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.

 

 

LFF 2017: Brigsby Bear Review

“Room meets Frank meets The Truman Show meets Be Kind Rewind”

On the opening night of the London Film Festival, Brigsby Bear was introduced by the festival’s programmer as ‘what happens when people who made their careers on SNL make a film about child abduction’. She’s not far wrong. From the mind of SNL alumni, director Dave McCreary, and headed up by producer Andy Samberg (who also makes a cameo appearance), Brigsby Bear is truly a light hearted and humorous take on kidnapping and abduction. 

Brigsby Bear has drawn numerous comparisons to several critically acclaimed films, the most obvious of which is Room – predominantly for its subject matter. Let’s be clear, that is really the only thing those two films have in common. I personally found myself reminded of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank because of McCreary’s ability to slide seamlessly between absolute tragedy and a genuinely honest laugh out loud moment. Also, something to do with a monolithic character dress up (you know – with massive heads).  

Though it is Be Kind Rewind that Brigsby Bear resembled the most, for me. Widely regarded as both funny and sweet, it is a film which also created a very strong contender for a second Ghostbusters theme. It is the thread of creativity running through both films characters, and the films themselves, that make them so similar. The likeable and naive main characters (Brigsby’s James and Be Kind‘s Jerry) keep us believing that they can achieve their wildly unattainable dreams. They are forces for creative positivity, pushing us to realise that the world isn’t such a bad place, and we can make other people happy by being ourselves. It’s exactly the kind of message that we need right now.

Brigsby Bear tells the story of James, a young man who was abducted as a baby and has lived underground with his two captors for his entire life. His ‘father’, Mark Hamill, and his ‘mother’ (Jane Adams), seem like pretty reasonable people – albeit the weird dinnertime hand shaking ritual and the weird stuffed animals in their garden.  James is rescued from the disturbingly homely underground bunker and returned to his real family within the first ten minutes. There’s a reunion with his father (Matt Walsh), mother (Michaela Watkins) and teenage sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins). Claire Danes plays James’ psychiatrist, who reveals to him that the TV show he grew up watching (the ONLY thing he watched for 25 years) is not actually real. Rather, it was created and filmed by his kidnapper Dad. James is the only person to have seen the show Brigsby Bear, and even the ‘friends’ he spoke to on forums about it turned out to have been his kidnapper parents all along. 

After befriending Spencer (“Mr Spencer”) at a party, and employing the help of both his sister, some friends and the local aspiring thespian cop Detective Vogel (played by Greg Kinnear), James sets about creating the Brigsby Bear Movie – an epic finale to the hours and hours of the TV show made solely for him. Of course there are hiccups on the way (including a home-made bomb, stealing police evidence, a bad drugs trip and time spent in a mental institution), but Brigsby Bear has a happy ending, thank goodness.

I think the real highlight of Brigsby Bear is the sincerity it manages to pull off within its characters, and this in part due to a fantastic performance by Kyle Mooney as James. He has some of the funniest lines (‘what’s wrong with you?’… ‘I was abducted as a baby..’), and delivers them with such straight-faced integrity that we genuinely feel for him, even whilst guffawing with laughter. Whilst James story is perhaps unbelievable, the relationships he forms with his ‘new’ family and friends keep us intrigued and engaged in the story. Particularly the arc of James and Aubrey as they reconnect as siblings which (unless you’ve got a heart of stone) will make you feel super happy.

There is some finer point being made somewhere in the background of Brigsby Bear about how television, cult or otherwise, can help us through difficult moments in life. James frequently talks about how Brigsby was all he had whilst he was kidnapped and when the Brigsby videos go viral, people are enchanted by it’s quirkiness. Cult TV features heavily throughout the film, Spencer’s bedroom is filled with Star Trek posters – a programme itself that was slightly out of the mainstream to begin with, but is deeply loved and obsessed over by it’s fans. A bit like Brigsby, perhaps?

The film never reveals Ted and April’s true intentions or motivations behind abducting James. At one point Brigsby Bear almost gets there but it stops because James’ character is not interested in those things. We learn what James wants to learn, we go where James goes. He isn’t really interested in his captor’s motives (probably because he has not been able to mentally mature properly), and he still sees them as good people. Of course, the process of creating the Brigsby Bear Movie is an attempt at processing his trauma and coming to terms with his life now, but fortunately the film doesn’t push this too much. Brigsby Bear is light hearted, and succeeds because it doesn’t delve too deeply into James’ experience.

We are left with a sort of surreal, strange yet emotionally savvy film, which also fits very comfortably into the comedy genre. Honestly, t’s just a really, really lovely film with a stellar cast and a ethereal soundtrack. I can’t wait for the Brigsby Bear TV series.  

Time of the Month: AMY SANTIAGO (BROOKLYN 99)

Oh Amy. Beautiful, naive Amy Santiago. Possibly television’s funniest geeky geek, with a heart of gold and a head of ambition.

On the one hand, Amy Santiago (played by Melissa Fumero) fits neatly into a trope which appears in almost every situational comedy show – the overly ambitious woman who takes everything a bit too seriously. In the past, they’ve been portrayed as shrill, as stuck up, as … boring, quite frankly. However, nowadays the world has moved on a bit and (finally) realised that women can care about their careers and also enjoy themselves too. Amy Santiago, as a motivated career gal, is in wonderful company. She’s comparable to Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope (which is hardly surprising as Mike Schur is the brain behind both Parks and Brooklyn). They both share high ambitions, they adore their jobs and co-workers and are both unique in their own special (very special) way.

One of the most wonderful things about Amy Santiago, though, is just how much her character changes and grows throughout the series – whilst also managing to stay completely true to herself and her goals. So let’s talk about why Amy is the greatest, and why we would all secretly love to be Jake Peralta (and not just so we could behave like five year olds and get away with it).

If Brooklyn 99 was a lesser show (or perhaps was written in the 1990s), Jake Peralta would be the audience stand in. We would identify ourselves with him – the cheeky, yet charming ‘bad’ boy who always manages to save the day. Instead of focusing solely on Jake’s journey and character, B99 allows for a fuller and richer ensemble cast, meaning that other characters are also not reduced to their stereotypes. Amy Santiago would traditionally be Jake’s ‘nemesis’ – solely due to her competitive nature and her desire to succeed in her job. Whilst Jake and Amy tease each other often, it comes from a place of love and support. In this way, we also identify with Amy, and can understand her motivations and individual desires too. Unlike other sitcoms which always ultimately end up objectifying a (usually lone) female character through the eyes of the male protagonist (Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory… etc etc) Brooklyn 99 avoids this completely. Even when Jake and Amy begin dating, she is never portrayed as a sex object or as someone for Jake to attain (it totally helps that Jake is a feminist). Regardless of whether they date, are co-workers or friends, they are both still individuals.

So what makes Amy’s character so great to watch? For a start, her sheer determination. Whatever the task is, Amy Santiago will throw herself into it with 110%. Even jobs that she might not be that suited for (the time she went undercover in prison as a pregnant criminal), Amy wants to prove that she can handle it. And yes, she partly wants to prove herself to Holt, but it often turns out that Amy needs to prove it to herself more. Though confident in her abilities behind a desk, Amy routinely pushes herself to do things that are out of her comfort zone.

We also see this amazing, and hilarious progression between Amy, Gina and Rosa throughout the series. Though the three of them are certainly acquaintances, both Gina and Rosa are not the easiest people to befriend. In comparison to Amy’s need to please everyone around her, Rosa’s main goal is to be as un-emotionally unavailable with the people around her as possible. Likewise, Gina (who is one the greatest characters to ever grace our screens, but we will leave this for another post) can be a bit stand-offish, especially to Amy. Rosa makes an important point in season 1 however, about how the women of the precinct need to have each others backs in such a heavily male dominated environment. And whilst the three of them may not always see eye to eye (Amy’s constant stream of positivity regularly rubs Rosa up the wrong way), there are several moments of wonderful friendship between them.

One of these comes in Season 3, when Amy approaches Gina to give her some advice with an idea she has had for a new flashlight mount. It shows how far Gina and Amy have come in their friendship and that Amy understands the importance of asking for help when she needs it. With their combined talents (Amy’s product and Gina’s showmanship), they produce an incredible pitch. It’s Amy’s ability to let go of always having to be right and to allow someone else to give her help when she needed it, that shows how much she has grown. The purchasing department of the NYPD decide not to buy the product, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the wonderful collaboration of two very different, very wonderful people. It’s not dissimilar to the time (in ‘Beach House’) where Gina decides to get Amy very, very drunk just to witness the 5 Stages of Drunk Amy Santiago (or 5 Drink Amy). Though partly just for the comedy, Gina also does this to let Amy have some fun and let her hair down – something that she perhaps needs to do a little more often.

Of course, we can’t end this post without acknowledging Amy’s ethnicity and the fact that she completely bucks the stereotypical portrayal of Latin American women on TV. Amy is hardworking, brave, introverted and comically fearful of overt displays of sexuality – something which goes against all of the harmful tropes normally attributed to Latina characters. It’s important to note, because it proves that television can focus on a character’s individual desires and personality without always boiling them down to a stereotype. And if Brooklyn 99 can do this (and it does it so well with ALL of it’s characters) then there’s no excuse for other show-runners out there.

We love you Amy. Even if you can’t handle hot sauce.

LFF Round-up: Sieranevada

Cristi Puiu’s Romanian family comedy-come-drama, Sieranevada, is the directors latest epic. Clocking in at 173 mins (just shy of three hours) it could be described more as an experience, than a film. Don’t think too deeply about the title – Puiu himself states that it means nothing at all. A little foreshadowing perhaps, as that notion is pretty reflective of the film itself.  There is a real sense of having ‘lived’ Sieranevada rather than simply watched it. Whilst it’s incredibly long (in Puiu’s usual style), don’t let that put you off. Sieranevada is a hidden gem of 2016, and everyone should watch it.

After the death of his father, Lary pays a visit to his mother’s house (along with the rest of his family) to pay his respects and commemorate his late father. Whilst waiting for the priest to arrive, the family members each deal with their grief in different ways. Drama, tears, fights and reconciliations commence – the four main ingredients of any successful family gathering, especially one under such emotional duress. A story of a man trying to deal with his own grief, Sieranevada, allows us to engage with all of these sensations- all at once.

That said, Sieranevada is also one of the funniest films I have seen in recent years. What makes it so genuinely amusing is that it feels like Puiu barely intended for it to be amusing. The humour comes from the completely natural and inane actions of the families members, the circular conversations and the way the interactions we see are instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever been to a family gathering. From the intergenerational arguing about politics, to the constant closing of kitchen doors, to watching food being laid out that no-one is allowed to eat just yet, Sieranevada perfectly captures the montages of extended family life.

A constant stream of events occur which prevents the family from gathering around the table to eat – the very reason why they are all there in the first place. The lateness of the priest, the appearance of Lary’s cousin’s drunk friend, the arrival of Uncle Tony and the ensuing melodrama that follows, are all things to keep the family from commemorating their deceased father. Yet, in a way, all of these interruptions are commemorative of family life – nothing ever goes to plan, even at a wake. The food is moved around, taken out of ovens, put back in again, and constantly just out of reach of the characters – who are drinking more to compensate. A recipe for disaster.

It truly does feel like an experience, rather than watching a film. Puiu’s handheld camera sometimes follows characters around the space, stepping into rooms and then leaving them again. Just as often, the camera is left in the hallway, or just behind a door. We can barely see what is happening and are left staring at the back of people’s heads, yet the dialogue is so engaging that it hardly matters. It feels as if we are the camera; we walk the same steps as the characters, constantly moving and not always seeing the bigger picture. By not allowing us to ever see the entire space, Puiu succeeds in shrinking the flat even smaller than it is. The whole film feels claustrophobic (deliberately, of course).There are too many people in such a small space. Family members sit in separate rooms, gathering in groups too large for the space they are in. It feels chaotic and utterly mesmerising.

At certain points, it could be mistaken for a documentary. It is unclear if there was a script, or whether Puiu just put a real family in a flat and switched the camera on. Either way, the results are phenomenal. The cast are superb, and whilst it’s hard to pick a standout performance, Sandra (Judith State) and Lary (Mimi Branescu) are certainly ones to mention. Brother and sister, children of the deceased, the two of them rarely interact yet are both clearly struggling to deal with the death of their father – in very different ways. They seem to move in opposing circles (physically, around the flat and emotionally too), with Sandra alluding to her husband’s infidelities, whilst Lary practically admitting his to his own wife. Again, in both scenes – Puiu is confident with the camera, keeping the same shot for several minutes while we watch these excruciating conversations.

It’s the astonishing command of the camera, and the authenticity of the characters, which makes Sieranevada  a truly immersive experience. I haven’t watched a film that felt so real  in a very long time (if ever). The attention to the smallest details (each and every character is fully developed, regardless of how long they are onscreen for), really drives home the naturalist feel of the film. It’s rich in colour, design and in content – all elements supporting the naturalist style that makes the film so unique.

A film that can not only hold my attention for that amount of time, but can also make it feel like it was no time at all, is a film that deserves to be seen. Sieranevada does both.

6 Reasons You Should Be Watching ‘Bojack Horseman’

I was not very interested in watching ‘Bojack Horseman’, originally. Honestly, it was the horse thing that put me off. I am not adverse to watching animated series (‘Bob’s Burgers’ and ‘Adventure Time’ being personal favourites) but it was something about the weird horse character that creeped me out a bit when flicking through Netflix. Continue reading “6 Reasons You Should Be Watching ‘Bojack Horseman’”