comedy review

Hannah Gadsby Stays Sunny by Any Means Necessary

Hannah Gadsby at BAM. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for BAM

“If you take one thing away from this show,” Hannah Gadsby tells an adoring crowd at BAM, “it’s this: Prepare for fame.” If you don’t, she cautions, you’re going to get galactically famous for, say, a stand-up special, wind up sitting next to Richard Curtis, then accidentally tell the writer of Notting Hill that romantic comedy grosses you out. On a scale of one to catastrophe, telling a moviemaker that you hate rom-coms is pretty minor. But it’s been haunting Gadsby, so she lets us know — Helpfully! Usefully! — that we should map out our Richard Curtis thoughts now. You never know.

Fame and etiquette aren’t the main subjects of Gadsby’s latest stand-up tour, Body of Work, but you still feel the calculation in it — the way that exposure has pushed and pulled the comedian into a more careful shape. Reviews from earlier stops include her bitter invective about, for instance, Netflix and Dave Chappelle, but all that has been scrubbed away here. When she says this might be the “one thing” we can take away, she means it. You won’t walk out knowing more about the tricky mechanisms of comedy or her own history of assault (as you did from Nanette) or with a pile of raw revelations and too-frank heartbreak (as you did from Douglas). Body of Work is a pleasure — a comparably conventional stand-up set about family and relationships. Full of self-deprecating laughs and gruesome stories about rabbits. It’s light fare! After far rawer, more vulnerable monologues made her famous, Gadsby isn’t handing us the sorts of revelations that we can pack up and cart off anymore. That’s probably the real lesson she learned about success: Give ’em a little less.

It’s telling how much less Gadsby there is to go around this time. Both Nanette and Douglas had long Off Broadway engagements — sit-downs that culminated in triumphant Netflix specials. She’s only doing four nights in New York on the world tour this time, and the pressure of so many people in so short a time makes the palatial Brooklyn Academy of Music creak. On May 11, the first night of the run, the show started nearly an hour late as the audience bottlenecked at the venue’s doors, where they put our phones in secure Yondr pouches, searched our bags, and waved metal detectors at us. When she entered, Gadsby seemed as flustered by the delay as we were, her crest of hair raked sideways. But she was wearing a huge medical boot, having slipped on some ice and done immense mischief to her leg — screws, trauma band, and all.

That’s not the Body that she’d hoped for when she started the tour, but Gadsby’s body is very much the topic of this show. For one thing, it’s now joined in matrimony. She married her producer Jenney Shamash in 2021, and, while Gadsby pokes a bit of fun at hetero-romantic nonsense, she is as eager to say “we” as anybody else. If you’ve seen other Gadsby pieces, you know she’s drawn to talking about breakups — the moments when a relationship turns, finally, into a story. Being in the blissful beginning of her life with Shamash (whom she calls Jenno) means Gadsby must find that storytelling shape in either old breakups or a clever bit of misdirection. What did they do during the long shutdown in Australia? How did Jenno interact with Gadsby’s family? This is the stuff of, frankly, rom-coms. Always clever at creating structure out of seemingly casual chat, Gadsby writes her monologues to herringbone together by the end. At the top of the show, she swears that they don’t have a good proposal story. Anyway, I shouldn’t have mentioned it.

So what about that fame thing? I find it hard to believe that the clumsiest thing she did as a newly famous person was being a tiny bit rude to Jodie Foster, but I’m impressed at Gadsby’s restraint in keeping those other gaucheries to herself. (The Gadsby of Douglas would not have.) Refreshed by love, she seems resilient at her core here — free to tell us a bit about her spongy knees as well as her autism diagnosis and being in perimenopause. Perimenopause! Just the mention of it and “your doctors lose their diagnostic skeletal system,” she says, flopping bonelessly side to side on a stool. She gets tarter and more biting on this topic than she does elsewhere, and it’s nice to see her sawtooth blade briefly revealed at last. In the rest of the show, she stops herself from getting into bleak stuff like the Roe v. Wade situation or war. “Feel-good show!” she shouts every time the world starts to tempt her into turning dark.

Paradoxically, the ruin of her leg has made Gadsby a better physical comedian. She sits on a stool or wanders the stage — the rigid plastic cast flourished in front of her like a tap dancer’s cane. She’s easier about discussing her autism than she has been before, clear and unbothered about the way that fame and her relationship have made certain things easier. To keep the world from overwhelming her, a whole support structure keeps Gadsby on her path. Jenno, in her many roles, winds up doing a lot of that, and Gadsby does an excellent physical bit about curling — portraying herself as a stately puck ushered down a frozen racetrack as Jenno frantically sweeps the ice in front of her.

Body of Work is less about the world than the comedy-questioning Nanette; it’s as interior and self-focused as Douglas but lighter by about a thousand pounds. And while Gadsby still seems preternaturally attuned to her audience — one murmur of laughter in the back of the auditorium and she pivots toward it — she seems to mainly be listening to herself. Whatever she may have said in Nanette about comedy as mendacity, this show becomes a lesson in (if not a lecture on) how comedy is actually a healing force. Your leg shatters? Make it a bit. Your knees decay? It’s all material. Her autism, in particular, provides her with joke after joke, and her own laughter turns inward and delighted. She shows us her body, the work, and how they inform each other. We hear about the romance with Jenno, but there’s also a sweeter, implied one with herself. If you take one thing away from this show — and all apologies to Richard Curtis — that should be it.

Hannah Gadsby Stays Sunny by Any Means Necessary