Comedy as Activism: Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’

**spoilers for Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ Special on Netflix. Please watch before reading!**

Netflix have just released comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up ‘Nanette’, and everyone is talking about it, and not without very good reason.

In Gadsby’s hour and half routine (named ‘Nanette’ after someone Gadsby thought she’d get a shows worth of material out of, but didn’t), she takes us on an emotional journey through gender, sexuality, the state of society today and why she needs to give up comedy.

Whilst watching ‘Nanette’ (amongst the sniffling into my tissues and applauding loudly even though I was alone in my room), a question began to form in my mind. As Hannah Gadsby took us through the reasons why she feels she needs to quit comedy, I started to wonder what the point of comedy was. Is it to purely make others laugh? Or is laughter a by product? Does comedy have to be funny to still be classified as comedy? This is a question that’s been asked and there’s been attempts to answer it. Brian Logan’s article for The Guardian sparked a debate on whether ‘trauma-comedy’ sets qualify as comedy.

One comedian Logan discusses at length is Sofie Hagen. I’ve been lucky enough to see both Shimmer Shatter and ‘Dead Baby Frog’ performed live, and so whilst I might be quite biased, I also vehemently disagreed with Logan’s assertion that ‘Dead Baby Frog’ was not comedy. Though it left me feeling pensive and introspective, I’d also had the sweet release of laughter throughout.  I spent the next few days going over the more emotionally vulnerable moments in Hagen’s show, connecting them to my own life.

This question of whether comedy = laughter also surfaces when watching ‘Nanette’, as there are definitive moments within the show which are not there to make the audience laugh. Gadsby talks within ‘Nanette’ at length about comedy existing as a two-part structure. You say something that builds tension, then the punchline releases that tension, which enables everyone to laugh. Tension and release.  In ‘Nanette’, there are many moments where there are no punchlines. Gadsby talks about traumatic incidents in her life but doesn’t relieve the audience by giving us a joke at the end to let us know that it is all okay.

There is a similar moment within Tiff Stevenson’s ‘Bombshell’. Stevenson speaks honestly about the current political and social climate within our country, and at one point she comments on Grenfell. The tension has been raised, and because it’s comedy there is an expectation of some sort of release. Stevenson tells the audience that there is no punchline, because it’s not funny. Again, the purpose of this part of the show was deliberately not to make the audience.

Comedians do spend a inordinate amount of time on-stage berating themselves for the pleasure of others. It’s no coincidence that a huge number of comedians suffer from depression and other mental illnesses – so much so that it’s a regular film and TV trope. It seems that something is declared comedy outright if the person delivering it is criticising themselves (or their own ‘group’ in society), but not so much if they are making a point about about another group in society.

‘Nanette’ follows the usual rules of set-up, punchline, laugh all through Gadsby’s teasing about the lesbian community, her own coming out story and reactions from her small Tasmanian towns-folk. The punchlines stopped rolling in when Gadsby started speaking seriously about how she’s been treated in her life, and how the act of making of a joke out of it has been detrimental to her processing her own trauma. When Gadsby speaks to the men in the room, pleads with them to pull their fingers out and just be better, you can hear the tension. It’s powerful and tangible. It’s an authenticity that is unparalleled in any show (comedy or otherwise) that I have ever seen before.

Comedy has always been about ‘sticking up for the little guy’. Even the dictionary definition details comedy not only as a ‘jokes to make people laugh’ but also as satire in which people overcome adversity, usually in a humorous situation. Gadsby, Hagen and Stevenson (and many more) are doing just that. They are using humour, but also powerful ideas and concepts, to triumph over adversity. The thing about adversity though, is that others have to understand the adversity you are facing before you can collectively laugh about overcoming it. Those ‘little guys’ that comedy has always stuck up for – they’ve traditionally always been men. Perhaps men that don’t necessarily fit the traditional ideals of masculinity, but they’ve usually been straight, white men all the same. Mainstream audiences simply aren’t yet used to hearing stories from people who aren’t men, and they are even less used to hearing a gay woman pointing out the injustices in a world where ‘the little guy’ is doing alright comparatively.

In ‘Nanette’, Gadsby uses her sharp and intelligent humour to give a platform to these issues. Paraphrasing here, but her discussion of how anger has no value is searingly on point. Her stories have value, but anger can only breed further anger. Comedy and activism can go hand in hand to create something incredibly powerful, and Hannah Gadsby has done just that.



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