As a genre, comedy is accustomed to meltdowns, to public cries for help. But Nanette is different. What’s made the special such a striking word-of-mouth hit for Netflix (if you’re reading this, you’ve likely either watched it or been told by someone that you have to) is how precise, how surgical Gadsby is as she skewers comedy’s structural inability to make things better. Comedians like her, she explains, take their trauma and feed it into humor. But in doing so, they crystallize their lives within that moment of tension, that particular punchline, rather than allowing themselves to reach an endpoint of (unfunny) catharsis. “You learn from the part of the story you focus on,” she says. “I need to tell my story properly.”
Until now, Gadsby has been relatively unsung outside of Australia, where she won a national comedy contest in 2006 and has combined tours and TV work ever since. But Nanette, which has won multiple festival awards since it debuted last year, is arriving into a culture that’s more receptive to learning from stories about misogyny and abuse than it might have been a few years ago. What makes it so powerful, though, is that Gadsby barely alludes to topical events at all. The stories she tells, the instincts and hatred she unravels, predate them by so many years they’re impossible to count. In the second half of Nanette, Gadsby utilizes her self-mocked degree in art history to analyze how centuries of Western art have conceptualized women as objects.
The grist for her show, though, is her art. Here, it melds stand-up and storytelling in a way that makes Nanette one of the most extraordinary comedy specials in recent memory. Gadsby flips between moods and modes again and again, lining up jokes and then pushing them beyond the point of comfort. “I love Tasmania,” she says, “but I had to leave as soon as I found out I was a little bit lesbian.” Her vernacular is comical, as is her delivery. Then she explains that homosexuality was a crime in Tasmania till 1997, and the tenor shifts. A story about the “feedback” she gets from her lesbian fans turns into an recounting of the unsolicited “advice” she gets from men on the street, which is profoundly ugly and brutal in tone. No joke is allowed to simply land.
Toward the end of her act, Gadsby takes an anecdote from earlier on and reveals that she lied about it. Comedy is about balancing humor with the tension in the room, she says, and “in order to balance the tension in the room with that story, I couldn’t tell the story as it actually happened.” Because what happened isn’t just unfunny, it’s horrific and painful just to hear about, let alone to experience. “This tension,” Gadsby concludes, “it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore.” It’s a confrontation with the audience that asks a question: What is comedy for? Watching Nanette, I kept thinking about Trevor Griffiths’s 43-year-old play Comedians, in which an elderly stand-up, Eddie, tries to teach budding comics to aspire to more than racist, sexist humor. A true joke, Eddie explains, “ a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.”