Hannah Gadsby Decided to Quit Comedy, and Then Her Career Blew Up

Photo: Netflix

A year and a half ago, Hannah Gadsby started work on a show that she thought would “seal me off into the margins both as a human and as a performer.” In the show, titled Nanette, she announces she is quitting comedy, rails against the structures of the genre, and unravels stories about her life that involve sexual violence and homophobia — the kind she endured for years growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997. Given that anger, and that specificity, Gadsby never thought the show would become popular, and yet it has, taking her from Australia and the U.K., where she already has more of a following, to New York, where Gadsby will continue to perform at the SoHo Playhouse until June 30, and to Netflix, which releases a taped version of her special today. “So instead of confirming my isolation, it’s like, what’s that thing? With a debutante?” Gadsby muses over tea in New York. A coming-out party? “It wasn’t supposed to happen. I didn’t dress up!”

Those who know Gadsby from her work in the Australian comedy scene, or her appearances on the Australian comedy Please Like Me, might recognize the genial, witty, self-deprecating patter that begins Nanette. The title, she explains, comes from a woman she thought would be interesting enough to build an hour of comedy around, until she realized that woman was terribly boring. She’s at odds with a few lesbian fans, who humorlessly give her “feedback” about her lack of lesbian content. But soon, Gadsby peels the skin back on those kinds of jokes, revealing their gory interior. She talks about how the need to self-deprecate leaves scars upon people at the margins, how condensing a painful story into a set-up and punch line can stop you from metabolizing trauma, and how the excuse of artistic genius allows men to get away with abuse. At times, she abandons jokes, then unleashes fury.

Nanette is prickly, uncomfortable material, and yet Gadsby has found an audience that relates to “the queer narrative, the gender not-normal narrative, the woman narrative, the isolated small-town narrative.” During our interview, a barista recognizes her, gushes over Please Like Me, and offers to send her coffee for her show. “The only people I don’t reach on a very personal level are straight white men,” Gadsby says. “They don’t really need another entertainer dedicated for them exclusively, so they’re fine.”

It must be disorienting. You start the show talking about quitting comedy, and yet it is the show that blows up.
There’s several lives that the quitting [part of the set] has had. First it was in the writing process. I was trying to work out ultimately whether some of my stories could be told onstage and made funny. I concluded early in the writing process that they could not be made funny, if told properly, so I decided to then tell them properly and see what that does to a comedy show. I think we found out: It breaks comedy.

I had in the back of my mind that condescending thing a lot of female performers get, which is a “one-woman show.” Blokes always get “stand-up.” It doesn’t matter what blokes do, but as soon as a woman breaks genre, it becomes a monologue. I make it about deconstructing comedy and quitting it, so it can’t be a monologue. I’m talking about comedy. And I’ve got a stool with water on it. That’s comedy!

The special’s quite funny now, but at the start, at the beginning of last year, it was more furious: “Well, I’m quitting!” It’s like throwing a grenade, so it became that. Whenever I really sold it, it went better than if it was just a throwaway line. So I completely sold it, and I sold it to myself. Over the course of my first three weeks of performing it, I really liked the idea of quitting. It felt really freeing.

You can say “I’m fully free of restraints, because this is it.”
Yeah, I made the decision that I was gonna be happy to get a job in my brother’s fruit and vegetable shop, and I could live with that. I honestly didn’t think this show would do so well. I knew it was gonna be great, for me, but I did not expect it to be received as it was.

Were the first audience reactions surprising to you?
In the first runs of it I really put the audience in shock. I take much better care of the audience these days. But really, I was just going, throwing grenades into the audience, and they were stunned and they’d leave. I used to get heckled — really, really horrific heckles, from obviously all men who would just get defensive, angry, whatever, really challenge me. Which really helped reform the show until it was airtight.

The quitting itself went from subversion to tongue-in-cheek to really meaning it to … I can’t mean it. In Australia and the U.K. markets where I already have an existing profile and fan base, it meant a lot more to just really say it and mean it. Whereas here, it seems like no one knows or gives a shit. So it was more of a playful attitude in it.

In the set, you talk about moving away from the structure of set-up and punch line to a three-part structure of a story. Is it hard to work in that format where you don’t immediately relax the audience with a joke?
What’s interesting about this is that my prior one-hour efforts have all been more storytelling, whereas this is fairly joke-heavy. But what’s hardest for me is not breaking the tension. That is my instinct — to just do throwaway punch lines, and it actually feels really counterintuitive up there when I’m just holding people in silence. That was one of the harder things for me to do, as a performer.

The stories you’re telling are about homophobia, assault, and other traumatic experiences. You discuss how it’s damaging to compartmentalize that kind of trauma and turn it into jokes, but I imagine it’s also very hard to go back into that history in full.
I am basically reliving trauma, quite significant trauma, every night. I’ve had psychiatrists and psychologists reach out to me over the course of the 18 months I’ve been touring, saying “Nobody’s done this, we don’t know what you’re possibly doing to yourself.” It’s like an extreme form of CBT, or neurobiological rewiring, or something like that. It’s never easy to perform. It has not gotten easier on the stage. I’ve really upset audiences, and I can feel that. That affects me in turn. I believe that’s just called empathy.

But it has, over the course, gotten easier for me to leave it there. In the first 12 months, I was going home and, you know, rocking myself to sleep. I felt very vulnerable, I felt very unsafe. It felt like a risk every time I stood onstage. That part has gotten easier, and that comes from, just basically, audiences caring. I have had a less and less hostile audience.

I feel like I suddenly connected to the world, and I didn’t understand just how disconnected and isolated I was. The show hints at that — finding myself more and more connected to so many different people and their stories, or who have connected to mine. It’s made me realize just how isolated I felt.

Towards the end of Nanette, after detailing this traumatic experience, you say something that’s essentially “That’s my story, now I’ve shared it with you, and you all have to sit in it.” How did you arrive at that idea?
The end of the show has evolved constantly. The Netflix special is different to the one that I have here. It gets to a certain point in the show and I’m hitting a stride, and I don’t necessarily know what I’ll say. There’s a line in the show where mum says “I’ve raised five kids to be adults with minds of their own” — so that’s what I’m going for with the audience. I just want you to be individuals with minds of your own.

My peers are quite lewd. Comedians I’ve loved and respect and whatnot, do sexual assault [material] too. And … just here, what is this laugh? And I’m just like — I just don’t think [the people in the audience] know that they’re laughing. I just don’t think they’re thinking.

Because the comedians are delivering lines shaped liked jokes?
It’s got the right rhythm. Also, laughter’s infectious. I myself have been there in the audience. At one of Jim Jefferies’s shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s just hating lesbians — just really, really hating. I’m sitting there, I just felt so unsafe. But I found myself laughing because I was scared. So I wanted to re-create that for straight white men in the crowds.

When you talk about Monica Lewinsky, you say that if comedians had done their job she wouldn’t have been the punch line, Clinton would have. Do you see a responsibility for comedians to figure out who the most deserving target is for a joke ?
The most deserving people are the powerful, and they’re all straight white men. The laughter can really drop out of the room sometimes when I’m doing that set around straight white men.
When I’m doing jokes that I do at the start of the show about lesbians, everyone laughs. It’s fine, it’s fun. I do exactly the same to men, and it’s not. That’s less to do with the men, but also the cultural practice. They’re not used to it.

That’s the way comedy is. Comedy is a man’s art form. It pretty much came from a time, post–World War II really — the 1950s are not really known for the subtle expressions of feminine life. There’s a lot of dick-swinging going on in that time, sort of like destroying modernism and bringing in postmodernism. Stand-up comedy’s come out of that era. It’s born from stand-ups doing jokes between burlesque shows. Then roasts, you know, which are basically misogyny and homophobia all wrapped up in “yo mama” jokes. The whole art form is centered around jerking off, so it’s no surprise that the endgame is Louis C.K.

A joke is a wank. Set-up … [does a jerk-off motion] punch line. Then you’ve got what I’m trying, storytelling. If the only reason to be on stage communicating with people is to tell them a joke and make them laugh, that seems thin for me. That has a place — I don’t think it should stop happening — but for me, I don’t know. I just don’t.

You talk about how for people who aren’t straight white men, people expect a lot of deprecation, joking about yourself, to make everyone comfortable with your presence and difference.
My whole stand-up career, I’ve been explaining myself. I have to justify my weight, I have to justify my gender, I have to justify my incorrect gender expression, I have to justify my sexuality, and I have to justify my small inbred convict colony island, which is all fine. But when you just use jokes, you’ve gotta do so much work to just get to the start. That was getting really infuriating for me, because I have lots of thoughts.

It’s as if you’re trained to accommodate everyone else.
I think that’s the queer experience, to be honest. Self-deprecation runs right through queer culture. It was seen as a badge of honor. I started to feel like perhaps it was destructive as well. There’s a lot of internalized homophobia, particularly from gays from regional isolated places. It’s that double life, that fear of being found out. I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t think just saying you’re proud undoes the shame. It’s a really complicated and destructive thing that a lot of gay people still are undoing.

You’ll have a few performance dates after Nanette comes out on Netflix. What will come after that?
I’ve only got a few more shows after Netflix comes out. I’m looking forward to not doing anything more. It feels good to have it sealed off in a, you know, a time capsule. Because it is a constantly evolving show.

It’s taken its toll. I don’t recognize my life anymore — in both good and bad ways. I’m a different person. I feel differently in the world. I think it’s gonna take a very long time for me to understand what I’ve done, but I have to stop doing the show in order to understand that. I mean that both from a career, and also in my psychological, um, journey.

The stories about Harvey Weinstein and other men came out as you were performing Nanette
I wrote this show before #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein. That’s less to do with me being any kind of … It’s because I’m living in the real world as an artist. Not so much in the future.

I wrote something because I suddenly felt the world was unsafe again for me with the gay marriage debate in Australia, with the election, both in Australia and in the U.S. I felt like hatred was coming at me in a way that I hadn’t felt in about ten years. I felt that, as just a little guy. That’s what I was responding to. That sudden feeling of “I don’t feel so safe” when Donald Trump was elected. I thought, “I’m gonna have to learn how to shoot a gun for the apocalypse.”

Are you nervous about the show going online? If you’re in the room you can manage the reaction and energy, but when it’s outside of you, that’s different.
I had to let it go. Anger and hatred are gonna come my way. That’s fine, I think, having had the 18 months of live performance to sort of give me that buffer of I don’t have to take that onboard. I know what the show is. It’s bigger than me. It’s taken on a life of its own. I know that I’ve done something really constructive with it, which is not something I think is so easily known when you’re an artist of any description. I feel very privileged to be able to say, writing a purely selfish show, I’ve accidentally really done something really constructive.

It’s interesting you say constructive, because the show positions itself as so destructive – you say you’re quitting and anti-comedy and breaking apart this thing. But it feels like it arrives at a synthesis of some sort at the end. Does it feel like you found a new path?
I’m also writing a book at the moment. I think this is as much about me drawing a line under quite a traumatic start to life. I feel like that’s it on a personal level. I’m not sure what it means, career-wise, but the shadow of my childhood is really long. I think what this show has done has meant I’ve reached the limit of it.

That’s both frightening and wonderful. But that’s life. One thing I have experienced a great deal of during this tour is grief — sometimes on stage, sometimes after. And I think it’s because I’ve lived life in such isolation, and at times devastating isolation, I don’t have nostalgia. I do within my family, when I was very young, but then there’s just 20 years of darkness and disconnect. If you hear people say “when I was young and silly” it’s just like … [groans] “When I was invisible and dying!”When I was homeless,” ha!

Part of this [experience of doing the show] has been grief about that — understanding the damage that was done, and it wasn’t right, and there’s not much you can do about it. I don’t feel the weight of that. I feel sadness and grief, but it doesn’t define me.

Hannah Gadsby Decided to Quit, and Then Her Career Blew Up