Hiding Behind Humour | Nanette By Hannah Gadsby

Described by the New York Times as "comedy arguing against comedy," and receiving the Barry Award for the most outstanding performance at the Melbourne International Comedy festival, Nanette by Hannah Gadsby is doing more than making people laugh- it's leaving them with something to think about. Hannah Gadsby is at the top of her game, she is a successful stand up comedian and yet at the height of her success she is choosing to leave it all behind- for a good reason. 

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I was first introduced to Hannah Gadsby when she played "Hannah" on Josh Thomas' television series Please Like Me. It was when I watched the show that I identified with her character a lot, which prompted me to explore the world of Hannah Gadsby in her own right- as an actress, as a proud lesbian women and as a stand up comedian. Nanette is everywhere, despite ending as a live show at the end of 2017, a Netflix deal has seen Hannah's last show before quitting comedy reach audiences beyond belief. So, naturally I had to see it.

I've watched a few of Hannahs stand up shows- she tells her life with humour, because that is what stand up is- for it to be good it has to be funny. The beginning of Nanette resembles few of her past shows, she makes jokes about herself, about social issues, about her past. There's a joke about the gender pay gap, there is countless jokes about many cases of homophobia- this is what Hannah does, she takes serious things that we don't often laugh about and turns them into comedy as a way of presenting a message.

The first two acts of Nannette are comfortable, she talks about these topics as she would any other show, she talks about her coming out story with laughter- she makes her audience comfortable with topics that are not meant to be comfortable. The third act does a complete 360. Hannah is no longer interested in making her audience laugh. She is now here to convey an important message. She is here to deconstruct comedy and make a point of telling everyone why she is leaving comedy behind- how comedy, although funny can be used as a survival tactic- an unhealthy one.

I sat through the first two acts with ease, having a little giggle at the jokes pointed at straight white men and their superiority and at how she relays stories of her past to the audience. Act three was completely different. What she was saying was so fucking important and raw but God it was uncomfortable to be hit in the face with it as Hannah has. I think this was the best way for Hannah to leave us with her message- to let people go in to the experience expecting to laugh and be comfortable and hit them in the face with the facts at the end- leave them thinking.

Nannette is not a comedy, no matter if Netflix markets it as "a comedy special". It's a narrative of Hannahs life events put together to create an hour long lesson to teach every viewer- whether it be they saw it live or they saw it on Netflix, it is a lesson that our society is damaged, especially for people on the outside, on the margins. This last show presented Hannah with the freedom to speak her mind, to present her argument without fear of what it would do to her career and reputation. Because once this show was done, once she had spoken the truth about comedy there was nothing, there was retirement and there was peace of mind. 

Naturally, I want to discuss some of the things that came up in Nanette- because why else would I write this if I was not compelled to discuss? 

The first being her coming out story. In the first act she told her coming out story with humour, mostly directed in the way that her mother reacted to her coming out. "Oh, Hannah why did you have ti go and tell me that? That's not something I needed to know." The audience laughs along with the story as Hannah tells it. In the third act Hannah discusses her coming out in more details, without the added comedy routine. There is two versions of the story the comedy version that makes people giggle and the real version that is not nearly as funny. Essentially Hannah took the trauma of coming out to her mum and turned it into a joke for comedic purposes. "That joke version was not nearly sophisticated enough to help me undo the damage done to me in reality." 

For me, as a 21 year old, straight, white women it is often hard for me to understand some of the struggles faced by homosexual people- but what I do know is that most of their struggles stem from other people that don't understand homosexuality. As I said, I am only 21 so the world that I have grown up in was different to the one that Hannah grew up in. I've grown up in a world that is somewhat accepting of homosexuals- I mean not everyone understands it and they have only just been given the right to vote but it was never a criminal offence to be homosexual. It wasn't until 1997 when Hannah was two years out of high school (an age where you are set to come into your own body and understand your feeling a little better), that Tasmania, where Hannah hails from, de-criminalised homosexuality. 

As with her coming out story, in the first act Hannah lightly detailed an encounter she had at 17 years old with a man. She had been chatting to his girlfriend and mistaking Hannah for a man, the boyfriend lunged into defence mode. In the comedy version of this story all three parties part ways after the boyfriend is alerted to Hannah's actual gender by the girlfriend and he proclaims "I don't hit women." In the third act the truth behind the comedy was revealed- Hannah was attacked by that man upon the realisation that she was a lesbian. The world that Hannah lived in allowed her to think that her bashing was deserved and the feelings and emotions going on inside of her where something to be ashamed of and something to hide. 

"I've made my story into a joke and there is only so long I can pretend not to be serious."

Through out the show Hannah often refers to comedy being about self-depreciating humour. It makes for funnier content doesn't it? Laughing about other peoples trauma- as long as they are able to laugh about it too, as if it is more palatable for audiences. "Do you know what self depreciation means coming from somebody who exists on the margins? It is not humility, it is humiliation." It is this self-depreciating humour that Hannah cannot deal with anymore, comedy has taught her that she has worth, that she is worth more than using her own trauma to give other people a laugh. 

Hannah also uses her show to explain the art of a joke to the audience. It is all about tension and release, setting the audience up and then hitting them with the punchline. Hannah seems to be the master of this- creating tension with an uncomfortable joke that can be related to any number of social issues she discusses (homosexuality, violence, misogyny, homophobia, gender, the list goes on). She creates that tension and then often uses her own trauma to create the laughter that diffuses said tension. In the last act she throws all of that out of the widow- there is all the tension but none of the laughter. Because what Hannah has to say is important for everyone to hear- it isn't something that can be turned into humor- not anymore. 

If you haven't seen Nanette by Hannah Gadsby you can do so on Netflix and I highly recommend you do.