Why Stand-Up Comedy Was The Perfect Home For Hannah Gadsby’s Devastating ‘Nanette’

“I’ve made my story into a joke,” Gadsby says. “And there’s only so long I can pretend not to be serious.”

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Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special Nanette is huge right now. It’s won multiple awards, played to repeated sell-out performances in Australia and the US, secured a Netflix special and been showered in effusive praise from reviewers and fans.

With this level of buzz, you’d think that it must be one of the funniest shows ever written — but it’s actually mostly uncomfortable, viscerally sad, and above all, extremely important viewing.

Nanette doesn’t exactly sound like its built for stand-up comedy, a medium that can be superficially described as “stacked gags for a fixed time limit”. But the show couldn’t have been told as effectively in any other way.

Part of the reason Nanette is so revolutionary is because it was designed specifically to be delivered via an intricately crafted stand-up show. Nanette uses all the tools of comedy to build something important and sad. It wraps a tale of trauma in a sweet confectionary package, and we don’t realise how much we’ve bitten off until we’re halfway through the meal.

Nanette is a show rooted in paradox — it’s a farewell tour that has launched her career internationally, for one. It’s a very funny show about extremely sad things.

It’s also a comedy that puts forth the argument that comedy is a poor form for the topics that she’s talking about: humiliation, queerness, misogyny, violence, trauma, homophobia, and gender. It breaks down how insufficient comedy is as a vehicle for her fury.

Nanette uses Gadsby’s deep knowledge of comedy to deconstruct the medium itself. As the New York Times put it: “It’s a comedy arguing against comedy.”

As Gadsby herself says, the phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is kinda bullshit. Comedy is inadequate, argues Gadsby. Comedy rewards deception. Comedy isn’t always honest. Yet, she uses comedy to tell us all this.

In the first half of the show, she retells a story about the time she said hello to a woman at a bus stop, and was nearly beaten up by the lady’s boyfriend after being mistaken for a man. It’s not a particularly funny story, but it’s delivered as a neat little joke where everyone walks away happy, and we laugh at this stupid macho guy.

But later on in the show, Gadsby uses this anecdote as a twist, the bait for a trap. She reveals that she’s lured us into a stand-up comedy show, but has stopped making jokes.

Using the old comedy technique of a callback, she reveals that the earlier version of the story was cut to make a joke — in reality, she did get beaten up by that guy, in a shocking example of homophobic violence. It’s a horrifying reveal.

It makes us realise how insincere the jokes from the first half of the show are. If you watch it through again, you see that she almost flinches every time she manipulates into a laugh.

As Vulture note, Hannah “pulls back the curtain on what comedy is and how it is done”.  She breaks down how jokes actually work in stand-up comedy– that good stories have three parts (beginning, middle and end) while jokes require two (set-up and punch line). This means that in order to grab a laugh, comedians sacrifice the important end note, which can encompass hindsight, perspective and catharsis. Which is where the moral lives.

Missing that important last step meant she began contorting her own trauma into those neat little joke packages. In order to do this, she had to be self deprecating, more palatable to audiences.

“Do you know what self-deprecation means coming from somebody who exists on the margins?” she asks. “It is not humility, it is humiliation.”

It’s this humiliation that spurs Nanette‘s attack on the form of comedy.

“I’ve made my story into a joke,” Gadsby says. “And there’s only so long I can pretend not to be serious.”

That said, the story wouldn’t have been as effective through any other medium. Obviously, Hannah Gadsby chose stand-up as her vehicle of choice because she’s a fucking stand-up comedian, but it goes deeper than that.

She wouldn’t have been able to pull the rug out from under us through any other type of performance. If she’d gotten up to do a Ted Talk about queer trauma, we’d have expected it to be serious, to be painful. Many people probably wouldn’t have watched. After all, we expect bad things to happen to us during Ted Talks.

We don’t have that same expectation with (good) stand-up. We don’t expect to be challenged during stand-up to this extent. We don’t expect to be tricked.

But for the very best reason, Hannah Gadsby brilliantly subverts stand-up to tell her story, tricking us into hearing it. She used her formidable intellect, her brilliant writing skills, and her mastery of comedy to do so.

Because as a young gay woman growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until 1997, Hannah Gadsby knows what it’s like to feel isolated. “I want my story heard — because what I would have done to have heard a story like mine,” she says.

Nanette is currently streaming on Netflix. You should watch it.

Patrick Lenton is an author and staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.