stand up comedy

Bill Maher Is Stand-up Comedy’s Past. Hannah Gadsby Represents Its Future.

Photo: Maya Robinson/Vulture

Last weekend, as Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix phenomenon Nanette continued to rack up impassioned reviews and think pieces, Bill Maher aired a new HBO special, Live From Oklahoma. If you watch them back-to-back, they seem to be in conversation, or debate. They have core subjects in common, including the cultural and political status of the cisgender straight man in the era of Donald Trump and #MeToo. But just as importantly, they represent comedy’s past and its future. Maher is the past. Gadsby is the future.

If you look at what both performers have served up as examples of their personal best, it’s hard not to be embarrassed for Maher, as well as anyone else in comedy who feels more kinship with him than with somebody like Gadsby. The Tasmanian comic’s Nanette, which shifts from a typical, joke-driven stand-up special into an explanation of why she’s quitting comedy, delves into her personal biography as a lesbian woman struggling to express her authentic self, and as a student of visual art history who scrutinized Western art painted mainly by straight white men that she unquestioningly accepted as masters because of their “reputation.” It’s a sensational special that veers from breezy slightness to unsettling depths before settling on a benevolent but challenging tone, in the vein of a teacher who entertains in order to teach but also teaches because she’s an entertainer. Gadsby discusses everything from Tasmania’s history of criminalizing homosexuality to her own coming out, her ingrained tendency to be self-deprecating (“It’s not humility, it’s humiliation”), and her suppression of her personality to please both the dominant, straight male–driven culture, and lesbians whose political identities are based around being demonstrative and emotionally transparent (“Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?”).

Nanette is also a deconstruction of stand-up specials, as well as several generations’ worth of straight male–crafted opinions on what “good comedy” is and what “great art” is. Gadsby poses a question which, if answered affirmatively, would validate her stated wish to quit doing stand-up: What if “funny” is the enemy of “honest,” or at least at cross-purposes with it? There’s plenty of funny surrounding the comparatively brief sections where she talks about being beaten up on the street by a homophobic man at age 17, and raped after that, and Gadsby constantly introduces and then releases tension throughout, usually by way of jokes. The result is a stand-up special about the distortions that seem built into the very idea of stand-up. What she’s doing here is not unprecedented — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and other masters went dark, raw, abstract, and “unfunny” all the time; a generation of “alternative” comics like Janeane Garofalo pushed the boundaries of hyperpersonal storytelling in the ’90s; Patton Oswalt devoted about 40 percent of his latest stand-up special to stark material about his wife’s Michelle McNamara’s death; and just last month, Cameron Esposito recounted her own sexual assault in the hour-long special Rape Jokes — but Nanette is the highest-profile recent example of a woman veering between funny and raw and still having her venue present the result as, basically, “stand-up comedy” and put it on the Netflix menu along with Jerry Seinfeld. It’s more common to see this kind of project branded as a piece of theater in the vein of solo pieces by Lily Tomlin, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, and Anna Deavere Smith — people who would be the first to tell you that they tell stories, not just jokes. In Gadsby’s own words, “My show is not stand-up comedy because I got jack of an art form designed by men for men. Female artists often defy genre.”

One way Gadsby does that is by making comedy itself one of her main topics. Among other things, she argues that “jokes” are less useful for describing the totality of the human condition than “stories.” Jokes, she says, are incomplete thoughts expressed in two stages, the setup and punch line (or “a question” and “a surprise answer”). This structure ensures that jokes as a method of communication are always on some level “incomplete,” which means that by definition they can’t really challenge or change anything, and are therefore more conservative than progressive — reinforcing what we already believe rather than entertaining new information or unfamiliar philosophies.

Stories, on the other hand, have additional stages, or beats, plus layers, ellipses, and more. The good ones open up intellectual and emotional responses rather than trying to manage them or shoo them away. Of course all stand-ups tell stories, some of them quite long, and some end with a punch line — like the best bits in Dave Chappelle’s otherwise lumpy specials from earlier in the year — while others don’t. But I think what Gadsby is getting at here is an overall allegiance to the idea of the joke, the setup, the punch line; a traditional stand-up ideology, as it were, that prizes familiar and reassuring rhythms that she’s not loyal to anymore.

She wonders if participating in stand-up comedy as it’s usually defined (by men) is just enshrining negative emotions and reactionary thoughts. Here, again, she’s not so much rejecting an element in the basic toolkit — all stories employ tension to keep us excited or interested — as highlighting how it’s used to propagate ideas that don’t do people like her any favors. “Taking a joke,” from her perspective, is a nonphysical equivalent of taking a punch. The object of the joke is proving that she can withstand pain by laughing. This in turn reassures the joke-teller that it’s okay to say something that’s wounding, that punches down, that reminds particular groups of what society has decided is “their place.” This is how ideology reproduces itself.

To illustrate this idea, Gadsby tells a joke that both she and the audience agree is amusing: “What sort of comedian can’t even make the lesbians laugh? Every comedian ever.” When the room dies down, Gadsby describes that joke as “bulletproof” because it’s constructed in such a way that its target audience — lesbians — are all but required to laugh at it, in order to prove they aren’t humorless. Of course, that’s the entire point of telling that sort of joke: to get everyone to laugh together at the fact that lesbians are sourpusses who can’t take a joke. “We’ve got to laugh because if we don’t laugh, it proves the point,” she says.

We did laugh, though; Gadsby encouraged us and gave us permission. But thanks to her follow-up, which takes the joke apart like a sculptor dissembling an armature, we also understand the hidden intent of its construction. Which means next time, the laughter sticks in the throat. Or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Gadsby got a laugh out of us, while also making us wonder why we laughed, and what larger social-conditioning role our laughter plays.

That’s a specific kind of magic trick. Gadsby does variations of that trick throughout Nanette, always pulling us along to the next joke, the next deconstruction of a joke, the next touching or wrenching personal anecdote, pointing out at each stage how she’s shaped the material to elicit certain reactions, and how other comedians find their own ways of doing it, whether their larger goal is to stimulate the audience’s imagination, shut down dissent, or just hear themselves talk. How we tell jokes and stories, and whether we decide to tell a joke or a story, expresses who we are and what we believe. Nanette is an attempt to get people to take ownership of their choices and admit that they mean something and reveal something. It’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as “just a joke” or “just a story.”

The cultural tendencies and patriarchal tactics that Gadsby tears apart and then offers up for our inspection are presented without irony or comment in Maher’s Live From Oklahoma. Maher’s special is listless, comedy-flavored grumbling — an hour of the same formless, theoretically liberal but sounds libertarian posturing that fills up Real Time With Bill Maher. The gap between Gadsby’s vision and execution and Maher’s is vast. Imagine George Carlin’s career-redefining and still scathing What Am I Doing in New Jersey? on one side of a canyon, and on the other, a man in a suit yelling into his iPhone about political correctness while waiting on line at Whole Foods.

Throughout, Maher blames “political correctness,” language policing, feminist and trans activism, and other left-spectrum cultural factors for contributing to Trump’s election. He warns that #MeToo, the pro-consent movement, and formalized consent agreements are having a chilling effect on sex and relationships (“Passion and political correctness — not natural allies”). He chides anyone who criticized Matt Damon for saying there was “a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation,” a statement that people who had endured sexual harassment and groping found insensitive and clueless. “This is why we lose elections — that shit has to stop,” Maher says of Damon’s detractors. He dismisses concern over so-called “bathroom bills” because people using women’s rooms “want to know if there’s a penis on deck”; he implies that it is petty of transgender activists to ask feminists not to craft slogans that presume that all women have vaginas and/or can give birth; he calls women with vaginas “Women Classic,” à la Coke Classic.

Many of the viewpoints Maher ridicules seem outrageous only because mainstream society is not yet accustomed to hearing them and having to ponder their validity. In this regard and many others, Maher’s material is reactionary in the dictionary sense of the word: opposing political or social liberalization or reform, or at least dramatically signaling his annoyance with the idea that there might be another way to live and think beyond whatever he’s comfortable with. That’s unfortunate, considering that a big part of his routine is based on self-identifying as a liberal. It’s as if he just wants things to go back to the way they were in the ’90s, when he could plausibly sit on the left-hand side of the set on his old ABC talk show Politically Incorrect. The Overton window shifted while he was ensconced at Real Time on HBO, and he’s mad that he can’t move it back.

As an example of craft, Live From Oklahoma is even more of a bust. Two-thirds consists of “jokes” about President Donald Trump that were tired even before they hit the air and will have less of a shelf life than Maher venting on his weekly show. There is no overarching theme beyond “Trump, what an idiot, what a menace” and “the Democrats are incompetent and thus almost incapable of opposing him” — a pair of propositions which, in a stand-alone special, ought to be illustrated with imagination and true wit, even when the audience seems inclined to agree with them, as is the case with Maher’s Tulsa audience of red-state Democrats.

The preponderance of lazy anti-Trump material gives Maher cover to go after anyone who questions his choice of targets (including Islam, a subject he brings up here mainly, it appears, so that he can insist he isn’t Islamophobic right before making yet another burka joke). None of it can touch John Mulaney’s recent bit likening Trump’s presence in national government to “a horse loose in a hospital,” roaming free as the doctors, nurses, and staff try to go about their regular business. As Decider’s Meghan O’Keefe wrote, “John Mulaney’s bit transcends all other ‘Trump’ jokes because it mocks the moment far more than it jabs at the man […] It’s an outlandish image that immediately communicates the feeling that a solemn institution has somehow been transformed into a circus.” Even after the Trump era has passed (or been passed, like a gallstone), the metaphor will remain so original that it may live on and be applied to other charismatic but deranged people.

That’s what the best political comedy does: It describes the moment while transcending it and putting a new frame around it.

The worst, like Maher’s, amounts to an hour of muttering with occasional shrugs. The only section of Oklahoma that’s worth saving is his material on aging, which serves as accidental meta-commentary on the amorphous fear of change that undergirds the rest. He talks about what it was like to grow up “masturbating without visual aids,” decries society orienting itself around children (and parents), and complains about the inequity of women being multi-orgasmic (“You have a machine gun, we have a musket”). It’s all faintly endearing because Maher allows himself to be vulnerable and seem like a person rather than a crank reading complaints off note cards. But then he goes back to the cards, and by the time the credits roll, you might wonder why he didn’t just bring out Adam Carolla, Ann Coulter, and Questlove to talk about ICE, then finish up with New Rules.

If you segue from Oklahoma into Gadsby’s Nanette, you’ll hear lines that sound like direct criticisms of Maher and other comedians of his ilk, men who worked for decades to acquire the platforms they now possess, yet seem to take them for granted and are rarely caught pondering politics except as it relates to their ability to get the primo bookings they believe they’re entitled to. Gadsby says that whenever she’s mistaken for a man, she feels briefly grateful, because “just for a moment, life gets a hell of a lot easier!” She warns, “There’s too much hysteria around gender from you gender normals,” and tweaks the “can’t you take a joke?” brigade by asking, “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?”

In a brief section that could be juxtaposed against virtually any section of Maher’s Oklahoma, she says, “I wouldn’t want to be a straight white man now if you paid me, although the pay would be substantially better,” because now, for the first time, they have to reexamine who they are and what they’ve been taught about their status in the world, and justify whatever they’ve acquired (or been given). That has to sting. Straight men, particularly straight white men, won’t be the cultural default in art and entertainment forever, even if a vast majority of today’s art and entertainment is still run by them. It will, Gadsby says, become another subcategory of “human” — one perspective in the Picasso-styled Cubist painting that she keeps returning to as an organizing metaphor for what comedy, and all art, should be.

While Maher is content to serve reheated runoff from his HBO show, Gadsby takes us on a guided tour of a range of human experiences, along with a Socratic discourse on the essence of comedy and storytelling, their role in liberating individuals and reinforcing social norms, and the falseness (as she sees it) of “separating the art from the artist” when the art is always informed by the artist’s personality, life experience, and moral code or lack thereof. “Hindsight is a gift,” she says of the drive to reconsider the reputations of formally innovative misogynists like Pablo Picasso. “Stop wasting my time.”

The difference between these current comedy avatars isn’t confined to their material about the shifting cultural status of straight men, although that’s a big part of it. Originality and craft are just as important. To put it bluntly, many of the most established, big-name acts in comedy, like Maher, Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Dave Chappelle, and (to a lesser extent) Chris Rock are either coasting or flailing. At worst, they’re regurgitating old styles and points of view and sounding culturally as well as artistically conservative in the process. They’re coming at comedy from a defensive, even beleaguered position.

They often natter on about “political correctness” and the endangerment of “free speech,” which in their case translates as the right to say whatever they want and never be criticized. In their minds, being called out constitutes a horrendous infringement on artistic freedom, even when it’s as simple as college students objecting to school funds being spent to deliver material that they find not just offensive, but thoughtless and cruel; or when it’s a transgender person asking to be called by their chosen name and identified as male, female, nonbinary, or something else. (Chappelle, Gervais, and Maher all did material about Caitlyn Jenner in recent specials, by way of “just asking questions” about gender identity and transphobia. Apparently, Jenner is the only transgender person any of them has heard of.) They’re appalled or unnerved by Trump, as well they should be — Chappelle is a partial exception, though the most charitable way to describe his politics would be “confused” — but the overall tone of their acts can still feel Trumpian, because it’s predicated on defending and preserving the status quo as the comics have known it throughout their adult lives.

Let’s back up here briefly and establish something important, though: No one, and I mean no one, is saying that straight guys, white or otherwise, shouldn’t have a place in comedy anymore. Only that — like the brilliant Mulaney, who has described himself on many occasions as the whitest man alive — in the future, they’ll have to take more risks and work harder to earn a spot that might’ve been more easily obtainable 20 or 30 years ago, when the sight of a woman or a person of color onstage was more of an anomaly. They’ll also have to listen, or at least pretend to listen, when somebody calls them out on their subject matter, their joke writing, or their political opinions. They’ll have to refrain from trying to short circuit debate by claiming that the other person is too sensitive or “can’t take a joke” or is somehow endangering their free speech. And they’ll have to make peace with the fact that, if they’re able to claim a spot of prime cultural real estate, they’ll be expected to constantly defend it as they age, by becoming better at the art and craft than anyone who dares to accuse them of sucking up cultural oxygen that should be nourishing them instead.

This might sound daunting. Maybe it is, if you’re Maher. But it’s ultimately no more unfair than expecting white athletes to work harder to claim a spot on professional teams after their sports were integrated. Plus, the state of the country being what it is, the head start offered by comedy’s status quo is likely to last for a long time, so let’s cool it with the-sky-is-falling routine until the first chunk of blue hits the Earth.

“Let’s make art great again, guys,” Gadsby proclaims toward the end of Nanette, tweaking Trump subtly enough that it takes a second to register what she just did. Then she advises any straight man who feels threatened by somebody like her to take the same advice they love doling out: Toughen up. “Pull your fucking socks up,” she says. “How humiliating — fashion advice from a lesbian. That is your last joke.”

Bill Maher, Hannah Gadsby, and the State of Stand-up