Hannah Gadsby Just Killed Comedy As We Know It

First she shows how her jokes work. Then you're left appalled at why you laughed in the first place.

Hannah Gadsby thought she was saying goodbye to comedy. She may have changed it for good.

The false agreement that we make as comedians and performers and the audience makes with us that even if we get real, all of this is fake and everything is going to be okay.
— El Sanchez

My fury creeps up on people.
— Hannah Gadsby

I’d never seen a person quit a job right in front of me. Then I watched comic Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant show Nanette, which Netflix bills as a comedy special.

Which it is, then it isn’t.

Although I have criticized Netflix for its squishy inclusion policies, there is no question that it is creating a space for comedians and content that would never, ever, ever survive in Ye Olden Days of the Three Networks. In that era, ABC gave us Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous sitcom. Shortly after she came out on the show and for real, ABC cancelled it. As she mentions on another Netflix comedy show, Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, DeGeneres didn’t work for three years after that. Today, DeGeneres not only has her own talk show, she’s become her own brand: “Ellen.” On paper, too, she’s recovered: she’s rich and happily married. In the interview, though? She still seems stunned at the bigotry that temporarily destroyed her career.

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DeGeneres is 60. The openly lesbian, self-described “gender not-normal” Gadsby is 40, hailing from a tiny, bigoted town in Tasmania, Australia. When she was growing up, 70% of her fellow Tasmanians thought homosexuality was a crime, which it was until 1997. When she began her career, Bill Cosby was her favorite comedian. Gadsby dryly points out it’s important to reassess things when you’re an adult. And that includes the coming out story that was her bread and butter on the comedy circuit.

Gadsby’s show begins with several very funny bits about being a quiet-loving tea-drinking lesbian in a 24-hour Mardi Gras world, then moves on to discussing how being gender non-conforming gives her exhilarating seconds of straight male privilege, before somehow wandering into a delirious art history lecture about Van Gogh, psychiatry and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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But the wandering is a trick. The well-crafted jokes Gadsby tells in the first part of her act become wrenching stories at the end, yet not before she’s taught us how she builds tension and releases it in her comedy. “Punchlines need trauma,” Gadsby says. Sadly. She is done telling the edited version of her life that makes us laugh that, as a marginalized person, also humiliates her. If those must be the rules of the game, she won’t play the game anymore.

Gadsby isn’t the first comic I’ve seen deconstruct a joke; I’ve watched Steven Wright and Andy Kaufman and even pre-Fox News Dennis Miller do it. But Gadsby is the first comic who’s shown me how her jokes work and then left me appalled at why I laughed in the first place, yet riveted to my seat. Gadsby quits her job, many minutes before the show is over. Yet no one boos or walks out of the packed Sydney Opera House where she is performing. I think she makes her audience root for her, even as she is telling us goodbye. 

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I wish I could put Gadsby in the seat beside Seinfeld in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, because I think the model of comedy embodied by Seinfeld was detonated. He proudly disdains issue-oriented comedy, and that disdain has been part of his brand from the start. He’s the master of the micro-annoyance — big on detail, far from feeling. Seinfeld’s interviews with other comics often function as fabulous workshops for comedy skills, but he flails embarrassingly when things get too personal or political. Despite being fellow comedy nerds, Gadsby and Seinfeld would be oil and water, which would make for great TV. Gadsby doesn’t need Seinfeld, though. She may or may not go back to “comedy,” but she is done trying to make herself small for the sake of laughs.

This season’s interview with DeGeneres is a must-watch for the awkward way that Seinfeld handles her emotions, especially when she discusses the death of her girlfriend in a car accident or what looked like the end of her career. DeGeneres gently challenges Seinfeld to think about what’s going on in the world, and Seinfeld basically responds with “Nope.”

DeGeneres hides Seinfeld’s car keys after they have their coffee. They are stuck in a parking lot with the cameras running. Finally she gives them back, but not before Seinfeld has, very briefly, lost control of his own show. Is this a small act of revenge for Seinfeld’s callousness? Or just a little of her impish subversion? Whatever it is, it’s uncomfortable and it’s real. I think Gadsby might enjoy it.