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'Serious' comedian Hannah Gadsby discusses hit Netflix show Nanette at 2019 TED conference

In her talk at the annual TED conference on Wednesday, Gadsby addressed what led her to make Nanette and the impact of its success.

Gadsby spoke about why she hasn’t quit comedy and her recent autism diagnosis

Hannah Gadsby speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us in Vancouver, following the success of her Netflix comedy special Nanette. (Ryan Lash/TED)

To anyone who watched Hannah Gadsby's genre-defying Netflix comedy special Nanette, it may be surprising to find out that she has made her way back onstage.

After all, Gadsby very publicly quit comedy in Nanette. She tore it apart, spit in its face and exited stage left in an eloquent, moving talk that explained how the genre has served to perpetuate the trauma of her past.

"I realized that I've been telling my stories for laughs," Gadsby said on stage at the annual TED conference in Vancouver Wednesday night.

"I've been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding on to my trauma for the comfort of my audience."

Breaking comedy

To even call Nanette a comedy show is debatable. During her performance, Gadsby starts off with a traditional stand-up approach only to deconstruct it and broach subjects like abuse, rape and depression.

Despite addressing those dark topics, or perhaps because of it, the show was a runaway success for the relatively unknown Australian comic who has been doing stand-up for the past decade. Until Nanette, her most well-known role for audiences outside her home country had been a minor character in the series Please Like Me, also available on Netflix.

In her TED Talk on Wednesday, Gadsby addressed what led her to make Nanette, and the impact of its success.

"I had an idea to tell my truth, all of it. Not to share laughs but to share the literal, visceral pain of my trauma," she said on stage.

"The point was to break comedy, so I could rebuild it and reshape it, reform it into to something that could better hold everything that I needed to share. And that's what I meant by I quit comedy."

'What was the purpose of my human?'

Gadsby explained that the death of her grandmother was partly what drove her to create Nanette.

While she sat on her grandmother's deathbed, she realized she had missed an opportunity to come out to her. And that led her to think of other ways she had left out some of the darker sides of her past — not just to those she knew but also on stage.

Hannah Gadsby in Nanette. (Netflix)

Those omissions prompted deeper questions about the meaning of life.

"What was the purpose of my human?" Gadsby said she asked herself.

'The world pulled me closer'

During her TED talk, Gadsby said she fully expected Nanette would push her further into the margins of popular culture. Instead, the inverse became true.

"The world did not push me away, the world pulled me closer. Through an act of disconnection, I found connection," she said.

The fact that Nanette drew so much attention and connection led Gadsby to understand her purpose, she explained. The show became bigger than her and grew to live inside of all the people who watched.

"Just like the purpose of being human is so much bigger than all of us," she said.

Upcoming show

Gadsby's official return to the stage has been her new show, Douglas, named after her dog. Her website proclaims "Hannah found her voice with Nanette and with Douglas she plans to use it."

The show deals in part with her recent autism diagnosis, which she also touched on during her TED talk. 

The show's North American tour begins in San Francisco April 29. Its off-Broadway run in New York City has already been extended by a week. 

For more TED conference coverage:

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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