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Nanette Rewrites the History of Art

In her Netflix special, Hannah Gadsby quits the self-deprecating joke.

Ben King / Netflix

It is rare to see a work of art met with a rapturous reception. Sure, there are always fans, but I’m talking about fanatics. I’m talking about work that makes instant evangelists of those who behold it, that has people rushing to their social channels to urge strangers to watch this now, it changed my life and it will change yours too. When it happens, that kind of swooning tends to pass into legend; we roll our eyes when we hear about people passing out in front of Impressionist nudes at Parisian salons as if they’d never seen cellulite before. But every now and then, a work by a new voice breaks through, and sharing it with others becomes a compulsion, even a kind of moral duty. This is what has happened in recent weeks with Hannah Gadsby’s revelatory hour-long comedy special Nanette, which started airing on Netflix in late June. 

Gadsby is a queer woman from Tasmania; she spent her whole life living slightly adjacent to the mainstream, but never quite veering into it. With Nanette, that is all changing. “I’ve been a professional comic for 30 years,” the comedian Kathy Griffin wrote, “I thought I had seen everything...until I watched Nanette.” Monica Lewinsky called it “one of the most profound + thought provoking experiences of my life.” Television producer Gloria Calderon Kellet said it “is one of the most beautiful & tragic reflections of our world.” The Bob’s Burgers writer Wendy Molyneux wrote “I don’t want to tell you how to live but i gently forcefully suggest you watch the @Hannahgadsby special “Nanette” on @netflix.” The set was supposed to be Gadsby’s comedy swan song—she announces halfway through that she is quitting comedy—but its popularity may be a a sign that the industry is changing, or at least that it is in desperate need of change.

Above all else, Nanette is an interrogation of comedy as an art form, a bracing inquiry into the ways that comedians use the medium to mask personal truths. Early on, Gasby admits that, as a gay woman in comedy, who wears dapper tuxedo jackets and sports a short swoop of brown hair, she spent the first decade of her career making self-deprecating jokes. She cheekily calls this her “lesbian content,” which she says she no longer feels comfortable including in her sets. “I don’t want to do that anymore,” she says, about 17 minutes into rapid-fire punchlines, her tone turning suddenly somber. “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. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore.”

Gadsby opens the show by dismissing its title. “The reason my show is called Nanette is because I named it before I wrote it,” Gadsby says, in her gravelly Tasmanian accent. Gadsby’s delivery, throughout the Netflix special, is both whimsical and droll. She has a habit of delivering her punchlines almost under her breath, with an impish grin. “I named it around the time I’d met a woman named Nanette who I thought was very interesting,” she continues. “So interesting, that I reckon I can squeeze a good hour of laughs out of you, Nanette. But, it turns out...nah.” 

There is a palpable absurdity to this admission, a nonsensical detail plopped into the first 20 seconds of the set, designed to steer the audience off course. She is providing a subtle blueprint for the swerves her set will take moving forward: All of this is my invention, and this may not go where you expect. A good comedian, Gadsby later explains to the crowd, is really a virtuoso of control—they are constantly modulating the tension in a room, calibrating ways to release it in the collective catharsis of a laugh. Comedians are emotional con artists, Gadsby suggests, whispering into the microphone as if bringing the audience into a conspiracy. They are masters of misdirection, usually diverting the attention away from their own vulnerability. Comedy can be a mask and a shield, a hard mollusk shell that hides and protects the comic’s soft center. “A joke is simply two things, a set up and a punchline,” Gadsby explains:

It is essentially a question with a surprise answer. In this context, what a joke is, is a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension. I know that, that’s my job. I make you all feel tense, and I make you laugh, and you are like, thanks for that, I was feeling a bit tense. I made you tense! This is an abusive relationship.

This is the heart of it. Nanette is a show about abuse—about how comedians abuse audiences, how men abuse women, how society abuses the vulnerable people living on its margins. Gadsby says that in becoming a comic, she has been complicit in her own abuse and that of people like her, because she is covering up her stories of trauma with laughs, rather than digging deep into the marrow. “I need to tell my story properly,” she pleads halfway through the set, standing in a solo spotlight. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on.” What makes Nanette so remarkable is that Gadsby never stops being funny, but she starts being brutally honest, and she calls forth a wealth of historical knowledge to support her assertion that the world is set up to protect the cruel. What ensues is less a traditional comedy hour than, as the writer Natalie Walker observed, a “coup de théatre,” which is part art history lecture, part memoir, and part battlecry.  

“I don’t like Picasso, I fucking hate him,” says Gadsby, who holds a degree in Art History and mentions this fact several times as both a joke and a resumé item. “He’s rotten in the face cavity...I hate him and you can’t make me like him.” She is talking about a real-life abusive relationship, one in which a 45-year-old married man started sleeping with a 17 year old girl. In fact, as Gadsby tells us, Picasso’s affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter has become just another part of his oversized mythology as a tortured, insatiable artist. He once said that he wanted to burn all women when he was done with them, destroying them so that he no longer had ties to the past. Gadsby points out the inherent violence in this idea. “Picasso is sold to us as this passionate, virile, tormented genius man ballsack, right?” she says, rattling her fist, “But he did suffer a mental illness….the mental illness of misogyny.”

She contrasts Picasso’s macho image against that of Van Gogh, whom, she says, we idolize for making beautiful work despite his mental torment, when really he was living in hell and couldn’t sell paintings because he couldn’t network. “This whole idea, this romanticizing of mental illness is ridiculous,” she says. “It is not a ticket to genius. It is a ticket to fucking nowhere.” 

The reason Gadsby brings up these looming artistic figures is not because she wants to take easy swipes at the dead. She does it because, as a woman who is very much alive and trying to make art, she says she grew up learning that these men (along with Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski) were the geniuses against whom she should measure herself, and in doing so found almost no room for her own voice. The only way she could be heard was to become the punchline, to hurt herself in public until others listened. In Nanette, she chooses to revise her methodology. No more hiding behind false tension.

Early on, she tells one story of a man who, mistaking her for a “bloke” who was “cracking onto his girlfriend,” threatened to beat her up in the street. The first time Gadsby tells this anecdote, the man recognizes his mistake and slinks away, humiliated by his ignorance. Later on, however, after Gadsby announces her need to tell the true story, her voice goes hushed. She leans into the microphone, her eyes watery. The man did not slouch away from the scene, she says. Instead, he returned, and he beat Gadsby so brutally that she should have gone to the hospital. The only reason she did not, she says, her voice cracking, is “because I thought that was all I was worth. And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give another permission to hate.”  

She lets the silence hang heavy in the room. “This tension is yours,” she tells the audience. She no longer wants to provide soothing relief. Gadsby says that she was molested and raped, because she is “gender not-normal,” and the least she can do is hold space for her own pain without cutting the moment, without covering it up with a one-liner bandaid. She needs her story to be heard, but more importantly to be felt.

At the end of her set, Gadsby returns to Picasso. She says he got away with his affair with Marie-Therese because he claimed that the girl was in her prime. Gadsby’s eyes squint with rage. “A 17 year old girl is just never ever in her prime. Ever. I am in my prime. Would you test your strength out on me?”

Gadsby is right. She is in her prime. In Nanette we witness the shock of the new, a voice that dares to speak to this frustrating and often hideous cultural moment, a comedian willing to drop the act. I would call Gadsby a genius, but she would likely push back against that term. The idea of genius gets us into trouble, she warns; it allows certain people to gain power and wield it over others. Gadsby, I think, would rather just be known as a human, full-hearted and flawed, full of bravery and grace.