Hannah Gadsby is her own tough act to follow
Hannah Gadsby has a tough task ahead of her. Her Netflix special, “Nanette,” made her an instant star outside of her native Australia when it dropped in 2018, but it wasn’t an easy fame. The show required Gadsby to perform emotionally eviscerating content about her own experiences with homophobia and rape, and it indicted the idea that comedy could assuage trauma. At one point in the special, she talks about having to quit comedy because it’s not healthy. Which would have been fine by some who questioned whether what Gadsby was doing was comedy in the first place.
“It was a bit of a beast,” says Gadsby in her typically understated way.
Now she’s back with a new show, “Douglas,” which comes to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre June 19-20 and the Emerson Colonial Theatre June 21. She recently announced that “Douglas” would be coming to Netflix in 2020. Which raises the question: How can Gadsby follow up a mic-drop moment like “Nanette”?
She decided she can’t.
“It would be foolish to even try to sort of go, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna take “Nanette” and go up a little.’ So I accepted fairly early on that I pretty much exist in the shadow of ‘Nanette,’ and that’s fine, you know? No point worrying about that.”
Gadsby stops in the middle of her answer. “I’ve lost my train of thought and I haven’t even started,” she says. That’s part of what the new show is about, which makes her laugh. “It’s about not having a connection to my brain.” Gadsby was diagnosed with autism in 2017 but didn’t make that an explicit part of her narrative in “Nanette.” More of that comes out in “Douglas” — the show is named for her dog — as it relates to her overall place in life.
Gadsby does not believe she’s like other people. But as a comedian, part of her job is to relate to an audience. She enjoys exploring that kind of contradiction. “I don’t have a life that’s identifiable,” she says. It can be baffling to her to see a comic come onstage and tell an audience, “I’m just like you.”
“ ’Cause I’m not,” she says. “I’m neuro-atypical. I’m low-class, I’m a woman, I’m a lesbian, I’m masculine. What ‘Nanette’ taught me was there is a universality to my experience. With this show, I’m going, ‘I’m quite idiosyncratic.’ And I’m pushing that even further, not with my life experience but with the way that I think about the world. This show, I’m trying to see how far along an audience is willing to come with a different thinker, without me trying to necessarily accommodate their comfort.”
When Gadsby started writing “Nanette,” the idea of comedy, for her, was broken. Telling the truth onstage is supposed to be healing, but making light of the violence and trauma she suffered — at one point she was beaten at a bus stop — forced her to tell only the parts of the story she could make funny. “The underlying idea with ‘Nanette’ was, it’s not working. I’m deeply unhappy, and I’ve told the truth, but not the whole truth.”
“I think the form and art form of stand-up comedy is really not built for people like me,” she says. Gadsby believes that a lot of modern comedy is founded on the experience of white working-class men as underdogs in society. That model worked to a point, but she believes it’s time to expand. “Now that we’ve got more diverse voices, I think the art form needs to diversify in its form to accommodate more experiences. Because laughter is a universal, biological phenomenon. But a sense of humor is cultural.”
When Gadsby said in “Nanette” she was quitting comedy, she didn’t mean it literally. But there were times when she was touring with the show that she didn’t care if she ever stepped onstage again. “It was so tiring,” she says. “But essentially it was written as: ‘I am quitting comedy as it stands. I just am no longer interested in playing the game.’ And as soon as the audience was saying, ‘Yes, please, we like what you’re doing, this is constructive,’ and my crowds built and it went a bit crazy, it was like, ‘Well no, I’m not going to quit what I do.’
“I don’t know what you call it. It’s not comedy in the strictest sense. But I’m not gonna stay silent now.”
Hannah Gadbsy: Douglas
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.