Comedy

Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette has been met with rave reviews. But can it deliver on what others promise for it?

By Helen Razer.

Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’

Hannah Gadsby in Nanette.
Credit: Netflix

Little more than a month ago, Hannah Gadsby was regarded very well by fans of Australian comedy. Now, following release of her Netflix special, Gadsby is the object of broad and very breathless American review. The performer’s show, Nanette, is very good, but “very good” or even “great” are descriptors that, apparently, just won’t do. To this hour of stand-up, the terms “game changer” and “genius” are freely applied. It’s a shame. It’s a shame to bury such a good show in such a heap of uncritical praise.

The New York Times applauds Gadsby’s “breaking down” of old comic forms. The New Republic hails “the shock of the new”. Esquire feels the force of Nanette’s “charge to improve the human condition”. The show may well be charged by a will to advance the human condition, but we can probably say this of most artistic endeavour.

Hannah Gadsby is not the first comic artist to concede, both outright and through disassembly of her comic routine, that comedy is artifice. She will not be the last to remind us that the price of the joke may be the misery of its author. Still, critics have become forgetful. They bathe in the tears of a clown as though we had not all been hitherto drenched. Many times.

Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Sarah Silverman, Daniel Kitson and Lenny Bruce are among those many whose critique of comedy has been intrinsic to their performance of it. Yet as so many critics continue to seem so surprised by Gadsby’s explicit and implicit admission that jokes are written in advance of their telling, you are owed a warning. Here it is: Nanette will not change the world, your world or the joke’s relationship to reality.

It’s good, though. It is a worthy and well-paced specimen of a long-established form. What it is not is any sort of game changer. While it may be the work of a genius, that genius is yet to emerge. What has emerged since the debut of Gadsby’s truly creditable show is this: many screen critics, perhaps many viewers, are ravenous for any moral authority they can get. They believe they can get it in an hour and they believe they can get it from art.

The current critical fondness for this comic is lovely, but there’s no way it can be good for comedy on TV. We don’t extend the language of a form by forgetting all its basic rules of grammar, and we don’t do much to “improve the human condition” by accepting the claim of an artist that they, in fact, can. Gadsby appears to sincerely believe in the transformational power of comedy, or, as this is a farewell show, in the power of abandoning it for good. She may sincerely believe this. And if she does, that’s okay. She’s an artist. We permit an artist this fancy.

If we don’t permit the painter, author or performer to believe in the power of their paint, words or stagecraft, we don’t get any art. To transform their hope, suffering or moral prescriptions into art, they must retain their faith in the possibility of transformation itself. As viewers or critics, we do not share this delusion. We do not accept that Gadsby’s artistic decision to decry comedy within a comedy show is some sort of universal solution to our current political problems. We adults do not say that Gadsby’s own moral authority is the moral authority for us all.

Although, apparently, we do. Nanette is no longer a worthy specimen of the confessional comedy we Australians have long tended to enjoy; it is a testament to the authority of art and a proof of the veracity of tears. We’re crying? We’re crying at the angry and passionate expression of suffering? In a moment so starved of political truth, this personal truth will do.

Nanette is no longer a decent hour of affecting work but an example for us all. It’s our shortcut to understanding the nature of gendered abuse, political abuse and the abuses of art and of truth. We need not read a book nor should we carefully examine our own moral framework. We need only subscribe to Netflix. We need only react to a one-woman show and believe, somehow, that the artifice of tragedy is more authentic than the artifice of comedy.

Within hours of its release, Nanette was no longer the quaint conceit of a good comic from Tasmania. It had become the alibi for a tournament of extreme review in which one imperially cheery American competitor tries to outdo another by overstating the hour’s importance. Nanette is a glimpse at a more humane and tolerant future, they said. Nanette could teach us all a thing or two.

No. Nanette is a comedy show largely stripped of its gags. It is a work now so eclipsed by reflex approbation, it teaches us only about the critics and mastheads that claim to honour it. Nanette has become our measure of insight this month, the register of our moral condition. It is no longer a thing to critique or applaud, but a lesson to be received. It is a moral authority.

There are moments in which Gadsby comes across as a moral authority. She can claim that artist’s licence; we cannot. What we can do is meet our obligation to a mature artist and behave like an audience full of grown-ups. So when Gadsby charges comics of the past with authorising the presidency of Donald Trump, we understand this as a charge made from within a work of art. But we’re so hungry for moral authority in this shifting era, we place a show such as Nanette within the broadest political context.

If we want to understand the conditions that made the Trump presidency possible, we do not listen to a comic. Still, serious critics and commentators continue to recount as truth the Gadsby description of Trump’s ascent. The 60-second gag goes like this: if Monica Lewinsky had not functioned as a punchline to so many 1990s jokes and comedy had instead called “the man who abused his power” to account, then Trump would not be president. Instead, a “qualified” woman would have taken his place.

Even leaving aside that Gadsby has by this point spent 40 minutes scorning the artifice and lies necessary to the production of comedy, this throwaway does not deserve to be punished through acts of solemn reproduction. As one of dozens of gentle gags, this one has rhythmic and thematic purpose. As a counterfactual, it’s best left out of The Washington Post. Think for more than a second and you’ll remember that the qualified woman is married to the man who abused his power in the first place. If imagined punchlines of the past could pack political power, they would have knocked out the qualified woman.

Punchlines have all but knocked out this comic, and in describing her failure to withstand these blows, Gadsby is at her best. Her labour has been to turn her trauma into a “tight 45”, and she just can’t take it anymore. It is in those moments when the personal impact of work is described that we can praise Gadsby as truly political. In other moments, she occupies the territory of personal growth. For me, the style of an inspirational leadership seminar is inimical to my health. I’ll take a punchline above an inspiring slogan any day.

We in the West have begun to register our present as traumatic but we are yet to recognise it as political. In the effort to understand this shift, we conflate our mass pain with the private sort. A populist phenomenon such as Trump is understood as intimate defeat. An intimate victory over pain such as Gadsby’s becomes a political description.

It’s hardly Gadsby’s fault there are so many so starved for moral and political understanding that they will take her very particular pain and claim it for themselves. It is hardly Gadsby’s doing that some of us fall to sentiment and tenderness in this era and others to nativism and hate. It is her regular tendency, however, to present some intimate truths as universal.

It’s not just the hungry critics who have made such a meal of Nanette. Gadsby herself does claim to nourish. Jokes, it turns out, are not just bad for her own mental health, but for everyone’s. It is with axiomatic confidence that she claims in the show’s last part that “punchlines need trauma because punchlines need tension, and tension feeds trauma”.

The words are written in the style of deductive reason and are delivered with an actor’s studied ardour. Gadsby presents herself as the noblest possible creature: one driven by rational passions. There is no scorn for artifice here, but a full and competent embrace of theatre. I am not convinced Gadsby has climbed or aimed higher with this performance than several of the artists, including Louis CK and Picasso, she chides for inauthenticity.

But I’m not at all convinced that comedy is lower than a routine like Gadsby’s emptied of jokes but packed with the tensions of syllogism and sentiment. And I’ll never be convinced that jokes necessarily eclipse those traumas illuminated only by drama. The horror of the Holocaust has been meaningfully approached in Roberto Benigni’s comedy Life Is Beautiful, the songs of Mel Brooks and the gags of Larry David. We cannot say this crime of crimes is more ethically remembered by Schindler’s List.

We cannot say that Gadsby’s Nanette definitively prescribes a style or ethics of remembering trauma. We can say that it’s pretty good. And we can say that any popular interrogation of abuse and power, no matter how personal, has a part to play in the shared political understanding for which we hunger.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "The Great Gadsby". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.