When Hannah Gadsby Speaks, We Listen: On the Genius That Is Hannah Gadsby’s Brand of Comedy

When Hannah Gadsby’s debut Netflix special Nanette released in 2018, it was a watershed moment in comedy and a vade mecum in intersectional feminism conversations. In sheer comedic irony, what was supposed to be her resignation from comedy turned into her magnum opus. “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour,” she said in Nanette, “and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.”

Her argument was a clear and compelling one – when you exist within the intersection of multiple, severely marginalised identities, self-deprecating humour serves only the oppressor. The oppressed stay stuck in the vicious cycle, only now they’ve found an unhealthy coping mechanism in self-denigration.

The aftermath of Nanette

With the roaring success of Nanette, this narrative changed consequentially. Her voice was now being heard. She created a dent in the comedy landscape and it would be hard not to notice it. The margins she existed in were ruffled a bit, a fact she acknowledges on Conan O’Brien’s eponymous podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.

So she begins her act by addressing the elephant in the room: Douglas, as she calls it, is her ‘difficult second album’. She half-jokes about how she downloaded all her trauma into her comedy – for Nanette. Had she known the show would be a runaway success, she’d have budgeted her trauma better. It’s classic Gadsby; she creates a tension in the room, holds that tension to drive the collective emotion, and once she’s convinced she holds this power over the room, she gets to decide whether she wants to relieve the tension with a punchline or if she’d rather throw in a surprise by not allaying the discomfort of her audience at all.

Comedians in conceit getting coffee

All through her second stand-up special, Gadsby makes jokes that only she can. She talks about how she had to self-diagnose her autism in the first instance, how the other markers of her identity intersect and intrude on her experience of living with autism, how ‘first impressions’ are ableist – you get the drift. The most intriguing part? She opens her act by giving us a table of contents, a “blow-by-blow description of exactly how the show is going to unfold”. It goes like this: a bit of observational comedy, a curious anecdote from the dog park, gentle and good-natured needling of the patriarchy, a lecture for her haters, a “joke section”, a surprise reveal of her autism diagnosis (get the joke?), and a Louis C.K. joke she promises will be a mic-drop moment.

It’s no surprise she chooses to do something unprecedented as she lays down her jokes in a menu, creating the illusion that she’s stripped her performance of an element of surprise. Far from it, the anticipation of a joke only amplifies the laughter it evokes out of the audience. We’re laughing at the joke, then we’re laughing because we were expecting to laugh at the joke, and finally we’re just laughing at the ingenuity of this pattern. An old magician’s trick. Gadsby is winning, and by large margins. The stage is her laboratory and she’s experimenting without restraint.

And that’s exactly what makes her brand of comedy stand out. She isn’t interested in playing by the rules – rules that were made by privileged, cishet, white, heterosexual men – she’s here to create her own. She does it so humbly – her own lived experience at the centre of her effort – that her comedy is disarming on one hand and impeccably outfitted on the other.

The only acceptable question to ponder over is this: how can someone’s comedy be both eviscerating and soul-affirming at the same time?

So no one told you comedy could be this?

There is a theme in comedy that pertains to the punching-up or punching-down power of a joke. It’s rooted in the idea that humour should be – let’s borrow the oft-quoted phrase from the 1902 book Observations by Mr Dooley – to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Simply put, the target of your joke should be someone more powerful than you. You comedy shouldn’t disparage someone less privileged than you are. It’s possibly the only moral directive of comedy.

In that vein, Douglas contains a series of jokes about Americans. “Making fun of Americans is still technically punching up”, Gadsby says, quick to add, “although that window is closing.”

Gadsby is too self-aware for her haters and critics to point out her flaws. People have derided her work by calling it a lecture, a one-woman show, a TED Talk, a rant. The novelty of her work is not so easily hurt. She’s reserved her scorn for such critics who are so uncomfortable at the prospect of something new, “If new things are so painful…ow…that’s a learning difficulty.” She doesn’t mince her words – not in the least when she talks about how it was a deliberate decision to keep Nanette authentic over funny every step of the way – so getting a broad audience under the guise of comedy for her tirade was “technically a joke”.

She hasn’t impaired the art of comedy; she has upended it. And in Douglas, she comes with a repartee. She owns up to her brand and dedicates a part of the show to lecture her haters. “The twist?”, she asks rhetorically, “It’s funny.”

The world should get ready for Gadsby

To be cynical or dismissive of her intellectual comedy is to miss the entire point of the novelty of her brand. She does not stand on the stage to appease the stifling rules of comedy set by white male comics from the days of yore, she stands there to unapologetically talk about things that haven’t been spoken of before in a comedy set – from the female reproductive system to art history.

We can no longer ignore her voice in comedy – at a time when our comic heroes are failing us left, right and centre and at a time when pop-culture is headed for a reckoning, Gadsby’s anger-ridden humour makes all the sense in the world.

Gadsby’s comedy is confrontational for the “normal” people and exemplary of what happens when we let the marginalised – and the ones with lived experiences – drive the movement for inclusion. Her art challenges our notions of normalcy and reinforces the power that each of our stories carries. “I’m not here to collect your pity,” Gadsby says about her story “I’m here to disrupt your confidence.”

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