Cast: Hannah Gadsby
Duration: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 “Comedy” Special Nanette was a defining moment for the genre. (I put Comedy in double-quotes, not out of sarcasm, but because it is not quite comedy as we have come to expect it. Here, it is hidden behind a thick veneer of social commentary; even the Netflix trailer puts up “Comedy Special” and slowly dissolves the “Comedy”.) In it, Gadsby boldly proclaims to give up comedy for it feeds on humiliation- especially towards the people on the margins, those who have no option but to become stereotypes in order to be visible, morphing their shame into humour, a coping mechanism. Her narration made one thing quite clear- that she prefers stories to jokes, narratives to set-ups, morals to punch-lines. The sharp humour, and the biting commentary got her instant fame, what with it streaming on Netflix and everything. It was totally blinding, one of the finest moments of comedy, that is simultaneously dismissive and constructive.
But then the fame made her reconsider her decision to quit, and now she is back with Douglas. Now, this could mean two things. One, is that she is simply riding the wave of popularity, which is understandable. Or two, that she genuinely has more to say, and she is going to use the stories-over-jokes template to say it. (It could be both of course, but there must be a primary impetus to contradict yourself) Midway through Douglas she smirks, “You thought I was all out of trauma?” and we wonder, perhaps, if she indeed has more to say.
But surprisingly what she has to say barely makes a dent here. It is funny, and quite watchable, but no way near as radical as it could have been. (It could be argued that while Nanette is radical, this is just another comedy special, and shouldn’t be measured against the threshold that Nanette created. I find that argument obsolete because Gadbsy’s work ties into a narrative. This just feels like a loose thread.) There is a parade of jokes, some of which don’t entirely land because of the things you need to have known prior (you might want to google what “eat the box” means and keep it handy while viewing). There are stories, but they feel quite dispensable given the larger context of what she wants to accomplish. There is an attack on anti-vaxxers, which while completely understandable, is rather pointless as it does nothing to move the needle, for it is not an invitation for dialectic, as much an excuse for a punch-line.
Gadsby however is structurally inventive here, and this is one of the finer points of the hour long run-time. In the very beginning, she sets the expectations by telling the audience the entire set-up of how the show is going to progress. She tells us at the outset, that the “moment” is going to be her revelation mid-show, of autism. So we sort of wait for it to come, and when it does, we laugh. And there’s a slight moment of discomfort for us: we are not laughing at autism, but by the conceit with which it is brought up. But are we entirely sure we are not laughing at autism?
Gadsby thrives at this discomfort. There is a scene in the Australian comedy-drama series Please Like Me, where Gadsby plays Hannah, a depressed character sitting around a table with the other patients at a psychiatric hospital. They are trying to compete for a piece of chocolate which will go to the person with the most outlandish first-sex story. There is charming competition that ensues. Finally, it is Hannah’s turn. “I was raped”, she says deadpan. Everyone turns apologetic, saying if they knew they wouldn’t have asked. Hannah says, “No, I don’t mind, I just knew, the whole time you were talking, I was going to get the chocolate.” And you laugh, and you hope you are not laughing at rape, but at how it is built into the narrative here. There is always tension and introspection involved. Gadsby is a master of turning ache into humour, without poking fun at the ache itself. With Nanette she spotlighted this with urgency, and necessity. And that’s where Douglas falls behind; I just wish this one felt more necessary.