Unfunny Brilliance in Standup Comedy: Part 3, Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 standup special, Nanette, contains a brilliant trick that has nothing to do with the special’s title, which is merely the name of a love interest who did not work out.The trick is that Gadsby begins with a traditional standup routine then uses the occasion to tear down the very basis of standup and declare herself done with comedy in general.

Call this the meta/philosophical/conceptual side of performance, more akin to, say, John Barth’s self-referential fictions in Lost in the Funhouse, or Magritte’s declaration of no-pipe, than to standup’s roots in vaudeville entertainment.

Nanette is 69 minutes long, and if you found yourself growing uncomfortable after about the 40-minute mark—especially if you are a straight, white male—then Gadsby would say she has done her job. (After the tremendous success ofNanette, Gadsby says she is “rethinking” leaving comedy.)

Standup comedy’s goals to tell funny jokes and unite the audience in laughter are corrupt, Gadsby says, in part because she believes laughter (and anger) do not actually unify. (She does not say the word “mob” but implies it.) She says jokes consist of only two parts, a setup and a punch line, which do not permit the complexity that a “story” has, in the Aristotelian tradition, with its “beginning, middle, and end.” She says we learn from the parts of stories we focus on, and since jokes focus on punch lines (in fact depend on “trauma” for their punch lines), we do not have to deal with their consequences. She says she herself has been stuck in “perpetual adolescence” by turning painful aspects of her life into jokes she has repeated many times.

What is at stake here, Gadsby says, is something bigger than standup or her experience as a lesbian: “This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things.”

She denounces those “who shape our stories” for cynical purposes—she mentions Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and especially Pablo Picasso—and asks if it matters that those men did bad things while being celebrated for certain accomplishments. Yes, it matters, she concludes instantly. We need a more complete picture, she says, which must include the humanity of all people.

Then—spoiler alert—she returns to a joke she told early in the special, as a way of illustrating the difference between joke and story. The joke was about a guy at a bus stop mistaking her for a man and getting angry when Gadsby hit on his girlfriend. In her first telling, he realizes Gadsby is a woman and says, “Sorry, I got confused. I thought you were a fuckin’ faggot tryin’ to crack on to my girlfriend.” Gadsby plays the levels of confusion, including her own, for laughs.

But in the second telling of the same event, Gadsby reveals he actually “beat the shit out of [her]” for being a “lady faggot,” having given himself license to commit violence because of who she was. She shouts and tears up at this expanded story; her voice quavers; she becomes wild-eyed and shakes. She reveals she was sexually abused as a child and raped by two men when she was in her twenties.

Her performance is based in that old idea about the difference between comedy and tragedy: Only by incomplete understanding can we laugh at another’s trauma. Understanding of pain is tragic.

Gadsby uses this to great affect. By the time she says that men who do not understand that women are afraid around men have not been listening, anyone must admit she is right. I have never known a woman well who has not admitted to some violence or harassment by men and who does not continue to be afraid. Yet the systems of the world run as if this were not known.

So Gadsby privileges stories over jokes and says, “I need to tell my story properly,” because it has value and she wants it heard as she intends. Stories hold the cure for us all, she says, through true connection with others.

But in this hour of probing at narratives, Gadsby touches on several problems she never deals with. The first might be that the best stories are often not didactic or even obviously useful. Narrative art is often more like that anecdote about a pianist who finishes playing a concerto; her adoring fans rush to say, “Maestro, that was so beautiful! Tell us what it means!” The pianist spins on her stool and begins to play it again.

Gadsby also says Picasso’s Cubist experiment was meant to explode perspective, get in all the perspectives, and that this was a worthy goal but that his work did not succeed. She lumps his work in with art by most men who, she says, see women as “flesh vases for dick flowers.”

“I believe we could paint a better world, if we learned how to see it from all perspectives, as many perspectives as we possibly could,” she says. But, she admits, “Ignorance will always walk amongst us, because we will never know all of the things.”

The impossibility of knowing all the things admits to incomplete understanding, and around we go. In fact, Gadsby sometimes perpetuates this in her act, by mocking other lesbians’ views when they give her “feedback” on her act or criticizing her mother, who has tried to make a difficult apology. Nanette, whoever she was, is now famous by name but never gets a single perspective of her own. Surely all comedy, which loves to sniff out ironies, is not useless now.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.