The Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up show Nanette opens with a series of misdirections. First, the title: Gadsby explains the show is only called Nanette “because she named it before she wrote it — the woman the show was going to be about doesn’t feature in it at all. Not only that, if you thought you were watching a stand-up show, you’re also wrong: after a few preliminary jokes about feeling “tense” as a lesbian comedian from a small, conservative town, including some that use sexuality as a punchline (“Q: What kind of comedian can’t make the lesbians laugh? A: Every comedian ever”) Gadsby announces she’s quitting comedy.
“It’s probably not the forum, to make such an announcement, is it? In the middle of a comedy show,” she laughs. But she explains that making self-deprecating jokes about herself as a masculine-presenting lesbian doesn’t make her “comfortable” any more: “It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.”
Tension verses comfort are things that pop up throughout this meta show: Gadsby explains that much of comedy relies on creating tension, then diffusing it: for Gadsby, that’s recounting potentially traumatic stories from her past, then making them funny. But she doesn’t stop there. Gadsby’s show is a tricksy, self-conscious beast, full of sleight of hand: she tells a funny anecdote with traditional punchlines, asks you to interrogate that laugh and where it comes from, then goes even further, picking away at her own show until it unravels. It becomes edgy, uneasy viewing — and it’s been critically adored.
There are things beyond Gadsby’s rage against sexism and homophobia to remain uncomfortable about as the show ends. Why, at the close of the hour, are we still laughing on jokes that rest on stereotypes? (Telling men to pull their socks up, she adds: “How humiliating: fashion advice from a lesbian. That’s your last joke.”) Why has it taken this show, in which Gadsby recounts all the most traumatic incidents of her life as a young gay woman, for her to reach huge, international acclaim?
Of course, Nanette can’t answer all these questions, but it is a strange, rare thing: a comedy show that hopes you don’t leave laughing.
This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact