Hannah Gadsby's Nanette is giving LGBTQ comedians a big moment — but where do we go from here?
Considering (Canadian) queer comedy in a post-Nanette world
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
There's a moment in the middle of Hannah Gadsby's Netflix comedy special Nanette— which, if you haven't watched by now, please stop reading this and go do yourself a potentially life-changing favour (or double down and find your way to its live Canadian debut at Montreal's Just For Laughs) — when the Australian comedian asks her audience whether they "understand what self-deprecation means."
"When it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins," she continues, "it's not humility. It's humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak — in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself, or to anybody who identifies with me."
From that point, Nanette builds into something that blurs the lines between a stand-up routine and a glorious manifesto as Gadsby taps into a shattering vulnerability, which has proved so powerful: within just a few weeks, the special has already found its way into the cultural zeitgeist in a way arguably unlike any other stand-up special by a queer comedian. And that obviously has resonated with Gadsby's fellow queer comedians.
Bowing down to Nanette
Pioneering out comedian Elvira Kurt says the special "will be life-affirming and life-changing to more people than Hannah can imagine or will ever know," and counts herself among that tally.
"What appealed to me most was her pursuit of being her authentic self onstage," Kurt says. "Very relatable to me personally because it parallels my own journey with the craft and form these past years."
Shawn Hitchins, a stand-up and author of the book A Brief History of Oversharing, adds: "I watched it twice. I've started therapy because of it. I'm destroyed. She's echoed everything in our heads — she just beat us to the punchline."
The idea of humiliating oneself to have a voice certainly resonated. When comedian Kyle Brownrigg started stand-up, self-depreciation was the only type of joke he'd allow himself to write.
"I knew that if I wanted a big reaction from the audience, I had to attack myself before they could attack me," he says. "This is something that is profoundly true among any marginalized comic. The fear of being physically and verbally assaulted is very real, so we say something hateful about ourselves before they can. I personally have been the victim of assault as a result of a comedy performance. Not fun."
"I have always been out on stage, right from my first painful show in front of a room full of mullets," adds comedian (and veterinarian) Ted Morris. "I definitely did a lot more self-deprecating material when I was first starting out. I even used to open by outing myself and 'apologizing' for whatever it was that we queers did to cause all the homophobia in the world. I just felt like I was intruding in a world that I wasn't welcome in, and I guess that was my way of acknowledging my lower status."
The "superstar queer comedian"
While Nanette will surely open doors for Gadsby herself (if she decides not to quit comedy, at least), whether it does the same for other queer comedians, particularly here in Canada, is complicated.
"OK, neverending curtsies to Hannah Gadsby," says comedian Andrew Johnston. "I think she's great; I'm thrilled how it's been received, who it's reached and every other superlative I could say about her I will. However... let's be very clear. That was some stand-up, but mostly theatre."
Johnston argues it had the reach it had largely because it was marketed as stand-up comedy.
"People came expecting something like Ali Wong's special, got this instead and watched the whole thing — as well they should have, because it was a singular, well-done live experience that really struck a chord with the temper of the time right now, and all that's wonderful," he says. "That's not stand-up comedy. It's not going to transform the medium. People are not going to go out to comedy shows from here on out expecting part-comedy, part-exploration of trauma. Conversely, if Hannah's inspired any copycats, they're not going to exist in a standard five-minute open mic set format imitating what she does, so it's kind of false advertising, at least in North America."
Either way, Gadsby has become something that's a complex idea to aspire to: a superstar queer comedian.
"When you even say 'few superstar queer comedians,' the few you're referring to are women, not gay men, which is another barrel of worms unto itself," says Johnston (who wrote this essay for NOW Magazine on said barrel).
Johnston believe it's because comedy audiences at large "don't have the point of reference for our lives the way they do about a cis-het male or female comic talking about their lives, plain and simple."
"Aziz Ansari can (or at least could) talk about Tinder or Amy Schumer can talk about having bad sex and it's prime-time subject matter — but as a gay comic, I can never assume that a mainstream comedy audience is going to know what a top or bottom is in 2018."
Hitchins agrees. "Part of the reason is there are so few queer superstar comedians is because what we are trying to say onstage isn't welcomed in these environments — by the owners, the audience — or that we all get rammed onto queer line-ups for targeted audiences," he says.
"We don't have the opportunity to develop our careers in the existing system. Also, thank god. It ruins voices."
The Canadian factor
Another issue — perhaps even more complicated than being an LGBTQ comic — is being a Canadian one.
"I think we do have 'superstar queer comics'," says Chanty Marostica, a trans powerhouse comedian who singlehandedly started a queer comedy scene this year when they founded Queer And Present Danger in Toronto. "Andrew Johnston, Elvira Kurt, Scott Thompson and DeAnne Smith are as close as we're going to get to 'stardom' levels in Canada, because a star system simply doesn't exist in our country unfortunately. Even our most famous celebrities — queer or otherwise — only achieve fame by leaving Canada."
Marostica thinks it's "a very problematic self-loathing Canadian thing we have going on."
"If only Canada could be appreciative or have any sort of understanding of the talent they have on their own soil. We're so obsessed with 'American culture' we don't even notice that the biggest talents in Hollywood are just Canadians that were like, 'Fuck this, I'm out.' So ironically, in truth, the things we love most about this country we foolishly idolize...are our own voices."
Marostica says that as a trans person, they have a lot of paranoia surrounding the idea of eventually moving to the United States.
"I'm trying my hardest though to make Canada work for me by creating my own content and by creating opportunities for myself and fellow queer comics, but at some point that won't be enough either. I'll reach my glass ceiling and I'll have to move to where opportunities lie for me, and unfortunately that's in the United States...where it really doesn't seem safe to be a trans person."
Perhaps Marostica won't have to move, especially if they keep up their good work changing the Toronto scene.
"In Toronto it feels like there's a big surge in queer comedy," Ted Morris says. "Chanty Marostica has singlehandedly created a new scene from the ground up. They're creating opportunities for new queer comics to perform, and supporting these comics in a really safe and positive environment. It's as much about creating a safe space for the audience as it is for the performers. When I first started if I wanted to be on a show with only queer performers, I'd have to produce it myself."
Elvira Kurt is similarly optimistic, identifying the state of queer comedy "as individual as the queers performing it today, as if everyone is following their own road map that they've drawn themselves."
"That's definitely different than when I started and is most certainly on par with the current state of comedy in general and what audiences, especially those outside of traditional comedy clubs, are in the mood for," she says. "I started when there were only comedy clubs and, worse, only one club you were allowed to perform in or else you'd be out, literally. The audiences, the comedians, the comedy was of a certain mindset, and I came up without any awareness of that but I knew how to survive. I've seen many evolutions of comedy since then. The scene was pretty cutthroat back in the day; now it feels so supportive and I'm never not surprised by it."
Johnston says that before he started, he remembers "seeing Elvira Kurt, Scott Thompson, Gavin Crawford and Trevor Boris" and it was because of that he considered it might be possible for him.
"I know I've had that effect on younger queer comics starting out right now, because they've very deferentially told me, which is nice," he says. "The simple fact is that queer comics beget more queer comics. The more queer people see themselves represented on a comedy stage, the more possible it seems that they can do it. So after decades of being anomalies, you are seeing a snowball that is gaining unstoppable traction. I guess what I look forward to is when queer comedians are just a fact of life in comedy, and I believe we'll get there sooner than later."
So don't quit comedy, queers. Our time may still be coming.