Day 6

'I wish it were a joke': Hannah Gadsby's new Netflix special is breaking comedy boundaries

Hannah Gadsby's comedy special 'Nanette' challenges what we laugh at and why.

'It's really an interrogation of comedy and of what a joke is'

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby's new Netflix special is challenging what we laugh at and why. (Netflix)

Most people go to a comedy show to laugh.

It's built in assumption — you go to a theatre, someone gets up on stage and for an hour or so you get provided with respite in the form of laughter.

But Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby is challenging that formula.

Her new Netflix special Nanette came out June 19, and it's garnered plenty of buzz for the way it refuses to follow the unwritten rules of comedy.

The Atlantic calls it "a radical, transformative piece of comedy." The Guardian says it "dares to dream of a different future."

And a piece for the Village Voice, written by Lara Zarum, says Gadsby is helping to seize comedy's "new normal."

From the beginning, Gadsby's set is unconventional. Take, for example, the fact that Gadsby announces that she needs to quit comedy early on in the special.

"I do think I need to quit comedy, though. Seriously. It's probably not the forum, to make such an announcement, is it?"

Gadsby spends her set deconstructing comedy, breaking down the science behind the art form, and then raising issue with the status quo.

The art of creating tension

"When I first started this comedy thing ten years ago, my favourite comedian was Bill Cosby."

After a burst of audience laughter, Gadsby continues: "There you go. It's healthy to reassess, isn't it?"

Lara Zarum calls Gadsby's Nanette an interrogation of comedy, saying it makes us question what we laugh at and why. (Lara Zarum)

Zarum, who spoke with Day 6 about the power of Nanette, agrees with the importance of re-examining the way things have always been done.

"It feels like a real statement at this time to say: let's take a step back and [examine] these sort of guidelines and rules about comedy. Do they still fit the world that we live in? And I think she's kind of saying, no they don't," said Zarum.

In her article, she says that it "almost feels wrong to call [Nanette] a comedy special."

Though technically, yes, Nanette is a comedy special, Zarum says it's more than that. 

"It's really an interrogation of comedy, and of what a joke is, and does, and means to different kinds of people in different demographics," said Zarum.

In her set, Gadsby explains that the job of a comedian is to create tension and then relieve that tension with a joke, but this artificially crafted tension isn't healthy for either party, says Gadsby, describing it as a sort of "abusive relationship."

It also depends on who ends up as the punchline. Gadsby explains that she built a career out of self-deprecating humour, but now, she's uncomfortable with doing so and refuses to allow herself to be the butt of her own jokes.

"Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It's not humility, it's humiliation," said Gadsby.

"I put myself down in order to speak, in order to request permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore — not to myself and not to anyone who identifies with me."

What happens when the comedian stops being funny

As her set progresses, Gadsby begins to resist that inclination to gift the audience with a punchline.

The jokes become fewer and far between, with audience laughter being replaced with moments of powerful and pensive silence.

And if you're looking closely, you can spot this change in tone early on.

"It's subtle ... it was only watching it a second time that I really started to notice the way that she sort of plants the seed for that shift really early on," said Zarum.

At the beginning of the special, Gadsby tells a joke about Tasmania and how "frighteningly small" their gene pool is.

After a round of audience laughter, she continues: "I wish I was joking."

As her set progress, Gadsby begins to forgo the punchline, even announcing at one point: "that was your last joke." (Netflix)

"She sets it up, this idea that like we're laughing at things that aren't really jokes at all," said Zarum.

There is a joke Gadsby tells about her experience of being harassed by a man on the street. He had mistaken Gadsby for a man hitting on his girlfriend and began shoving her, but his girlfriend steps in, shouting: "Wait! It's a girl!"

After realizing his mistake, the man apologized, saying he didn't hit women.

"What a guy!" Gadsby quips.

Then she follows up with a joke about the irony of this man thinking she's a gay man hitting on his girlfriend. 

This tension, it's yours. I am not helping you anymore.- Hannah Gadsby

There's a swell of audience laughter, and the set moves on.

The issue Gadsby has with this formula is that jokes have only two parts: a beginning and a middle.

"I feel like, in a comedy show, there's no room for the best part of the story, which is the ending. In order to finish with a laugh, you know, you have to end … with punch lines," Gadsby said in Nanette.

Toward the end of the set, she finishes her earlier joke, explaining that the bar shoving story was only funny because she made it funny.

"I couldn't tell the part of that story where the man realized his mistake. And he came back," said Gadsby. "He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him. And I didn't report that to police, and I did not take myself to hospital, and I should have."

Suddenly, no one was laughing.

'This tension is yours'

Zarum says it's not unusual for comedians to joke about serious topics, stating that plenty of comedians take on topics such as depression, anxiety, or drug abuse.  

Most comedians make light of those topics, however, and it's Gadsby's refusal to do so that makes Nanette unique.

"The idea [of comedy] is usually to make light of them and to use humour to sweeten the pain of all of these experiences that a lot of people go through in life. And she's kind of saying maybe that's not such a good thing," said Zarum.

Indeed, Gadsby's special ends without a punchline. She refuses to relieve the audience's tension, instead saying she can no longer be the sole keeper of it. 

"This tension, it's yours. I am not helping you anymore," said Gadsby. 

To hear more from Lara Zarum, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of the page.