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The moment stand-up comedy changed forever

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on July 06, 2018

Not a joke: Gadsby describes why jokes are an inept method to tell a story in its entirety   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, Nanette, is a provocative, never-seen-before performance that deconstructs the very essence of humour

Hannah Gadsby is hilarious, and she knows it. In her recent one-hour stand-up special for Netflix, which made her one of the most popular talking points in digital entertainment, she announced she was ready to quit comedy.

Women in stand-up comedy often discuss the frustration of having the “are women even funny” question still thrown at them, but Gadsby doesn’t care any more. In the #MeToo moment, it is time to sieve through ritualised indignities passed on in the form of humour, she holds. The 40-year-old Tasmanian comic is more than up to the task.

Identity politics takes up a section of her widely acclaimed performance, which was one of the most trending shows on Netflix. She gently brings up the double whammy of being an introvert who identifies herself as a lesbian and the peer pressure on her to be a part of the all-so public and festive pride parade. What does she identify with the most then? Feeling constantly tired, she says.

Gadsby touches upon how freedom from being categorised as masculine or feminine may not really mean freedom to be one’s own self. She has had run-ins with people from the LGBTQ community who give feedback (as opposed to, she says, opinions from straight white dudes) on her acts, and how representative it is of the community. While she’s sick of gender straitjacketing (“You know what’s weird? Pink hairbands on bald babies! It’s like putting a bangle on a potato. I don’t assume bald babies are boys, I assume they’re angry feminists, and I respect that.”), she’s also cheekily dismissive of lesbian stereotypes.

‘I’m tired’, perhaps, resonates more with the audience than anything else currently in a fraught world, post the #MeToo movement when women from across the world have been standing up against sexual assault and harassment. We’re tired of living in a world of conflict, there is little to make us laugh at this point. Gadsby twists the sharp edge of her wit (few stand-up sets work as well in the written format as hers) to drive this point in:it is too easy to make a joke about things, it is indeed a privilege. Characters such as Chandler from F.R.I.E.N.D.S and Seinfeld from his eponymous show have legitimised using humour as a defence/coping mechanism. Gadsby challenges this phenomenon, using her coming out story — being openly lesbian in a conservative town where homosexuality was illegal till 1991. She theorises how jokes are inherently fractured narratives, and hence, an inept method to tell a story in its entirety.

Gadsby explains that while every story has three parts (a beginning, a middle and an end), making room for catharsis and resolution, and for newer perspectives to come forth from its conclusion, a joke has space only for ‘tension’ and resolution. “This,” she says as she points to the audience, and then to herself, “is an abusive relationship.”

According to her, her mother is the real hero of her coming out story, because she evolved to accept Gadsby for who she was. Gadsby, who has been telling her coming out story in the form of jokes ever since she began stand up, claims that comedy has left her story suspended, an adolescent narrative frozen in time. Meanwhile, the real story goes that her mother, without the pressure to be funny, has evolved to understand the daughter — “my mother told me, I wish I had not brought you up straight”. Gadsby’s eyes well up with tears at this point during the show, it is easy to shed tears with her, for who among us doesn’t identify as being ‘tired’ of the heteronormative world? Straight white men, ostensibly. Though she concedes, tongue-in-cheek, that it is a confusing time for them as well. Yet, she doesn’t mind being accidentally called a man. She says, “I don’t mind being mistaken for a man. All of a sudden, I’m top of the table, king of the humans.”

A major in art history, and as a conductor of comedy art tours for the National Gallery of Victoria, Gadsby thinks those bereft of art history lessons are also denied life lessons. While she weaves this in as a joke (making fun of women who flop about in paintings — “I am different from the women in the paintings because I have a functional spinal cord system”), she takes her audience on a different tangent from that point, speaking about her education as a manual with which to make sense of the world and point out the fallacies of high and low art. She describes high art as parochial and exclusionary. “Picasso gave you so many perspectives, was any of that from a woman?” she questions. Gadsby’s material makes for a provocative, never-seen-before comedy special, but more importantly, she deconstructs the very essence of humour, along with the way it is employed, providing food for thought.

At one point in the set, she leaves us with this truth bomb, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone already in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. And I will simply not do that anymore.” Sitting through Gadsby’s show should leave you with a mixed bag of emotions — and more to think about.

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Published on July 06, 2018
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