When I tell people the best comedy show I have ever watched made me cry – no, sob – for over an hour, I am met with confusion. Nanette was the show which was supposed to end Hannah Gadsby’s career in comedy. Instead, it has become a seminal piece of work – a musing on identity, trauma and connection.
On the one hand, I adored the show for the fact it was so unapologetically lesbian. I cannot overlook that aspect when I talk about Nanette. So rarely do I see lesbians in the media and in particular butch lesbians have hardly any positive representation. To see Hannah talking so openly about the highs and lows of the queer experience was in and of itself incredibly powerful. But Hannah realises that, for all of the laughs she garners through jokes about her sexuality, she is part of a mechanism which harms marginalised folks.
Earnestly, Gadsby questions “I’ve built a career off of self-deprecating humour, but do you know what ‘self-deprecating’ means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins?” She continues: “I put myself down in order to seek permission to speak and I will not do that to myself or anyone who identifies with me.”
It is certainly a bold piece of comedy. Gadsby herself has confessed in interviews that she is not particularly fond of comedy shows which deconstructs what comedy is as an art form. And yet, this is the crux of the Nanette – the understanding of the tension which underpins comedy, the ways in which it is – in Gadsby’s words – ‘artificially inseminated’ into the space, only to be relieved by the comedian whilst they work.
Gadsby herself is master of tension and so much of Nanette relies on her ability to manipulate an audience’s thinking. A joke she tells about a man who thought she was a man flirting with his girlfriend generates rapturous laughter — until she returns later to tell the incident as it really happened, how she was brutally attacked for not only being gay, but for being masculine presenting. Or as Hannah describes herself ‘gender-not-normal’.
The final act of Gadsby’s show reels and rages over the damage done both to herself and other people who are similarly ‘not normal’. Gadsby demonstrates how this is systemic, endemic; stating “and that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission for another child to hate.” She continues by exploring the figures of authority who have been consistently been allowed to exploit the vulnerable whilst maintaining their reputation and explores the historical precedents for this. It is unexpected in a comedy show, perhaps, but as she notes, it is only unusual because typically the angry comedy is reserved for the men.
Gadsby’s anger is powerful, but is also the reason she feels she must quit comedy, because her anger is not constructive and can unite a room like nothing else. She does not want to. She challenges the way trauma has been centred at the heart of comedy for far too long and at the expense of whom.
The effect of Gadsby’s show is more complex than words can articulate, and every person will leave affected by something different. Which is the success of the show – by Hannah’s own measure the value of Nanette is its emphasis on the importance of connection, on having space and feeling heard.
Often, it has been easier to make jokes about being a lesbian than it was to be a lesbian
I have not, like Hannah, created a comedy career out of my trauma. Granted, I am only nineteen, so there is still plenty of time. But I have, on so many occasions, packaged my pain into easily digestible one-liners. Often, it has been easier to make jokes about being a lesbian than it was to be a lesbian, simpler to be a punchline than a punching-bag.
When Hannah’s voice shakes, tears glistening in her eyes as she states “What I would’ve done to have heard a story like mine,” I wept. At its very core, Nanette touches on the fundamental need to feel connected. Out of context, that risks sounding soppy, but the sheer power of Hannah’s argument drives home the importance of humanity, placing judgements on those who retain and who lose their humanity through their actions.
For the first time in my life, I was watching someone articulating all the hurt I felt. To watch that, to know that it was possible, broke me. The floodgates were opened. I cannot undo the hurt I feel – I am not sure any of us are able to do that – but I can learn to live with it, to recognise it, process it, connect with others. Pain does not have to be brushed off. It can be felt.
And it seems so truly lacking, but all I can say to Hannah Gadsby is thank you. Thank you for the permission. Permission to connect with others, permission to exist, permission, to dream of something more than all of this. I did not know how much I needed it.