This stand-up comic is dead serious
Nanette is a useful guide for all of us trying to navigate today’s increasingly toxic gender discourse. Watch the full show on Netflix.

This stand-up comic is dead serious

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - July 7, 2018 - 12:00am

‘Do you understand what self-deprecation means? When it comes from somebody who is already in the margins, it’s not humility… it’s humiliation.’  Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’  will make you laugh then cry.

Among the glut of stand-up comedy specials available on Netflix, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette stands out for its sheer novelty: it is stand-up comedy that questions the very nature of stand-up comedy. A person walks onto a bare stage and talks into a mic in front of thousands of people and somehow the simplicity and directness of it all amplifies the humor. A joke in a stand-up setting, when delivered effectively, can produce bigger laughs than the most elaborate set piece in a sitcom. Hannah Gadsby thinks she knows why this is. Laughter in a stand-up setting, she says, is a release from tension. But the tension is manufactured by the comedian and the laughter is huge because it is cathartic. “A joke is a question, artificially inseminated with tension,” Gadsby declares. “I made you tense. This is an abusive relationship.” She’s joking but she’s also dead serious. Halfway through the special, she stops kidding altogether.

Nanette feels like it was written in a constant state of evolution. The name of the special itself comes from a woman Gadsby met and thought would give her inspiration. That didn’t happen but the name stuck. So did the jokes. Large chunks of the special comes from her stand-up routine from last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Special — her bit about parents putting pink ribbons on bald babies (“Why don’t you put a bangle on a potato?”), the one about the commenter who complained her stand-up didn’t have enough lesbian content (“I was there the whole time”), and her routine on her discomfort over the aesthetics of LGBT pride as an introverted lesbian (“The pressure of my people to express our identity and pride through the metaphor of party is very intense”).

But perhaps, while in the process of writing the special, she had an epiphany. Her jokes, while keeping the conversation about gay rights alive, were helping neither the world at large nor herself. You can hear this internal dialogue because she puts it in her routine. While deconstructing comedy, she realized the inherent incompleteness of jokes. They are made of two parts — a setup and a punchline — but all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Jokes, she concluded, are a way to circumvent the middle in favor of a good laugh. The tension is relieved but it never really goes away. “Punchlines need trauma,” Gadsby confesses. “Because punchlines need tension. And tension feeds trauma.”

This eureka moment serves as a transition to one of the most transcendent moments in stand-up comedy history. Gadsby, known for her soft-spoken wryness, sheds all of her defenses and goes full-volume earnest. She opens up about the abuse she took early in her life. She gives voice to the LGBT community and ultimately speaks for all minorities who are increasingly treated as subhuman in today’s toxic political climate. “To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity,” she says in a truly inspired moment in the special. “The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. They are the weak. To yield and not break, that is incredible strength.”

There is nothing particularly new in the points Hannah Gadsby makes. She often echoes Woke Twitter, that tiny didactic subset of liberal social media that often comes off as arrogant and condescending, partly because it’s justified by their intelligence and righteous anger relative to the stupidity around them, and partly because they don’t know how else to communicate. Gadsby hits all the liberal checkmarks and #MeToo talk points, condemning white male privilege and the world’s natural inclination to preserve the “genius white male’s” reputation over the humanity of those they torment. But these statements, in and of themselves, aren’t the lede. What makes her special refreshing is the way she delivers them. She eschews arrogance for an empathy that is real because it is earned. Her turn midway through the special does not come off as a gimmick; it feels like an honest accounting of her own failings. She openly questions comedy as an act of cowardice in which she herself has participated. She comes out as being afflicted with the same homophobia that the world has used against her and has implanted in her, manifesting itself as self-hatred. She doesn’t have a high horse; she’s as fallible as the rest of us and that’s why she’s credible.

Nanette is a useful guide for all of us trying to navigate today’s increasingly toxic discourse. Let’s use humor, but let’s be wary of its limitations. Let’s be angry about the injustices of others but let’s also be honest with our own faults. And finally, let’s make sure our humanity is always intact, no matter how hopeless the situation.

“We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with,” Gadsby says. “Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.” Jokes are important but stories are more essential to the human experience. Nanette is one of the most beautiful, honest ones out there. I would be lying if I said it wouldn’t hurt to listen. But it wouldn’t hurt the world at all if we felt each other’s pain.

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