My friend and I met in Wollongong on a Friday night to see Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette. It had just won the prestigious Barry Award for most outstanding show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and friends across the country kept asking me if I would see it.
So Wollongong it was: gin cocktails, glimpses of ocean, a show in a Spiegeltent. Merrigong Theatre Company had provided the venue to bring more music, cabaret and comedy into the beachside city. When we arrived, it was surrounded by a pleasant thrum of people.
Inside, the audience was packed with women and queer people. I joked to my friend, ‘sad comedy that’s secretly a polemic is the most lesbian thing in the world.’
Nanette is Gadsby’s final word on the stand-up comedy stage. After ten successful years, she’s retiring from the gig.
She has her reasons.
Once she’s through with the tour, she says, Gadsby will move back to Tasmania. Growing up there – in the middle of the debate about decriminalising homosexuality (this was only twenty years ago) – was traumatising for Gadsby. But now that that particular debate has quieted, and she’s an adult looking for a quieter life, it’s time to return.
Her show is almost entirely about the trauma she’s suffered in her life, from growing up in a culture arguing over her right to exist, to the trauma experienced by women and disadvantaged children in Australia. And if you don’t think that sounds like a fun show, you’d be right. This is not a very funny stand up show.
It’s a furious one. A heartbreaking one. A galvanising one.
In Nanette, a brilliant meta-comic retrospective meets arts-as-activism performance, Gadsby revisits punchlines she’s been delivering onstage for years, as a gut-punch farewell. I remember these jokes from shows past: her slow, deliberate phrasing deployed to get our biggest laughs. She reminds us of her mother’s response to Gadsby’s coming out (‘I don’t want to know. I don’t. I mean, what if I told you I was a murderer?’). That time she narrowly avoided assault for flirting with a girl (the girl’s boyfriend mistook her for a man, and apologised for his mistake).
But this time, she makes her audience pause to consider these stories. Are they jokes? Are they funny? Aren’t they horrific?
It’s an about-face that lands heavily in the Spiegeltent. Have we really just been laughing at an agonising experience of growing up in a homophobic society? About searching for love and validation from a family member and being denied it? Would we still have been laughing if we knew that after Gadsby’s close shave punchline, when the penny dropped that she was a lesbian, that that guy really did bash her? (He really did.)
In one stand-up routine from 2016, Gadsby skips over a vulnerable moment – a break-up – by saying mid-act, ‘shhh, it’s comedy.’ And if this impulse has governed her life for ten years, can we blame her for retiring?
Nanette strips the illusion from a decade in comedy – a magician revealing her secrets, a glimpse at the painfully human wizard behind the curtain, pulling the strings of a larger-than-life character. By making jokes about these things for ten years, with us as her witness, Gadsby says, she’s been masking a lot of her hurt with jokes. And that isn’t coping. It’s ‘fucked.’
LGBT history – and the history of many minority groups – is full to bursting with irony, gallows and self-deprecating humour. It’s used both to get through hard times and as something of an access pass into mainstream society: you can curtail abuse by abusing yourself first. Sometimes it really is a coping mechanism and it can help. And comedy is a cornerstone of queer culture, so to have it questioned is confronting. But I think we all need to be confronted with this.
I did. Because sometimes this humour is just an acquiescence to a culture that thinks you are sub-human. It’s deflection and apology. And Gadsby’s right, it is fucked.
From lighter jokes about Picasso and the misogyny of nudes in art comes a turning point. Gadsby tells a story about her grandmother, and adds that she used to endorse a quick moving on from injustices by saying, ‘It’s all part of the soup. Too late to take the onions out now.’
But right there in Nanette, Gadsby takes this idiom further. She says that ‘too many onions’ were put into her soup as a child back in rural Tasmania, back when being gay was still outlawed. Being a woman who doesn’t conform to conventional gender standards, being a lesbian in an unfriendly society: it’s curbed her potential, her development, her life experience. She was honest, and she asks us to consider this honesty. To consider how brilliant she could have been if she had been able to flourish. My heart started to ache.
And, she said, we keep doing this to our children. Demolishing Safe Schools? More onions in the soup of LGBT children, with extra onions for trans children.
And then there are the others: children of refugees. Indigenous children. Female children. Children with disabilities. Their soup never even stood a chance here.
My soup has its own share of onions. Midway through the night – when Gadsby was still giving the audience the gift of jokes – she tells us that just after she came out, she shaved her head. ‘I hadn’t read the [gay] agenda,’ she says. ‘I thought it was the next step. I thought, now they know I’m a lesbian, they need to know I can also look like a potato.’
Everyone laughed, and so did I, though my laughter came from a deep sting of recognition. When I was at a loss after coming out, unmoored and unsupported, I too shaved my head. A sad, little potato desperately trying to signal myself to the world. I was looking for someone who knew the agenda, or at least how to live, for help. I was unhappy, and I thought my shaved head might be a beacon for my feelings, might light the way out.
That didn’t happen. I’m no comedian, but I have my own go-to joke about this moment: ‘It was just after Britney shaved her head; everyone thought I did it in solidarity.’ It’s true, but it also means that if I say that, I don’t have to talk about that difficult time in my life.
I was born in the mid-eighties and my childhood was a roadshow of country towns in regional New South Wales – from Broken Hill to Dubbo, and places in between – and queerness was relegated to shameful whispers. My family certainly didn’t have any gay friends. Or as they would have put it, ‘We don’t know anyone like that.’
I didn’t meet any queer women, nor consider that I might be one, until I met the first girl I fell in love with. I was nineteen, and I was afraid. I’ve always been afraid. That’s another one of my go-to self-deprecating joke topics: my propensity for caution. It does my life, and my relationships, (which, like Gadsby, I haven’t proved to have much of an aptitude for) sometimes very real harm. It has led to anxiety, depression, and late-in-life shyness.
I make jokes – a lot of them – about this so that no one else can. I do it all the time. Is it helping?
The potency in Nanette is what it asks of its audience, and it asks a lot. To consider who we could have been if we’d been raised in an equal society. If our potential and our voices weren’t restricted by lies, bullying and discrimination. Why are we still apologising for our bodies, our looks, and our identities, through jokes?
During Tasmania’s big debate, Gadsby says, she often heard an argument against the LGBT community: ‘Think of the children.’
Twenty years on, that same argument is brought out to resist equal marriage reform. You can hear this call in protests against the Safe Schools program.
Asking us to ‘think of the children’ while ensuring they will never have equal rights is the most damaging thing you can do to a child, who can only assume that they are being children in the wrong way.
In Nanette, Gadsby points to herself as a product of that damage. Of self hate. I saw my own damage reflected in her. I think a lot of us in the audience did. The laughter fell away. Some wept.
Gadsby is through with hiding her trauma under punchlines, especially now that she has begun to reckon with it. She’s leaving the stage, leaving the punchlines to someone else.
A comic, she explains, creates tension in the audience as they set up their joke. By the end of the joke, they will break it. It’s a strange job to have. It’s a huge responsibility. She tells us she’s not going to be in the business of breaking the tension anymore. Some of us need to sit in the tension and reflect on our actions, and on our wounds.
By thinking – really thinking – about them, maybe we can do something about them. Maybe we can heal; maybe we can learn to take care of children and of our communities.
All this from a comedy show. It’s extraordinary. I’ll miss Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up, but I’m not sorry she’s retiring. She gave us everything she had.