For a lot of us who’ve attempted stand up comedy, there’s a sort of an urgency to hear laughter when you’re up on stage. We’ll do anything for it. We’ll pander, make jokes about ourselves, make jokes about our inability to make decent jokes about ourselves. What we long for at the end of our set is a physical reaction to a joke. Laughter. Lots of it. Nuance, honing our craft, slowly raising the bar of our material are all secondary to our first demand – laughter. They have to laugh. They’ve paid for a reason and there can be no two ways about it.
Over time, the way I’ve learnt to appreciate stand up has changed. I’ve grown to love and understand comics who’ve gotten people to laugh at their pain, or the darkest parts of their life. I’ve adored how Norm Macdonald disregards any form of pandering to his audience whether that means entire minutes of silence or ending in a lull. I’ve treasured Marc Maron’s ‘Too real’, which I found incredibly intimate and introspective. I loved Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, where you could see how much pain went into writing that special, post his wife passing away. I’ve been awestricken consecutively by Ali Wong through both Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife where she channels her indignation and anger into two perfect hours of stand up.
Cut to yesterday, where I finished Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in basically a crumpled heap of emotions. Her special breaks every single rule of stand up I could think of, but I think Nanette’s crowning achievement is that you’re not meant to laugh through it, except where and when Hannah allows you to. It’s a masterpiece of craft and technique, and it’s impossible to last through it as a straight, male person without feeling a huge sense of guilt how at much privilege we enjoy simply by virtue of our gender and our position in society.
Gadsby confronts her early career that catapulted her to stardom pretty early in her set. She acknowledges how she’s built a career out of self deprecation. She mentions what it was like to grow up as someone who’s gay. She breaks down why we laugh and how comedy works as a unique relationship between creating tension and diffusing it. She explains how her gay identity has been a point of tension her entire life, so diffusing it came naturally to her. The initial moments in her set are light, they show no indication of how painfully real the rest of the hour is going to go. Gadsby reaches a point where she confronts how she’s constantly belittled and put herself through humiliation on stage to make other people laugh, and she doesn’t wish to do it anymore.
I think this point is very important to me, because I see the person behind the act renouncing everything they have done in their career to finally present themselves in a light that they want to be seen in. It’s the recognition that success doesn’t matter if you can’t work on stage on your own terms.
From this point on, Gadsby covers you with the tension which primarily forms the base of every set-up in comedy. She builds on it with every topic she covers. Whether that’s the entitlement of white, male artists (She uses Picasso to build a fantastic case), whether it’s how male comedians have built careers by victim blaming (by talking about Monica Lewinsky) or how she’s paid the price for other people’s homophobia for most of her life. By the end of her set, she declares that she’s angry, and that she realises it’s fine for her to be angry, but she can’t continue to work in comedy anymore, because comedy is a medium where anger is diffused. At this point the crowd (and I assure you, you will consider yourself a part of them) is silent. You want to be relieved. You want her to make you laugh, to say that it was all an act and that you’re allowed to laugh. But it doesn’t come. This is Gadsby at the height of her control, because she refuses to utter the punchline that allows you to walk home in peace. She doesn’t bend. She walks off stage.
“I am not helping you anymore, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all the time, because it is dangerous to be different.”
Every male comic I know (myself included) has at some point given a permutation of advice to a female comic to the tune of – Why are you so angry? Why does it bother you so much? Why can’t you talk about things that aren’t feminist? We do this because as straight, mostly upper caste male comics, we have no visible problems we can talk about at a personal level. It’s easy for us to be woke and cool, because we don’t have any pressure in our day to day lives of living in fear for who we are. Gadsby’s special changes the very meaning of comedy to me because my eventual goal as a comedian cannot be to merely go up on stage and just make people laugh. It could start that way but it has to eventually be deeper . Comedy must question, it must make people think. More than anything else, if your obvious choice to make fun of someone or something are the threatened, you’re doing this wrong. As she says – Pull your fucking socks up!
Hannah Gadsby is testament that the cost of some of the worlds most memorable punchlines is often an entire life of pain. When a comedian grants us this privilege of a punchline they allow us to share their pain. With Hannah’s absolute refusal to let her audience share her pain, I’m convinced in her case, we don’t deserve to laugh at her genius. I hope she deigns us fit to some day.
I urge you to watch her special. It will question why you laugh at things, it will question what you laugh at and more than anything else, it will leave you with a gigantic question mark about everything you have ever made fun of in the past. It’s a work of art that won’t be replicated for a very long time.