Before this week, you probably hadn’t heard of Hannah Gadsby. But since her stand-up special “Nanette” dropped on Netflix June 19, the internet can’t stop talking about the Australian comedian.“Just like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks fundamentally reshaped and redefined the scope of stand-up, ‘Nanette’ has taken the medium to a whole new level,” one fan writes on Twitter. Celebs from Thandie Newton to Kathy Griffin have raved about the special, pronouncing it a “masterpiece.”
Netflix is overflowing with stand-up specials from people you’ve barely heard of — so what makes this one so special?
As the steadily building acclaim suggests, “Nanette” isn’t an ordinary stand-up routine.Gadsby has been prominent in Australia since 2006, and “Nanette” marks her debut for a more international audience. She’s gay, and the first 10 minutes of “Nanette” feature the kind of self-deprecating jokes about her own identity that you’d expect from a comedian: “My first show, I told lots of jokes about homophobia — really solved that problem!”
But as the show goes on, she segues into darker material. At one point she tells a funny story about her reaction when a man tried to beat her up for flirting with his girlfriend. After explaining that tension is integral to the structure of a joke, she later circles back to the story and confesses that he did, in fact, beat her up — but that part doesn’t make for good comedy.
“In order to balance the tension, I couldn’t tell that story as it actually happened,” she says. The joke has to skip over the dark parts of an anecdote in order to make the audience laugh. She refuses to do that.“I have been thinking about this whole comedy thing, I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore,” she explains, while the audience titters, unsure if they’re supposed to laugh. “I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humor . . . and I don’t want to do that anymore.”
It’s unconventional and meta, skewering comedy as a medium — even as she uses comedy to get her points across: “People feel safer when men do the angry comedy. When I do it, I’m just a miserable lesbian, ruining the fun and the banter.”She talks frankly about trauma — at one point, sounding on the verge of tears as she admits that she was raped in her 20s. She gets angry, but then refuses to implicate the audience in it: “I have a right to be angry, but not to spread it.”
It’s at once a comedy special and a TED talk on the form of comedy. By the end, most of the audience is moved to tears.It might not be the funniest routine you watch all year, but it’s unique, and it will make you think.