On Saturday night I went to see my favourite comedian, Hannah Gadsby, at the Sydney Opera House. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to her last performance of ‘Nanette’; a show which coincided with her announcement of impending retirement from comedy.
I have been to many of Hannah’s live shows, but I have to say Nanette was rather a departure from her usual form. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I think it is a show anyone familiar with her work should see (the performance I attended was filmed for Netflix).
Saturday night was in turns hilarious and devastating, made me rock with laughter and sit frozen in my seat. Hannah is angry, really angry. And she has been for years. It is the first time, however, that she has let her anger filter into, even dictate, her performance, and the result was raw, heart-felt and moving.
Her anger is sharp and directed; at a society which values reputation over empathy and human emotion, at a culture which validates the objectification of women and the vulnerable, and at the casual homophobia, ingrained since childhood, which fed feelings of shame and inadequacy at the realisation she was gay.
At its best, comedy is both an art form and vehicle for social critique. Witty and sardonic, comedians use humour to draw our attention to social norms, tereotypes and expectations which would normally go unconsidered and unchallenged, and in doing so force us to reflect on our individual positions and beliefs. Hannah’s comedy has always done this; self-deprecating huomour has allowed her to engage with LGBTQI and gendered themes in a very open and non-confrontational way; she laughs at herself, and invites us to laugh along with her.
As pointed out in Nanette, however, self-deprecating humour comes at a cost. For those not in the privileged position of being white, heterosexual males, repetitive self-deprecation is usually incredibly unhealthy for the person practising it. Hannah highlighted this when she spoke of constructing one-dimensional narratives around the important events in her life (like ‘coming-out’ to family members) to make them more palatable and humorous for her audiences. With enough repetition, these constructed narratives over-write actual memories, to the point where nuance and emotion are lost, and all that is remembered is the sanitised version made for the stage.
Reflecting on Hannah’s performance of Nanette on Saturday night, I realised that despite my (natural) devastation at losing her from the Australian and international comedy circuit, I am also pleased for her, one human to another. She is right: self-deprecation is unhealthy, and making people laugh shouldn’t come at the expense of one’s sense of self.
I only hope that she remains within the public sphere, fighting to influence our collective conscience. Comedy or no, we need to hear what Hannah has to say; she will keep us grounded, and impress upon us the power and value of letting our humanity dictate our actions.
Keep an eye out for Nanette on Netflix, a release date will be coming soon.