comedy review

In Douglas, Hannah Gadsby Strives to Manage Your Expectations

Hannah Gadsby in Douglas. Photo: Ali Goldstein/Netflix

Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas, her first new special since the comedian’s wildly successful show Nanette, has a challenging job. It’s not just that for most of her audience, Douglas will be what Gadsby refers to as her “difficult second album,” the follow-up act that somehow has to live up to the promise of the previous special’s impressive achievements. It’s also that Nanette’s success involved dramatically and thoroughly dismantling itself. Nanette is a suggestion that Gadsby might quit comedy, but it’s also a furious, frustrated explication of the things about comedy that Gadsby finds actively harmful. Nanette is the “Why I’m Leaving New York” essay of comedy specials, and Douglas has the job of being an inevitable, somewhat rueful “Actually I’m Still Here” next chapter.

Given that nearly impossible task, Douglas mostly fulfills the brief, which is plenty impressive all on its own. It’ll feel familiar to Nanette viewers. It’s crafted from recognizable building blocks and a list of topics that coalesce into something like a Gadsby signature: art history, misogyny, the patriarchy, self-knowledge and self-blindness, wordplay, her childhood, and an effective dot-dot-dash rhythm of long, winding anecdotes punctuated by short sequences of clean, tight punch lines. At the same time, it’s definitely not Nanette redux. Douglas will not have the same electrifying effect as Nanette; this may feel like a disappointment to some of Gadsby’s audience, but it’s mostly a relief.

Gadsby uses Douglas’s hour in a more scattershot way than Nanette’s hermetic closed loop. It’s less organized toward a single all-encompassing goal. Much of Douglas builds toward Gadsby’s exploration and explanation of her autism diagnosis, but the show as a whole isn’t animated by that as a single narrative. As a result, Douglas feels more uneven than its famous predecessor, in a way that’s both good and bad. It is lighter, sometimes, and its heavy bits don’t carry the same weight of indicting an entire genre of writing and performance. It is emptier than Nanette. But unevenness and emptiness sound like negatives, and they’re not — there’s room in an hour-long performance for highs and lows, and of course it’s emptier than Nanette, which is by the end almost overburdened by its own weightiness.

As compensation for the rougher, less-cohesive single story in Douglas, Gadsby starts the show with a prelude, an introduction that turns into a lengthy explanation of what the rest of the show will be like. It’s a highly detailed road map, and it not only lays out exactly what each section of the show will be, it preempts how Gadsby expects her audience to respond. Later, she tells her audience, she’s going to announce that she has autism. It’ll have the rhythm of a big reveal, but no one will be surprised by it because — aha! — she already told everyone a second ago. She even explains what a laugh sounds like when it’s layered by knowing recognition: the eruption of the initial laugh and then the burble of a chuckle when your mind registers that you were told this would happen. It’s a neat little device, and I mean “neat” both in the sense of “cool” and “painstakingly tidy.” There’s an anxiety underneath that prelude. It’s funny, but there’s a franticness to it, a worry that the material won’t all fit into a single careful design.

Gadsby enjoys a cultural reference, and they’re inserted throughout Douglas. There’s Harry Potter, Where’s Waldo, Ninja Turtles, and as a continuation of her Picasso material from Nanette, an extensive slideshow of women looking bored, depressed, and generally uncomfortable in classical art. Most of her references are Renaissance or 20th century, but Gadsby herself seems most like an Enlightenment thinker. There’s her insistence on logic, the emphasis on design and structure, and passages like her tirade against anti-vaxxer thinking, as well as her fascination with names and classifications. The “Douglas” of the special’s title is Gadsby’s dog, but it’s also an anatomical structure called “the pouch of Douglas,” an interim empty space in women’s anatomy between the rectum and the uterus. How absurd, that this space would be named after the man who found it. How absurd, her own doctor’s refusal to accept Gadsby’s experience on what might be amiss with her own anatomy. Watching Douglas, I kept thinking about Gadsby as a revisionist 18th-century naturalist strolling through a museum of patriarchy, submitting all the exhibits to a rigorous scientific method, and finding them all wanting.

But Gadsby’s 18th-century impulses are most obvious in that opening prelude, which carefully sets out everything that’s about to happen not just in content but in its form. The opening observational comedy, for instance, is not very good. Gadsby knows this, she says, but it’s all right that the opening is weak because in the overall shape of the hour, it should sweep from a rocky beginning into a much stronger end. “It’s important that we get off to a shaky start,” she says, because “what this show is, if anything, is a romantic comedy.” It’s like the chapter title to a particularly up-its-own-ass 18th-century novel, one of those paragraph-long titles that starts “In Which …” and then lays out a whole outline of the action. Material that’s fully up-its-own-ass, like unevenness and emptiness, sounds like a bad thing. But I love navel-gazing meta material, and Gadsby’s prelude, in all its anxious table setting and insistent policing of how the audience should and will laugh, is some tip-top self-referentiality. If Gadsby’s anatomical thinking reminds me of an Enlightenment naturalist, her love of narrative self-commentary is most like an 18th-century novelist. It is the stand-up comedy version of Tristram Shandy, a novel that interrupts its own story to throw in some line graphs of how the story might be shaping up.

In all, Douglas is sillier than its predecessor, and even in the moments that feel legitimately angry or smugly self-satisfied (the kicker joke about Louis C.K. is a real back-patter), the show’s comparative goofiness is a welcome direction for Gadsby. There are clunky parts, and especially toward the end there are some bits that strain a little too hard to tuck in any loose threads. But its biggest success may be that as a difficult second act, Douglas manages to pull off something that no one would’ve dared ever say about its looming, much-lauded predecessor. Douglas, while railing against the patriarchy and expounding on the blinkered social response to neurodivergence, also happens to be pretty fun.

In Douglas, Hannah Gadsby Strives to Manage Expectations