“Had I known trauma would be so wildly popular,” says Hannah Gadsby to a roll of educated laughter at Boston’s Shubert Theater on June 19, “I might have budgeted my trauma better.” She knows why we’re here; we know why we’re here. We’re here because of Nanette, the breakout 2018 Netflix special in which Gadsby used her own experience of sexual violence to (in her words) “turn the laugh tap off.” To engineer a confrontation with pain and knowledge that, almost as a side effect, exploded the mechanism of stand-up comedy itself. Tension and release, tension and release—that’s how it works. Inculcate unease, build it, let it swell, then perforate it with a punch line and listen for the yuks.
But Gadsby wouldn’t release us from the tension; she told her story and then insisted that we remain with it, unlaughing. No gags at all, by the end of the night; no absolution. Only a consummate comedian, of course, could have pulled this off. The necessarily apocalyptic premise of Nanette was that it was Gadsby’s last show; having seen the sickness of the gig, she was quitting it. And you came away from Nanette wondering whether any stand-up—by anyone, anywhere—was still possible. In this post-Nanette light, the joke itself, the sturdy old circuit of setup and punch line, anxiety and discharge, suddenly seemed a bit suspect. A bit squalid. Jabbing, ejaculatory, a thing for—yup—men.
So: Now what? Gadsby didn’t quit, obviously. Here she is, onstage, in a blue Calvin Klein suit (“Fuck dieting. Get a tailor!”), a gay woman, with autism, from the island of Tasmania. And here am I, one of 3.7 straight white men in the room, neuro-bloody-typical as far as I know, flicking my male gaze this way and that, with my notepad open and my nib flexed in a cold fury of nitpickery. “To the men in the room, I speak to you now,” she said in Nanette, “particularly the white men, especially the straight white men. Pull your fucking socks up!”
Douglas is the name of the new show, and it’s just as much of a high-wire act, in its way, as Nanette. She named it after her dog, so we get going with some dog-talk. “We had a lot of dogs growing up … because we lived on a busy road.” Bam! A joke! Then we’re talking about L.A., where Gadsby now lives—entertainment L.A., industry L.A., the L.A. of groomers and stylists. “A woman comes in with a huge rack … of clothes.” Bam! Another joke! This one, however, Gadsby instantly deconstructs: “It’s a single entendre!” She’s very good at jokes. She’s very good at being rude. Somewhere inside her, in fact, is a swaggeringly profane old-school Australian barroom bloke; she lets him out periodically and to great effect.
Dogs, L.A., life post-Nanette, the different meanings of the word “fanny”… loads of laughs. On golf: “What a waste of space and time. Men who play golf and have families are cunts.” Gadsby is having a conspicuously great time. Her fantastic short-back-and-sides, long-on-top haircut, which she mashes and plumes with her hand as she proceeds, is one of her physical props. Her glasses are another, pushed back up the bridge of her nose as a kind of nerd punctuation, a visual stammer. Her eyes, behind their big frames, pop with alarm or zero in.
Douglas moves easily, almost meanderingly—this, at least, is the sensation. But as Gadsby develops her digressions, and bores laserlike along her tangents, a large and extraordinarily intricate design begins to reveal itself. Throwaway lines recur, become motifs. Other lines are instant proverbs. “Closed minds can’t be opened from the outside.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She subjects that old saw to her interstellar scrutiny. The eye? Just one eye? Whose is it? And abruptly she’s become a hunched Cyclopean man, peering at the world, turning his head, taking monocular snapshots and snarling, “Beauty! … Beauty!” The taxonomy of beauty, she tells us, “is a Trojan horse for ugly ideas.”
Gadsby doesn’t like small talk. She likes rules, especially ones she’s made up herself. A doctor recommends the pill. She doesn’t like the pill. “The pill gives me suicidal ideation.” (An eager stillness in the audience: We sniff more trauma. “There it is,” she says. “You thought I forgot why you came here.”) She argues with the doctor; he accuses her of being “hormonal.” “A woman is ‘hormonal’ every time she does something a man fails to predict … As if men have emotional neutrality while women are this clusterfuck of internalized chaos.”
Douglas is about the artificiality of categories, particularly the categories invented by men for women, and about fitting in, and not fitting in, and finding out who you are. Did I just write that sentence? Apparently I did. These are some rhetorically flaccid zones; total humorlessness beckons; you have to be Hannah Gadsby to make it through with your jokes intact. So there’s her craft, her expertise—but there’s also the existential edge she gives to it all, the privileged sense of sharing a reality, if only temporarily, with this juttingly strange and world-renewing person.
“The expectations that we place on humans are inhumane.” She talks about her autism diagnosis: “Autism is something that happens around other people. We’re fine on our own. You need to understand that. We’re fuckin’ fine on our own.” I begin to think about another defiant and transcendent misfit, another rumpled, on-the-spectrum, linguistically supercharged Australian: the poet Les Murray, who died this past April. “The coin took years to drop,” wrote Murray of his own diagnosis of Asperger’s, in a poem called “The Tune on Your Mind.” “Lectures instead of chat. The want / of people skills. The need for Rules. / Never towing a line from the Ship of Fools.” Good nautical pun there: toeing the line / towing the line. Nonconformist wordplay, with feeling. That’s Douglas.