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Why Hannah Gadsby Structured Her New Special Like a Fugue

Hannah Gadsby. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix

For Hannah Gadsby, after a decade of giving hour-long shows quirky titles like Kiss Me Quick, I’m Full of Jubes and Happiness Is a Bedside Table, it makes sense that Nanette was a just a name, as it went on to take a life of its own. No one could’ve expected it to hit like it did, most of all Gadsby, who was considering leaving comedy when she started working on it. But, despite implications in Nanette that she might hang up her mic for good, Gadsby did, in fact, continue to do comedy, as she found herself with more to say — namely her late-in-life autism diagnosis — and a legion of fans excited to listen to her. The result was Douglas, which came out on Netflix last week. “Given that nearly impossible task,” Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk wrote, “Douglas mostly fulfills the brief, which is plenty impressive all on its own.”

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Gadsby discussed constructing Douglas in the shadow of the reaction to Nanette, how autism has influenced her comedy, and how she thinks/hopes the coronavirus might change comedy going forward. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode right below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Structuring Douglas As a Fugue

I think a lot about structure. I have a very visual brain, and I see a show before I even know the words to it. With Nanette, I used the framework of callback as a device, and then I subverted it. So a callback is, of course, when you pepper a little joke up top, and then later on when you keep referring to it, it gets funnier and funnier. And out of context, it’s not necessarily funny. It’s just building a language with an audience. I did that, but instead of making the callback funnier, I made it devastating. And that was the device I used.

In Douglas, I decided to experiment with the call-forward. It’s dumb, but I thought, Oh well, I’m in this silly position now where I suddenly have a huge audience I didn’t intend on or think I’d have, so let’s play. And so at the beginning of the show, I pepper things that aren’t funny when I say them, but then it becomes repetition of language. I used the basic structure of a fugue. So it has the prelude, and then I have several ideas. It’s clearly not musical, because it’s spoken, but it’s the way I frame an idea. So I use story and then I use rant, and then the story, and then I connect them all. As the material built, I had the framework in which to hang it.

On How Autism Influences Her Comedy

I’m incredibly sensitive to my environment, and I think that translates into literally reading a room. And while in interpersonal conversations I’m not very good at reading a room, in a large audience I really get a sense of what is working and what is not. If you think about it in terms of, say, a microphone, it’s not like a conversation when I miss cues and things like that. It’s not because my microphone itself is not picking things up. It’s set at such a sensitive frequency, it’s picking up everything — everything. Particularly with sounds and vibe, I know when something’s wrong. But all the input I’m struggling to sort out and prioritize.

So just with sound, if there’s a dog barking in the distance, to my brain, it’s given the same importance as the person I’m talking to. I can manage it; I’m not a monster — if someone’s pouring their heart out to me, I don’t sit there and go, “The dog’s barking!” You know, I get it. But it’s actually a really difficult thing. But in a large room, when there’s this mass of humanity sitting there and responding, it’s been a real source of connection for me in my life, because I’ve been incredibly isolated because of the said dog-barking situation. And that, I think, is part of why I’m good at what I do.

Being undiagnosed means you’re like the only sober person in a room full of drunks and you don’t understand that everyone is drunk. That’s been a really big part of my life, because when you’re performing, you’re watching how other people act, and then you go, This is how other people act. And you do it, and it’s always wrong, because the way you behave is not driven by how you feel. It’s like, This is what people do in the world. And that’s part of the reason I’m funny: Because people are like, “You’re doing it slightly wrong.” And it’s either adorable or annoying — you know, in equal parts.

That’s honestly how I got into comedy. I always knew I was funny. I never understood why. And often, people laugh at what I say, and I have to understand it retroactively because I’m putting all the pieces of a puzzle together. And during that process, I say something; I’m trying to understand something, and sometimes I don’t understand it in such a profoundly stupid way that it’s funny. And then, yeah, other times I put something together and I understand it in a really profoundly different way that helps people see the world differently. And those two things coexist.

On Following Nanette

People are always going to just see me through the lens of Nanette, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. So I set up camp in the shadow of Nanette and thought Let’s make this nice and also different. I wanted people to understand that trauma doesn’t have to define you, and there is life after trauma; there is fun after trauma. Life does go on, and you have to exist in the life that goes on. Trauma just keeps pulling you back. But that’s not the only thing I have to talk about.

Basically, I’m completely shaking down Nanette, because Nanette is like: Let’s get to know me with some gentle stories and how you expect me to be. And then, surprise! Whereas Douglas is no surprises, Here’s all the worst parts of the way I think and can behave in the world, and now I’m adorable! And that’s autism. I don’t really make a good first impression. I can really be off-putting when people first meet me. But I do get there, and I am able to form relationships and people like me and it’s fine.

On How the Coronavirus Will Affect Comedy

My concern is not for myself. I’m sleeping; I don’t need to see people for a long time. But I am concerned about jobbing comedians and how this affects what comedy is and what it can be. I think it could be an exciting time, but you’ve got to be careful with that, because something like this causes a huge amount of stress, and stress is a killer. It’s one thing for me to say, “Oh, comedy, this could be a growth period!” No, people are stressed. Because it’s stressful! This is frightening. I think only time will tell on this, what it does. But creativity is a way of coping with stress.

I think we will see different ways of content creation. For a moment there, I thought, Oh, maybe I should be creating content to help people. I am tired. And also, this is where I’ve got a voice. I’ve got a platform. I’m okay. I don’t need to flood the world with my voice, particularly because for a fucking miracle I’m comfortable for the first time in my life in a moment where a lot of people are really uncomfortable. But I think the interesting voices from this are going to emerge from people who are struggling and are going to demand their creativity overcome what’s happened to them at the moment. So I’m excited. I really hope that some really interesting, positive, and constructive voices find their way through this. And it could transform what comedy is.

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Why Hannah Gadsby Structured Her New Special Like a Fugue