"I have to tell my story, properly," is a line that Hannah Gadsby repeats multiple times throughout her critically acclaimed stand-up special, Nanette. Unlike other comedy specials, Nanette only begins with the standard build, joke, release tension cycle of most stand-up routines. As the audience gets comfortable, Gadsby slowly begins to reveal that her set is not full of punchlines; rather, it is a dramatic and vulnerable piece of art that shows how modern comedy has failed as a healing device for maligned communities.
It's not just the system that Gadsby examines, though; it's also her own complicity in continuing these norms that make herself and other ostracized minorities feel marginalized while watching from their couches at home. About halfway through Nanette, Gadsby reveals that a joke from one of her previous specials about a man who threatened her when he thought she was another man hitting on his girlfriend is a true story that actually ended with that man beating her up. The special was originally a response to Australia's gay marriage debate but ended up being a beacon of light in the #MeToo era as Gadsby found the strength to tell her story the way it needed to be told and reclaimed her "wasted" time.
Nanette is not an easy watch, but it is a powerful one, and one that defied the rules of stand-up comedy to highlight what could really be done if someone has the guts to tell the truth. TV Guide spoke to Gadsby about crafting the special, its incredible response, and what it means for her — and her career — going forward.
The version of Nanette that is on Netflix is not the original version you wrote. How long did it take you to find the balance with the jokes or realize you wanted to make this shift into how serious the show gets?
Hannah Gadsby: It was always serious. From the get go, it was serious before it was funny. It was unlike any other show I'd ever sort of undertaken. Usually my shows were about stories and I'd find a bit of light and shade in my stories always, but this was a different beast. I think it would be unwise suggest that there was ever even an original show; it was more of a constantly evolving beast. No two performances were really the same. When it started, my audience was Australian and the U.K. I never really thought about America. Too much admin to get over here. ... There was our history in there, but it was really about the gay marriage debate in Australia. Then, of course, by the end of 2017 that had, in its own way, resolved in Australia, but there was this whole other part of the show that then sort of had more body.
It started out as a sort of reaction to the gay marriage debate in Australia, but it came right as #MeToo was kicking into a very high gear. How do you feel that it has become a part of that movement?
Gadsby: Well, it's kind of validating because all those elements that were attached to the #MeToo movement were part of the original form of Nanette. That was always there. When the #MeToo came here, I was kind of in Edinburgh in the middle of performing at Fringe there and that sort of came out. It just felt like what I was doing with Nanette was a kind of really lonely — and felt dangerous — place on stage. After the #MeToo movement kicked off, I felt like I was part of something... It was great in that way, because you really can't do this on your own. It's not healthy.
Do you feel like this special has helped create a safe space that didn't exist before this special became so successful, for not only yourself, but for people who might identify similarly to you?
Gadsby: I hope so. More than anything, I think what I hoped for is that I've opened the form of stand-up to not just people who identify with me, but people who don't identify with the traditional form of comedy, people who might have completely different flavors of marginalized existence to me but can see that perhaps they can find their voice in sort of a freer format in stand-up. Like bringing stories in longer form and not being afraid of the not laughs and that sort of thing. It can be a really powerful way for people to find their voice and get it out there. I'm kind of hopeful, but I don't think A) I'm able to tell at this point, and B) I'm probably not the person to judge, but it is my hope.
I have a few standup comedian friends who after they watched this special said that they had to take a break from comedy themselves, just because it made them re-evaluate what they were doing. That made me curious about what the reaction has been within the comedy community. Nanette has been critically well-received, but have comics come up to you and had a surprising reaction to it?
Gadsby: [The] only comics who come up to me are those with a positive reaction. That's the gutlessness of human nature. I am aware of kickback, but the spirit in which I wrote that show was far more important to me than the status of an art form that really didn't really care that I existed or not. I'm more excited about those people who felt, "Well, I have to take a break." I'm really excited to see what they bring to the table. I'm not excited about people who are reactionary to it. That's not exciting. That's predictable. I wasn't really aware of a lot of ill feelings apart from a few murmurs on social media of kickback in the industry until I went to perform at the Montreal Comedy Festival. That sort of moved out of the bubble of my own sort of performance space because I'd been doing Nanette ... about 18 months. So I hadn't really been in the rigamarole of the industry. That was a bit of an eye-opener. People do what they need to do. I did.
You say in the show that you need to tell your story properly. Do you feel that Nanette is you doing that or is that a process that's still evolving for you?
Gadsby: I think, in a way, Nanette did do that. It wasn't so much in the writing or the telling, but how it was received that I think I can know that. Obviously, I did something properly because an idiosyncratic story like mine resonated with a such a wide and broad audience. I believe that's kind of where healing from trauma comes from — not just being able to put a cohesive narrative around something, but also to have the world go, "Yes, I hear this. I feel this. I understand this. I've lived this." That is not something I expected out of this whole thing. Not something I ever thought I'd get. I didn't even understand how diminished my life was from not having it.
Did the reaction to the show change how you went into this next comedy show that you've prepared? How has Nanette evolved your own creative process?
Gadsby: It was [an] interesting creative process to the new one because the landscape of my life has changed so significantly. I couldn't go back to the old way of writing shows because obviously what I'd done with Nanette was give myself the freedom to change the way that I did things, which seemed silly to go back to how I'd always done things. Having said that, I couldn't repeat "Nanette." I need a break from that kind of intensity. Also, you can't do that twice. The point is that she's singular.
You say in the show sort of offhand that you don't think people will leave the show a better person, but I feel like it's a show that actually could change people. Have you had people say like, "Oh, that really changed how I'm thinking about these things?" Or do you sort of stick to that idea that maybe they don't change after seeing it?
Gadsby: I'm sure I've changed the way that I've felt about that particular line over time. I think when I wrote it and just put it out there, I really believed it — the limitation of these things. Now I sort of frame it in a way of, "Yeah, I don't think it's just the show." I really think that we underestimate what an audience brings to any kind of art. I think the show won't make anyone a better person — they're already the person they are — but maybe it will turn on different lights and make it a more constructive thought pattern or something. I really, really strongly believe that I can't change people, but hopefully they can take what I've done and do something constructive or feel something constructive.
This was supposed to be your quitting comedy stand-up show, but how soon after people started talking and it started being received really well did you start to reconsider that decision?
Gadsby: It's always been an ever-evolving concept. It was originally a tongue-in-cheek statement in one respect because I knew the type of show that I was writing would be rejected by the gatekeepers of comedy, that [it] would be called just doing a monologue or a one-woman show. Well, how about I quit comedy first and then you can't measure me by those rules? That was the intellectual conceit behind that. Then there was also the idea, part of one of the strong things running through it, is that people put their reputation first before their humanity. I'm like, with this, I need to put my reputation on the line. I need to say, "Yes, I quit comedy. This is my livelihood. This is how I define myself. I'm prepared to put it on the line in order to speak my truth." ... I was prepared to not do comedy anymore, but quitting itself came and went as an idea as I performed the show. Sometimes it just felt good to say, "Yeah, I don't want to do this anymore." Then other times it's like, "No, it is exactly as I meant it, a theatrical conceit."
Was it validating to put yourself out there on such a level and have people respond to it as well as they have?
Gadsby: Yeah, of course. It was really frightening in the beginning because I don't come from money. I've had a bit of a difficult time making my way in the world. Comedy really was a way that I could put my feet onto the earth and make my way and make a career, but also I created stability for my life, where I had none, through comedy. I had a regular income. I had all these things that I'd never had before comedy. It was a huge personal risk to go, "Oh, I'm prepared to risk my audience, lose my audience, lose my livelihood." It's no small thing. Sitting here, where I am right now, it's like I have to actively remember that risk because things did work out. It's best to focus on the positive.
One of the parts of the show that I really related to the most was early on, when you were wondering where "the quiet gays" go and where do they belong? How is that working out for you after the notoriety of Nanette?
Gadsby: It's always funny to me when people recognize me. I'm used to being invisible. I'm lost in my head a lot of the time. I guess given the nature of what Nanette is, most people who approach me are kind of very respectful for the most part. Also, my life in terms [of] its rhythm, it's changed a lot, but it also hasn't. I spend a lot of time on my own. Naturally writing doesn't count there.
You talk about Picasso a lot in the show and how he broke the rules of modern art for his own gain and his own perspective. You've now broken the rules of stand-up comedy, and it seems to be for a greater good. What are you hoping comes from you breaking the rules in a different way than the ways that the men you talk about in the special failed to do when they did it in their medium?
Gadsby: I'd like to think that most of the people I have a go at didn't intend to be destructive. ... To put my thesis of Nanette into my life, I think basically they can't be doing this in order to be remembered... The reputation, or to have my place in history, ultimately is huge. My intention was, and remains to be, to open it up for more diversity. I'll run out of things to say sure enough, but I just hope there's a big gaggle of diverse voices ready to keep shaking the tree I started to shake.
Nanette is in contention for an Emmy, and we should know in a few weeks how that's going to pan out. Saying you get that nomination, what would that mean to you?
Gadsby: I think it would be a double-edged sword. All the positives are quite easily understood. To be recognized on such a global level, really, there's so much satisfaction to be taken with that. It's not rocket science why this would be a good thing. On the downside for me, this whole new life is kind of already quite large. I'm not unhappy, but I'm frightened. I'll just use the actual word. I'm scared of the life I have now, only because it's unfamiliar. I'm sure a couple years down the track I'll be a cynical old bitch, but at the moment I think something like that is just sort of pushing me further out of any kind of comfort zone I thought I might have had.
Nanette is now streaming on Netflix.