Watch Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, ‘Nanette.’
Of all the how-to books I’ve read in the past couple months in multiple failed attempts to master the literary forms that have always escaped me, Gadsby’s special has taught me not only better, but more about what makes good writing. The lesson here is one of what Gadsby refers to as “tension.” For some people it is easy to disregard the fact that comedy exists as not only one of many buildings we live in, but an entryway in and of itself, and is, like theatre, an art form with formalities and aesthetic conventions, structures and all the trappings inherent to the genre, all the ways it’s been reduced to violent drivel by abusive individuals notwithstanding. Gadsby, however, rare sort that she is, doesn’t give her audience as much room as some comics for these intellectual—or moral—lapses.
Rather, she cranks the lever until the tension (that metaphoric distance between her and the audience) is sharply gutted, stuffed so thick with clutched breath, that her machinations seem borderline sadistic; at multiple instances in the special the camera pans over the audience only to return to Gadsby’s impish gaze, her wicked smile, and after every pointed joke, Gadsby leaves just enough space in the room for a ballooning, bewildering silence that stretches, stretches, but only ever until she sticks the pin in—and the discomfort clears to raucous applause.
The brilliance of Gadsby’s set is its timelessness and timeliness; it’s in the fact that she forces her audience (particularly its white, heterosexual, and/or male members) to contend with the violences of their privilege, and how those violences stigmatize and complicate her own axes of oppression. In a painfully emotional display, Gadsby grapples with her own internalized homophobia on stage, and in the process castigates her oppressors as they sit in the room, once more layering the anxiety (now rendered real and human in front of them), before crumpling it like wet paper—all with a touch of relatable and hard-won disdain.
The stress she places on the importance of moving past the definitive “resolution” of the trauma-punchline into the much more uncertain (and unfunny) territory of one’s own healing is a difficult lesson, but an integral one. Gadsby’s harrowing anecdote about gendered homophobia flays the comedic genre wide open to expose its weaknesses and stagnancy, and it is for this reason that she cannot be normatively funny. Bigger than the tension, and the bursts of laughter it incites, is the transformative impulse, an impulse that doesn’t allow room for cheap jokes and potshots at the vulnerable, and this is what Gadsby is rooting towards. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” she says. “I need to tell my story properly.”