The great Hannah Gadsby rewrites the rules of comedy

In the space of two months, Tasmanian-born Hannah Gadsby has become a global phenomenon. And while her decision to quit comedy is central to her searing show, Nanette, she has a new rider to add.

“Writing the show, I think I was insane. I was a hot mess" – Hannah Gadsby.

Photo: Simon Schluter

Perhaps you've heard: Hannah Gadsby is angry, and she is amazing.

She is the creator of Nanette, the stage show turned Netflix special that is lacerating in its fury about how women and queer people like her, and anyone else who might behave or look "other", get treated, dismissed and silenced. She is unflinching about the abuse that they – that she – endured, and the cultural norms that enabled it. She calls out men, powerful and otherwise.

In stark personal terms, she reveals her own gender and sexual trauma, and doesn't invite people to laugh at it. Nanette is an international sensation, the most talked-about, written-about, shared-about comedy act in years, exquisitely timed to the #MeToo era. And in its success Gadsby has perhaps pointed the art form of stand-up in an altogether new direction, even as she has repeatedly vowed, onstage, to quit the business.

"I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour, and I don't want to do that anymore," she says in the special. "Because 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."

The response to Nanette is "beyond my comprehension", Gadsby says one recent morning in Los Angeles. She's arrived from Australia the night before, and is blinking back jet lag, sitting at the long wooden dining table at her friend Jill Soloway's house (the friendship with the US TV director was also born of the show). She is tired, not just from the trip but also from touring this act, which stopped in New York and London, among other cities, and in 2017 won major prizes at both the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe.

"Over 250 times I did that show, and it took a toll," she says. "I need to spend the next year mostly napping." (She performed it one last time, at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal on July 27.)

The US comedian Tig Notaro, who chronicled her cancer diagnosis in a special that also changed her life, says she was "utterly floored" by Gadsby's hour-long show. "Nanette should be required viewing if you're a human being," she writes in an email. "It really takes days to take in everything she presented, to fully comprehend it all." Gadsby, she adds, is disrupting comedy. "It's going to be very interesting to see what comedians do post-Nanette," she says. It's a dividing line. "She cleared the table for necessary regrowth."

The creation of Nanette felt like a fever dream, prompted by Australia's virulent debate on same-sex marriage, and coming shortly after Gadsby received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. Together, those events gave her a new clarity about her life and the torment she suffered – and how things might have been different, if the world was more accepting of people like her.

"Writing the show, I think I was insane," the 40-year-old says. "I was a hot mess. I had so much just suddenly crystallise in my head, and I just needed to get it out." More than anything in her decade-plus stand-up career, Nanette is a manifestation of the way her mind works, she says. Performing it isn't therapeutic, exactly, "because it's so [expletive] hard to do," she says. "But overall, it began to hold – some other people were holding my pain, and I've never had that. I've never had that. And that has done a lot of healing, I think."

Gadsby came by her insecurities honestly. Growing up in small-town Tasmania, she was a blue-ribbon golfer, state champion twice over. She started playing as a kid at the little country club where her mother worked as a cleaner, and where women then were not permitted to be full-fledged members. They could tee off only at times that wouldn't interfere with the men's games. Sometimes they had to stop and serve the male members tea.

Gadsby with her dog Douglas in Melbourne.

Photo: Luis Ascui

Even in competition, she was made to understand a woman's place. When her brother won a tournament, she noticed, he was awarded golf equipment, things that encouraged him to keep at the game. "I would win casserole dishes and vases," she says. "I was basically winning stuff for my dowry."

Gadsby long ago stopped playing golf, but those experiences shaped her world view, especially as she watched how her feisty mother was denigrated at work, "always told she's being a mouthy, stupid woman". Confrontation seemed exhausting. Instead, "I learnt how to disappear," she says. "I was invisible. I learnt very early on. Well into my adult life, I was easily forgotten in a room, which meant I heard – I hear a lot."

She is still soft-spoken, not the kind to immediately own the space. (A brief stint leading museum tours ended because her charges just wandered off. "I'm not a natural leader," she says.) Sitting at the table, when she wades into a topic she didn't expect to cover, she seems a little bashful. But when she knows she has a good joke coming, she prefaces it with a small, sideways smile: her mind is a half-step ahead of yours. She didn't want to mention autism in Nanette, she says. "But what I want to do is sort of go, do you know what? There's value in the differently thinking."

Gadsby studied art history and curatorship at Canberra's Australian National University. She worked at a bookshop and at an outdoor cinema as a projectionist, then became an itinerant farmhand. She was adrift.

In her late 20s, on a whim, she entered an open-mic competition sponsored by the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was a weird decision, but she was making a lot of those back then. She was also technically homeless at the time, she says. She knew she was funny. "It's how I participated in life without participating," she says. Her first time at the mic, she did a surreal bit about freezing her dead dog. ("I've always been very uplifting.") She made it to the state finals, and felt preternaturally comfortable onstage. "I'm frightened of smaller interactions, but I could talk to a large room almost immediately, which is, you know, a backward wiring."

In retrospect, her inability to engage with the world in standard fashion was related to her autism. "I could never reconcile how I could be both childlike and really, really smart," she says. "Like, I've got an incredibly high IQ, but I can't read a bus timetable." As she began doing comedy, her siblings – she is the youngest of five – helped her out with housing, and her parents (her father is a retired maths teacher) supported her career choice. To navigate the neurotypical world, she says, she now knows, "I always need external scaffolding." (Autism in women is underdiagnosed, researchers say. The revelation often comes later in life, because the signs that are familiar in men may not exist for women, and it's largely men whose conditions have been studied. For Gadsby, the diagnosis was "both a devastating and wonderful moment".)

Gadsby's family knew some of the trauma she had been through, but when they came to see Nanette early on, she modified it because, she says, it was "unfair to subject them to that kind of sucker punch in a roomful of strangers".

(Spoilers ahead.) The show is built around her story of one assault at a bus stop, which she tells in detail – first for laughs, and then, near the end of the set, with galvanising horror and rage. Gadsby also mentions other serious, predatory violations in her childhood and young adulthood, without spelling much out; she did not feel ready, she says, "because I knew those people".

"I don't want people playing detectives in my world," she adds, trying to find the perpetrators. "That's like trauma porn – like, 'Let's go back and solve the crime!' And I don't think that that's helpful at all, because that still keeps things centred on the trauma." Better to move forward, and try to change toxic and predatory male culture.

As she relived these atrocious experiences onstage, over and over again, Gadsby built up a kind of callus. Then her mother, Kay Gadsby, happened to be in the audience at the Sydney Opera House, when the show was taped for Netflix. Gadsby couldn't change the material to protect her that night.

Her sister and a brother were also in the crowd, but it was her mother's shock of white hair Gadsby could see from the stage. The performance was raw before, but "having Mum in the audience, it was no skin", she says. "You can see that in the film." She nearly broke down before the cameras.

Audiences are in tears, too. Fellow comedian Josh Thomas, who hired Gadsby as a writer and performer on his hit ABC-TV series Please Like Me, about a young man coming out, thought that as a gay man with a supportive family himself, he had it easy.

"But then," he writes in an email, "I see storytelling like Hannah's, where she rages about the homophobia in the world, and I cry and I realise that I grew up with so much shame." Nanette, he adds, "made me question if I could have made more space for people that are different, as well as empowering me to stop people from taking space away from me because I'm different. I feel like it's permanently changed my point of view."

One of her show's most ingenious aspects is how, as Gadsby works toward the most painful and shocking material, she lobs occasional straightforward jokes at viewers – her grandmother told her that Mr Right could be just around the corner; "I have been approaching every corner with caution since then," she quips – making them into her unlikely partner in dismantling the allure of comedy altogether.

"I think that the magic trick of the show is that it is funny, and then it turns funny inside-out," says American comedian and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia. Of Gadsby's skill and polish behind the mic, he says, "You can tell right away, yeah, this is someone who kills all the time, and then is choosing to do something different."

In Nanette, Gadsby explains that while a story has three parts – beginning, middle and end – a joke only has two, set-up and punchline. There is, therefore, no satisfying conclusion to a joke, she says, the audience's laughter notwithstanding.

American comedians from Kumail Nanjiani to Kathy Griffin have tweeted their awe at what Gadsby accomplished. "It'll change your life," Griffin wrote. Netflix does not release viewer data, but judging by its social media mentions, Nanette is among its most positively received specials ever, a spokeswoman says.

But some comedy purists have taken issue with the idea that Nanette is stand-up at all, though it's billed that way online. Not enough jokes, they say. Birbiglia, who also made his name with solo stage shows that delved into personal issues, says the show is part of a larger movement in comedy to reach higher. "It just makes you think, 'Let's go one step deeper.' That's what it did for me and a lot of comedians," he says.

Gadsby vociferously pushes back at her critics. "I'LL SETTLE THIS," she shouted on Twitter. "My show is NOT stand-up comedy" because that's an art form designed by men for men. As a student of art history, she looked to multidisciplinary figures like Louise Bourgeois for inspiration. A few years ago, Gadsby made a comedic video series doing close reads of artworks.

In Nanette, she does an extended riff on the misogyny of Pablo Picasso, connecting it, eventually, to Donald Trump. (This, she says, is her pattern-seeing autistic mind at work.) Her early material was personal but not quite as cerebral, with bits about her weight and being a lesbian. She did the club circuit in Australia and Britain, and didn't relish it. "It's unsafe for a woman," she says, adding: "I'm not interested in talking to drunk men. I did that as a kid" – in her country-club days. "I didn't like it."

In the show, she excoriates Bill Cosby, convicted of sexual assault, and Harvey Weinstein, who is accused of it. Sitting at the dining table, we talk about Louis C.K., whose comedy she didn't particularly care for even before he admitted to masturbating in front of colleagues. The success of Nanette, she says, proves to her there is "a huge thirst for other voices".

Gadsby in a recreation of Frederick McCubbin’s painting "Down on His Luck" for a 2014 show promotion.

Photo: Supplied

Gadsby began writing Nanette in mid-2016. The debate over Australia's same-sex marriage bill at the time unearthed her own internalised homophobia. As she unravelled that in herself, she wondered if she could forge a new connection with an audience by making a show about it. She worried that it would need a trigger warning, but decided that's what the show was partly about: the inability to have these kind of cultural conversations.

Was there also ambition, I ask her, and confidence in the comedy skills she'd honed over a decade that made her take the leap to such a difficult message? "I'm ashamed to admit that it came from somewhere a little bit more bitter," she says. Her career had plateaued, she felt, and as she watched mediocre men climb the entertainment ladder, she got angry: "I do what they do, and probably better, and from a harder point."

She resolved to tear comedy down – she uses a different, bodily term – "and leave".

Besides writing a book based on Nanette, Gadsby doesn't know what she will do next.

She's not eager to get back on stage again. I ask if she is still angry. "Yeah," she says softly. "My life shouldn't have been as hard as it was." But the low self-esteem that plagued her, that she broke down nightly, has been boosted a bit by the glow of Nanette. That's not to say she thinks anyone who's suffered, survived in silence, should go perform what happened to them.

"Part of what undoes shame is to be heard, to be seen," she says. "I did that on a grand scale. I don't want people to look at me and go, 'See, queer people, this is how it's done.' It's like, no, this is how it shouldn't have to be done. But it's important that we start to think about ways that we can hold these stories, or provide a framework for people to not hold all this burden." She mentions Louis C.K. again, and the possibility that he might mount a comeback. "I don't want to stop him," she says. "It's worth just to see, if he does have an audience."

There are 18 seconds left on my interview tape: I don't expect it to take a turn. Gadsby, of course, has other ideas. "If he does have an audience, then I won't be quitting stand-up," Gadsby says, and laughs. "Quote me on that: If Louis C.K. finds his audience, I will definitely not quit stand-up. Because my work here is not done."

"Say that I said it with a cheeky smile," she adds, and leaves the table.

Shortly after this interview, Gadsby announced that her plan to "drop a bomb" on comedy, then quit, had backfired – and that she'd decided to stay on. She told late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon: "I said I was quitting and then if I quit, I'm an idiot now. Like, if the show had gone as badly as I'd planned it would have worked. But now, like, I'm left with a choice: I'll either be an idiot or a hypocrite … I'll be a hypocrite."

This article is an edited version of a story originally published in The New York Times© 2018 The New York Times

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