at the time, homosexuality was illegal.

She says that when she was growing up, 70 percent of people in Tasmania thought homosexuality was a sin, and that gay people should be punished. Gadsby touches on how childhood shame can morph and stick, traveling with you even into adulthood. She is open about her sexuality, but questions why her sexuality defines her comedy. She tells stories of times has felt pressure from the gay community to be a certain kind of lesbian, sometimes even more of a spokesperson than she feels comfortable being. At one point she jokes that she makes dinner more than she has lesbian encounters, but you don’t hear people calling her “that chef comedian.”

Hannah Gadsby openly discusses about her mental illness and how she copes.

She candidly talks about her anti-depression medication, and how she doesn’t need to suffer to be funny. Again, refusing to subscribe to the norm, Gadsby loudly debunks the romanticism of mental illness. She says being miserable, or not taking medication to treat your depression or anxiety won’t lead you to make great art. She ties her art history degree to her discussion of mental illness, fragile masculinity and the patriarchy. Who would’ve thought calling out Picasso for his misogyny could be so funny?

Gadsby questions the idea of separating the artist from the art, especially if the artist is a known abuser. This phrase is pretty common, especially during the #metoo movement, when many male directors, actors and creatives were outed for their abuse. Gadsby doesn’t have time for quick punch lines and easy jokes. She’s going after the dominant ideology, and the flimsy sayings of men in power. “Nanette” starts the narrative that their reputations should be the punch line now.

During the special, Gadsby acknowledges that although she didn’t always think so, her sensitivity is her strength.

Comics are always told to have a thick skin. They’re told they’re likely to “bomb,” or not be laughed at while they build their career. Gadsby turns her sensitivity and silence into an asset. They’re aspects that set her show apart from any other current comedy specials. Her comedy is intuitive, current and genuinely funny, but doesn’t shy away from being honest and raw.

Gadsby breaks down the parts of a joke, the tension of the build up, and the ultimate release of laughter. “Nanette” is full of important tension. Gadsby is the queen of promising comedy and delivering, but also preaching lessons and stories that need to be heard. Stories that will not make you laugh, stories that will make you ache, will make you angry at the state of the world. Gadsby shows that comedy can be mixed with a call to action to make the world a better, more connected place. After watching this special, you’ll really hope that Gadsby doesn’t quit comedy, because the comedic world needs her.

Also published on Medium.