With ‘Douglas’, Hannah Gadsby Rejects And Rewrites The Rules Of Comedy

How do you follow up 'Nanette'? At the world premiere of 'Douglas', Hannah Gadsby shows us.

Hannah Gadsby Douglas Review

How would Hannah Gadsby follow up Nanette, the groundbreaking one-hour show that opened her up to Australian fans in a whole new way, introduced her to audiences around the world, and was designed to be her great goodbye to a comedy career?

This review was written after the premiere of Douglas, which is now on Netflix in 2020.

At the world premiere of Douglas, Gadsby’s new show which is playing as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival before travelling around the United States and Australia, we found out.

Within moments of arriving on stage to the sounds of Madonna’s Like a Prayer, Gadsby acknowledges her previous show, the one that means she’s now playing in a space like Melbourne’s grand Hamer Hall, the one that she named after a woman with whom she shared a brief encounter — an explanation that was edited out of the Netflix version of the show that the New York Times would call “The Most Discussed Comedy Special in Ages”.

From there, Gadsby began making me nervous.

Not because she drew the audience in with her expert storytelling and analysis of comedy conventions and the rhythms of human empathy. But because she didn’t. Because this show, this encore to her career she never predicted, appeared to fall into classic comedy tropes early on.

Gadsby jokes about how Americans call biscuits ‘cookies’ and jumpers ‘sweaters’ — a thing she knows intimately now she lives in Los Angeles and has stylists and groomers help her prepare for events like the Emmys.

She issues “what’s the deal with …?”-style rants against Where’s Wally and golf and the Paleo diet and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a way that made me imagine the brick wall of a ‘90s comedy cellar materialising behind her.

You never want step into an artist’s work wondering how it will compare to their past offerings, but Nanette — with its radical honesty and gut-wrenching analysis of the trauma that comes from a lifetime of self-deprecation — could have been either an albatross around her neck or the first phase of a new comedy evolution.

And for the first half of the show I was worried it would prove to be the former.

If You Want A Lecture, Hannah Gadsby Will Give You One

But I needn’t have been. I should’ve known to trust Gadsby’s mastery of the form.

Within half an hour, she arrives at the criticisms plastered across Nanette: that it wasn’t comedy, it was a monologue. It wasn’t comedy, it was a lecture. Labels and comparisons like this, Gadsby reminds us, are tools the hetero-patriarchy uses to silence anyone operating outside of their structures. They dictate not only what we do but how we should look and behave and feel. Our rage is never righteous, only a symptom of hormones. Our bodies are tools and objects to be admired or disregarded.

By deciding as a collective that comedy could only be one thing, they could then delegitimise anyone daring to pick apart its edges and see where it frays.

But also, if you want a fucking lecture, she’ll give you one.

In her hand a laser pointer appears, and the show becomes a class in art history — in which Gadsby earned a degree, and used it to host the documentary Nakedy Nudes on the ABC and lead tours at the NGV, just a few doors down from where we sit now.

On the screen behind her that previously hosted a portrait of Gadsby and her dog, Douglas, we now see tableaus and portraits of literal Renaissance Men. The men after whom the Ninja Turtles got their names were among the ones who decided how we’d rank and define and categorise everything that came after them. And by deciding what we valued, they issued limitations on everything and everyone who didn’t align.

By living outside those bounds, by creating work that exists outside of comedy’s prescribed borders, by revelling in the way her autism diagnosis crystallised parts of her life, Gadsby rejects the idea that the names and definitions created in the annals of history are concrete and definitive.

How Do You Follow Up A Nanette?

How do you follow up a Nanette? What do you do with the power and platform that success affords? How do you reckon with your reality when it has shifted so dramatically and the world that’s formed around it is declaring you the singular voice worth listening to?

Artists during the Renaissance period were elevated from mortal status to the role of ‘Hands of God’, Gadsby tells us, further reinforcing the ways they used their power to impart limited values and perspectives about who was worthy.

Gadsby is rejecting those limitations and imploring us to do so as well.

“Beauty is a Trojan Horse for ugly ideas,” she declares, connecting Rubens’s portrait of the three muses to the way her own body has been claimed and dissected, and then again to an earlier anecdote about the tailor who created her outfit for the Emmys.

Being able to notice and appreciate the link together these strands of her experience — and all that came before it — through comedy storytelling, Gadsby says, is a special skill her autism affords her. It took a long time for her to achieve a diagnosis because of the ways the medical profession views all bodies and symptoms through a cis male filter. But now she has it, she’s holding onto it tightly and naming it.

It’s not until the lights come up following a standing ovation that I realise the power imbued in the song that opened this show about the names we give things and the theological bolstering the patriarchy has received since the Ninja Turtles’ namesakes made their mark on ancient Greece:

Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home
When you call my name it’s like a little prayer

Now that she’s back home, Hannah Gadsby is giving her work, her career and herself a new name.

Douglas is now streaming on Netflix.

Brodie Lancaster is a critic from Melbourne. She is the author of ‘No Way! Okay, Fine’ and was the editor of Filmme Fatales, a zine about women and cinema.