Van Gogh, #MeToo, and the Anti-Comedy of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”

In today’s age of web-streaming and easy access, Comedy – seen as a progressive genre and a uniting force for people and interests – is in more demand than ever before. The amount of support generated in defense of comic relief at any point today is almost insurmountable. Yet, comedian Hannah Gadsby has been able to brutally deconstruct the very notion of the genre’s progressiveness in an hour of unnerving anti-comedy that is being seen as a radical work with the potential to redefine what we consider as ‘funny’. Deeply moving and extremely relevant to our times; Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special, Nanette, is original, reflective and path-breaking.

What begins with the comedic selling point of ‘lesbian’ humour – or humour at the expense of the lesbian and her experience at the Sydney Mardi Gras – straightens out (so to speak) into an anti-comedy which deconstructs the way the genre of comedy approaches life and itself, all the while not losing its grip on the audience. Gadsby brings out a stock of jokes inspired by her own experience as a non-normal member of the society – her experience with the ‘sir/madam’ address, coming out to her mother, and being a lesbian in a small town. She serves these jokes with aplomb – and then she stops. With laughter still ebbing among viewers from the delivery of her previous punch line; Gadsby verily declares that she is done making self-deprecating jokes. Then follows what probably makes Nanette a transformative work in Comedy: Gadsby challenges her audience to think of the comedian also as a person capable of experiencing pain, discomfort and prejudice – or simple, as a person.

Gadsby; who was introduced to international audiences for the first time this year with streaming giant Netflix releasing Nanette on its platform; hails from the Bible belt in Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania. She grew up in an environment rapt in the belief that Homosexuality is sinful and a criminal offense – so much so that she found herself to have internalised this prevailing homophobia, even as she struggled in the closet with her own lesbian identity. In Nanette, Gadsby seeks to radically transform the way in which we use humour when she refuses to carry on with the same self-deprecating humour she and others like herself have built their careers on. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation,” she says to a packed audience at Sydney’s famed Opera House. Henceforth, nothing about Nanette is what one generally expects of comedy – it is better.

Nanette is also one-of-a-kind because, as Gadsby points out within the show herself, “you won’t hear too many extended sets about art history in a comedy show”. Putting her Bachelor’s degree in Art History to use, she explores the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of high art through her comedy and common sense. To bring together what is considered the highbrow with the lowbrow is in itself a bold act, and Gadsby does it well. To make it better, all of this is said as part of her jocular response to a person who advised her against anti-depressants, citing her need to ‘feel’ as an artist.

She begins with Vincent Van Gogh and the ever proliferating idea of his misunderstood genius. Dismissing point by point the romanticization of his mental illness and the idea of this suffering making him special, she asserts plain and simple that all it did was handicap him, as it does to anyone similarly afflicted. As she points out, he sold only one solitary painting in his lifetime not because he was misunderstood, but because he was crazy and debilitated by his illness into being incapable of networking. She also brings to light that Van Gogh chose to self-medicate and not to suffer in silence for his art. So, The Sunflowers did not get painted because of his suffering, but in spite of it. Gadsby is able to defend medication and de-mythify mental illnesses in a single sweep. To lay it bare like that requires a certain amount of clarity as a performer and a person, and Gadsby reinforces this clarity of mind and purpose as she tears apart the idea of an artist’s suffering making their art valuable, and the idea of their greatness excusing the acts that should render them small in our eyes.

“I hate Picasso,” she says, “but you’re not allowed to.” As founder of Cubism who unleashed the possibility multiple perspectives into art, Picasso is virtually denuded of his misogynistic override in the public eye. He is instead hailed as the greatest artist of the twentieth century, the reason why art has been able to liberate people from the mere two dimensions of its medium. Gadsby, however, makes it clear that art; be it painting or comedy; does not liberate everyone the same way. In fact, what she reveals is that (as someone commenting on the special for The New Yorker put it) “[Art] can replicate the same privileges and exclusions as the culture in which it was made”. None of the ‘perspectives’ Picasso made possible in his paintings included those of a woman, and certainly not that of the 17 year old Marie-Thérèse Walter whom Picasso had an affair with because she was ‘at her prime‘. “No 17 year old is at their prime”, says Gadsby, proceeding to shed light on how harrowingly wrong it is that the young girl’s perspective was never valued, or even considered, because it was assumed that her potential would somehow never equal that of the already successful 45 years-old straight white man, Picasso (even today, an internet search on Walter would reveal no more than Picasso’s paintings of and affair with her). “But Cubism,” Gadsby resumes, driving in the punch-line.

That one can separate the art from the artist is something the comedian conclusively calls bullshit on in Nanette. She goes on to connect the dots even further – between our obsession with saving reputations; ranging narrowly between those of male artistic geniuses and celebrities to male politicians; at the expense of women (such as Walter, Monica Lewinsky, and the plethora of women whom POTUS Donald Trump has claimed to have violated because he could), and between the lack of responsibility with which comedians and celebrities do their job and thereby perpetuate the idea that women are fit to become a mere easy punch-line. What needs more protection than all these men’s reputation, according to Gadsby, is the world in face of their inhumanity. Her attack on the entertainment industry’s covert misogyny is not new, but her means are certainly novel. By drawing attention to the topical through her stand-up, she exposes the industry’s complicity in burying these issues of importance for profit and comic relief.

As she progresses with her set, Gadsby reveals that she wishes to quit comedy. She believes that as a comedian, her job is to create tension in the audience through a set-up, and then to release it with a punch-line. But, she adds; calling back a joke wherein a drunk man outside a bar once threatened to beat her up when he saw her hitting on his girlfriend, only to apologise on the realisation that she is a woman; this build up-release format assumed by any joke leaves out the most important part of the stories that they truncate – the end, which contains hindsight and the realistic conclusion of any event. Upholding the importance of stories, and realising the loss of the same when she reduces these stories into jokes for people to laugh at; Gadsby talks about how she needs to stop doing stand-up. She explains how for a joke to be humourous requires the loss of all its context, and she is not here for it. To illustrate her point she then goes in to complete telling the audience about the incident from which her ‘joke’ sprang up, wherein the man went on to call her a ‘lady-faggot’ and did, in fact, end up beating her. Nobody stopped this man, she adds. And although she was injured, Gadsby did not take herself to the hospital.

Her emphasis on stories in Nanette gains special importance when one considered that it takes place merely days before the #MeToo movement gained pace. As Nanette advances into its concluding quarter, Gadsby goes on to share her own experience of being sexually abused, raped and discriminated against. Quite like her, seemingly countless women have seen their experiences being manipulated and stuffed into jokes and other concerns of entertainment. And quite like her, the women who spoke up during the #MeToo movement weren’t telling their stories for the first time, but it was only now that they were being heard – when they were not being truncated by the punch-line of a joke or the ‘reputation’ of men. Thus, through Nanette Gadsby extends support to the #MeToo movement like no comedy has done to a cause before: she swears off the manipulation of stories by comedy, and questions the need for masking all reality with laughter.

As the set nears its end, Gadsby’s eyes redden, and fill with tears and anger. She gets more serious, louder, and unapologetic. She stops being ‘funny’, and starts getting to the point. She questions the larger audiences’ preference for angry white male comedy and their dismissal of the same coming from a woman like herself. She also asks what these straight white men; the seats of power in this centuries-old patriarchal status quo; have to be angry about – “If they’re having a tough time, the rest of us are goners,” she says. But Gadsby does not wish to take over as an angry comedian either, for she believes that such anger is only a precedent to the spread of hatred. Her anger, and indeed Nanette, stems out of her need to tell her audiences what life is like for people on the margins. Throughout her show, and again as she concludes it along with announcing that her decision to quit is not a gag, Gadsby reminds her audience of the basis of her decision by stating the basic fallacy in the age-old adage of laughter being the best medicine for their pain. “Laughter is not the medicine”, she says. “Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine”.

Having finished watching Nanette on Netflix, it takes a while to start assessing what one truly thought of it. It is certainly bold, and brave, and innovative. But Nanette is also revolutionary in the way it has dealt with exclusionism – in art, in comedy, in the perception of mental health, in the politics of identity and power, and in the world as we know it. In forcing comedy to confront the very issues that it uses as raw material and thereby often ignores, Hannah Gadsby has initiated a dialogue that has so far been sitting uncomfortably behind the filling-up of audiences and the pursuit of success. It is no less than historical, the way in which she refuses a vocation that refuses her a right to own her story: “I put myself down in order to speak … and if that means my comedy career is over, so be it”.

Gadsby tells the audience that she named Nanette after a woman she knew at the time of writing the set, one whom she thought would be the source of enough material for an hour of jokes. The audience laughs because she clearly wasn’t. But moments after the screen goes blank, it dawns on the viewer that this ‘Nanette’ is but every woman whose life will perhaps be easier, or inspired, or nudged slightly in a healthier direction because of how Gadsby has put a step forward in reshaping the future of the entertainment industry’s approach to real experiences, even as she steps away from it.

Stream Nanette now on Netflix, or click here to watch the trailer. You can learn more about Hannah Gadsby by visiting her awesome website!