Sara Schaefer and Sabrina Jalees on How Nanette Will Change Stand-up

Hannah Gadsby in Nanette. Photo: BEN KING/Courtesy of Netflix

It’s been almost two weeks since Hannah Gadsby’s debut Netflix stand-up special Nanette premiered, and critics and comedians alike can’t stop talking about it. The New York Times described Gadsby as “a major new voice in comedy” and Nanette as “a ferocious attack on comedy itself,” while The Atlantic called it “one of the most extraordinary comedy specials in recent memory.” On Twitter, Gadsby has also received praise from Ellen Page, Roxane Gay, Kathy Griffin, and Kristen Schaal, with more coming in every day.

In an attempt to understand the lasting influence of Nanette, we asked stand-ups Sara Schaefer (Nikki & Sara Live) and Sabrina Jalees (The Lineup) to have a conversation about why Gadsby’s latest work is so important, and how its impact on other comedians might help stand-up specials evolve going forward.

Sara: First off, are we on the same page that this is one of the best shows we’ve ever seen??? Holy shit. Had you ever heard of Hannah Gadsby or seen her perform before watching the special?

Sabrina: She’s friends with our friend Mae Martin, so I think I may have seen her name through the London comedy world but never seen her onstage.

Sara: I got to see her perform Nanette at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer, and it completely blew me away.

Sabrina: What was it like seeing that show live? Were people choked up, and how did the men respond? Did you hang with her?

Sara: I didn’t get to hang with her, but we did meet at a show we were on together and she was really nice. The performance I saw was amazing. I didn’t know what to expect, and my boyfriend was with me. When she gets to her emotional crescendo at the end, you could hear a pin drop in the theater. I’ve never leapt up to give a standing ovation so fast! The version I saw also had some specific focus on the Australian gay-marriage vote. It was really interesting to see how she changed the show for the Netflix special to be more up to date and more universal — not tied to any one specific vote or date. And now, being able to watch it again feels like going back and watching a movie like The Usual Suspects for the second time — I’m looking for all the clues and seeing just how carefully she plotted out this performance.

Sabrina: I watched Nanette twice. The turns she takes and the rhythm and surprises are unlike any comedy special I’ve ever seen. Also, I have to add that as a gay person and comic, there is a lot of your formative coming-out experience where you are truly trying to make yourself palatable. To remain relatable while being queer — and this goes for any kind of queerness — is a powerful tool in the real world but also, as Hannah hits on so hard, taking on that role can really fucking kill you. It can be a light dimmer if you’re unable to move past it. I grew up in Toronto and then lived in Brooklyn and now L.A., and I still had issues feeling okay with being “other” in my coming-out process. I can’t even imagine the personal darkness that would come when your identity is illegal. But thanks to this show and Hannah’s genius (the art stuff omg!) the world has a window into that, and that’s important.

Sara: When Hannah said “a lesbian used to be ‘any woman not laughing at a man,’” I laughed and also wanted to cry because it’s so true. I’ve been called lesbian so many times by men who are uncomfortable with my comedy, opinion, or even mere presence. I have the privilege to not know how deep that can cut, how casually the core of who you are becomes the butt of a joke. “Light dimmer” is such a smart way to put it. Remember when we did that show in San Francisco, when you had to kick out those horrible people out of the audience? You were trying to handle their rude heckling, and then the guy said “I didn’t know this was going to be a dyke show.” You handled it beautifully and got them kicked the fuck out. But it was so awful. I was impressed with your strength in that moment. What was that moment like for you?

Sabrina: It was so wild because it was San Francisco! Gay, gay, liberal, green-energy San Francisco. My wife was living there when we first met, so I had a bunch of friends at the show and was ready to ease into a chill, fun, we’re-all-friends-here vibe, but this table near the front would not shut the fuck up. It seemed to be happening all night, so when I got up there I was like, “What’s going on guys, what are you talking about?” cool teacher–style, and they turned to look at me like “Why is the dance-monkey-dance monkey talking to us?” and literally said, “Why don’t you just do your jokes?” Obviously the show then stopped and became about dealing with this table of douche-y vibe-enemies, and as the rest of the crowd turned to look at them, a guy at the table said, “I didn’t know this was a dyke show.” Which was followed by audible gasps from around them. I confirmed with someone sitting next to them that that was what was said and then kicked them out of the dyke show.

It felt shocking that it came out of this Bay Area mouth, and it was annoying that these people hijacked part of the show, but there’s also a unique magic when an audience is part of something real that’s naturally unfolding. I’m sure everyone in the crowd was just shocked, and as the villains were escorted out of the building people clapped and booed at them. We’d all gone through something gross together and we all won. I wonder how they unpacked it, just the three of them, once they were booted. Do you think they left being like, “Dyke clowns are the worst!” or “We shouldn’t invite Rob to things anymore”?

Sara: I would like to think the latter happened. I hope Rob was dropped from the group text. Okay, back to Nanette. I particularly like how Hannah pulls back the curtain on what comedy is and how it is done, and even though she’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain, we’re still caught up in the tension she’s so masterfully building. Part of the reason I think it works so well is because she’s being incredibly vulnerable and just straight-up beaming out her humanity like a Care Bear Stare.

It made me think so much about my own comedy and how I’ve been afraid to get “too angry” or “too smart” or “too female” onstage. But then of course it made me think a lot about how as a straight white woman, I’m only experiencing a sliver of what others experience onstage. She brilliantly brings us into her world and cultivates empathy from people who don’t walk in her shoes. At points I wanted to tell her to stop saying “I don’t hate men!” At first it felt like she was apologizing for who she was, but I realized by the end she was doing this purposefully not only to demonstrate her points, but to, as she said, appeal to everyone’s humanity. She fundamentally has chosen to approach everyone in her audience with love.

Sabrina: It was brilliant and magic and cuts to the core of what stand-up can be while deserting the sport entirely. I watched the first 20 minutes or so before bed and felt like, “Wait, what’s happening? Why are people losing their minds over this?” Then I finished it the next day and my jaw dropped and my tears dropped, and my brain has been chewing on it ever since.

Sara: Another thing that really struck me about this was how validated I felt about how I’ve approached my own comedy. For years, I felt a lot of pressure by the comedy community to, number one, be solely focused on the “craft” of joke writing; never concern yourself with sincere messages of hope! That’s corny! To this idea, Hannah says “My sensitivity is my strength.”

Sabrina: Yes! I’m always only interested in hearing people’s real thoughts and secrets and things that take a few whiskeys to spill out. It’s so much more interesting starting with a real feeling or insecurity or confession. I’m finding this in TV writing too — as long as you’re building a story on truth, the foundation is always solid and interesting, so the jokes that build off of it are so much more satisfying.

Sara: Yes. And number two, never concern yourself with the feelings of the audience — this idea of “Fuck the audience if they get offended, I will NEVER apologize!” has always been strange, because as a comedian, is it not your main goal to care very deeply about the emotional state of the audience so that you can elicit laughs? To this idea, Hannah talks about how being in the margins requires that you concern yourself with the feelings of the audience to make them comfortable with your very existence. For her, it’s not even a choice.

Sabrina: I started doing stand-up when I was 16, before I realized I was gay, and the way I’d be perceived was a huge hurdle that held me back for years. When I was 18 I fell in love with a woman for the first time, but it took me until my early 20s to start talking about it onstage. I cared too much about what people would think and how they’d judge me. Breaking through that fear and realizing that judgment is unavoidable regardless of your sexuality was a huge lesson for me both as a person and comic.

Sara: Yes! Comedy is hard for everyone, but for those in the margins, it comes with added pressures and considerations. Whenever we talk about the struggles of what it’s like to be a nonwhite, straight guy comedian, some people get mad and just dismiss you with a simple “Funny is funny.” I absolutely love how Hannah brilliantly turned this on its head with the Picasso stuff. She makes us ask: Who is defining what’s funny? Who is being allowed to speak? What perspectives are we including?

Sabrina: Yes! The protection of reputations! The implications of a system and society designed to boost one kind of person! She shines a laser beam at it unapologetically because why the fuck would you apologize, but at the same time, we all have the instinct to be so sorry to cause a fuss. I really think of it as sneaking into bottle service. There’s all sorts of ways to do it — sucking up to the bouncer, rubbing shoulders with the members behind the rope — but the most badass and sustainable way is to call bullshit on the rope and claim your deserved seat.

Sara: It really has so many layers to it I could talk about this forever! I haven’t even touched on the myth of the tortured artist! Was there a particular line or joke that is sticking with you?

Sabrina: The gender stuff was incredible. Comparing putting a pink band on a bald baby head to putting a bangle on a potato is just the best. What was yours?

Sara: I can’t even pick. But I especially loved the lines “Dogs are heaps differenter!” and when she said she ripped that guy a “college-debt-sized new asshole.” Will her special change the way you approach your stand-up going forward?

Sabrina: It’s definitely a reminder to stay real and honest and connected to your material. Also, what are we supposed to do to make our specials shine in a post-Nanette world? Aerial ropes? Hypnosis? How about you?

Sara: I definitely think you should do a stand-up special on aerial ropes. You’d be the Pink of the comedy world. As for me, I think I will be kinder to myself about my comedy. I’ve spent phases trying to fit myself into certain boxes, and it’s wonderful to see someone like Hannah give us permission to just be!

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette Means to Comedians