Vidya Rajan’s MICF Show ‘Respawn’ Is All About The Absurdity Of Being In A Post-‘Nanette’ World

What's the role of comedy and the comedian anyway?

vidya rajan nanette hannah gadsby

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“I’m a worm,” says comedian and writer Vidya Rajan when she enters the stage, using a touch of limp physicality to infer this statement.

With exaggerated, Marilyn Monroe-style sexuality, she continues to repeat that she’s a worm, asking if anyone will step on her. Finally, someone in the front row extends a foot and does, and then we’re moving on, kaleidoscopically tumbling through more scenes and characters and bits, before we get to the end of the show.

If nothing else, it’s a good way to signpost that we’re not going to get 45 minutes of traditional stand-up. She is a worm. It could seem like lots of comedy these days is all about using facets of identity (gender, sexuality, disability) to create Nanette-style blends of comedy and social commentary — and there’s nothing wrong with that, many of these shows are very funny. But Vidya is a worm.

Respawn is an incredibly silly and very funny show — pointedly absurd, committed to finding big laughter in strange places. Billed as a “giddy mix of stand-up, sketch and passive-aggressive PowerPoint”, the format loosely uses the character creation/ choice function of classic video games, allowing Rajan to move between different characters, different bits, and in and out of the more “traditional” stand-up comedy moments. She’s a worm, she’s a pyromaniac whale, she’s a crypto bro, she’s Vidya Rajan, all absurd choices.

It’s what’s often referred to as “alt-comedy”, which is essentially just genre-blending, and it’s a real writer’s show — as you might expect from Vidya Rajan, who works as a TV and theatre writer, in places like ABC Comedy and The Feed, strangely intricate with an accomplished narrative pay-off that I won’t spoil.

But one of the things that I enjoyed the most was how it engaged with the concept of comedy, especially stand-up comedy shows itself — sometimes meta-textually, often facetiously, but always very cleverly. It doesn’t sit still for long enough to be ONLY about one thing, but one of my favourite takeaways is the questions it asks about the role of the comedian today — and if comedians are even MEANT to have a role.

We’re Living In A Post-Nanette world, And I Am A Post-Nanette Girl

Half-way through the show, Rajan pulls up a PowerPoint which expertly places where we are as a society in terms of comedy — there’s the dawn of time, Hannah Gadsby’s incredibly successful Netflix special Nanette, and then this show, which she places as “post-Nanette”.

It’s a funny gag, which is obliquely explored throughout the show, riffing on some of the tropes, cliches and expectations that we might have of comedy shows in 2022, this post-Nanette era.

Nanette was certainly a big enough moment in culture to earn a “post” earmark — joining the ranks of discourse shorthand like post-punk, post-COVID, post-9/11. Something that has enough gravity that its influence is felt, even distantly, afterwards. A large part of Nanette’s influence is that it became the poster child for a certain type of comedy show — one that shifts the proportions of humour and seriousness.

Nanette became the poster child for a certain type of comedy show – one that shifts the proportions of humour and seriousness.

In Nanette, for example, the first half of the show is a relatively standard (and funny) format of setup and punchline jokes. However, the second half uses those jokes as tools to discuss some serious issues, some extremely affecting stories of violence, homophobia, and misogyny, which becomes a commentary on the format and structure of comedy itself.

While I don’t think many people have done precisely the same bait and switch style reveal that Gadsby does, this kind of comedy, that uses stand-up as both a structure for serious commentary, and an examination of the form itself, has been repeated many times since (and without going too far into the history of comedy, before Nanette too). Ali Wong does it in Hard Knock Wife, or Cameron Esposito does it in Rape Jokes, it’s also in Drew Michael’s special. The last comedy festival I went to before COVID hit was full of comedians eschewing the standard 45 minutes of “loosely connected jokes” in favour of “connected jokes about something serious that happened to me”.

It’s sometimes called “post comedy’, which Vulture writer Jesse David Fox defines as using “the elements of comedy (be it stand-up, sitcom, or film) but without the goal of creating the traditional comedic result — laughter — instead focusing on tone, emotional impact, storytelling, and formal experimentation. The goal of being “funny” is optional for some or for the entirety of the piece.”

You only need to think of Bo Burnham’s recent climate-change anxiety, COVID-lockdown comedy special, to think of post comedy. It’s a comedy special, and brilliant, but my ratio of laughs was scarce compared to my large volume of crying.

Nanette has become somewhat infamous for this kind of depiction, with much criticism of the show being about its supposed lack of humour. In fact, it quickly became ammunition for the endless culture war, with depiction shifting to a split between “funny comedy” and “socially worthy comedy” like Nanette, which is implied to sacrifice jokes for woke cred. Dave Chapelle, responding to allegations of transphobia in his last Netflix special, even made reference to this, listing the “conditions” trans people would have to follow to meet with him:

The show is explicitly choosing the silliest, weirdest, most absurd moments of humour INSTEAD of a “point” each time.

“First of all, you cannot come if you have not watched my special from beginning to end. You must come to a place of my choosing at a time of my choosing, and thirdly, you must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny.”

None of this is referenced implicitly in Rajan’s show — that sounds like it would be awful — but there is some deft navigation of identity and comedy tropes, that along with the aforementioned PowerPoint slide (bait for disgusting culture writers like me), feels like the show is working through these issues, or perhaps even refuting any preconceptions we might be holding because of Nanette.

More importantly, it feels like the show is explicitly choosing the silliest, weirdest, most absurd moments of humour INSTEAD of a “point” each time. At no time is a moment of humour sacrificed.

Now Comes The Part Of The Show Where The Comedian Takes The Banana Off The Stand

Vidya’s show uses absurdity to examine the role of comedy and the role of the comedian. At one point, after committing to speaking into a banana on a mic stand for much of the show, she parodies the Nanette-style twist where the “point” of the show becomes clear, where the comedian takes the microphone off the stand, to become more intimate, more serious. She takes the banana off the stand and spends the rest of that segment speaking into it.

I don’t think the show makes any judgements against Nanette-style comedy, or comedy hinged on identity. I don’t think it’s making fun of them, or mocking them. What I do think it does is lampoon the idea of meaning or seriousness in a comic’s work, at the absurdity of being trained to look for social commentary among the piss and fart jokes of the rat people of comedy. We might not be post-Nanette, but Gadsby’s show definitely haunts Australian comedians, for better or worse. I could be very wrong about what Vidya intended, but it’s what I took from the show.

Later, as she has the crowd reading out actual (and extremely cooked and funny) quotes from her South Asian mother about marriage, she eats that banana.

Patrick Lenton is a journalist, author, and former editor of Junkee. His new book Sexy Tales of Paleontology is out now. He tweets @patricklenton.

Photo Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage