comedy review

Hannah Gadsby Feels Good

Photo: Jess Gleeson/Netflix

In 2021, Hannah Gadsby posted a scathing message on Instagram for Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos: “Fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult.” The streamer, which released the Australian comic’s groundbreaking 2018 special Nanette and incisive 2020 follow-up Douglas, had just been accused of signal boosting hate speech in the fallout from Dave Chappelle’s cold war with the LGBTQ community. Sarandos’s frosty, dismissive memo addressing the internal and external backlash for the divisive commentary on queer and trans people in Chappelle’s 2020 special The Closer name-checked both Gadsby and Chappelle to highlight its commitment to diversity after asserting “a strong belief that content onscreen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”

This was an affront to Gadsby; Nanette was, among a few things, a venting session about trying to find the humor in your own oppression: “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” It was tacky using Nanette, which features a harrowing account of a gay-bashing, as a shield for fending off criticism about homophobic and transphobic commentary elsewhere in the Netflix roster. “Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial worldview,” Gadsby’s note retorted. “You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real world consequences of the hate speech dog whistling you refuse to acknowledge, Ted.”

A year later, Gadsby struck a multi-title deal with Netflix to share the follow-up to Douglas and produce and host a second special featuring an international cast of gender-diverse comics. Did Gadsby, a genderqueer lesbian comic who now uses they/them pronouns, turn the screws, advising the Netflix man to put his money where his mouth is and fork out funding for a wider raft for marginalized comics? And what did the comedian make of Chappelle’s clapback on Instagram? “You must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny,” he said in a clip from his 2021 arena tour advising the trans community of his conditions for peace talks.

None of this comes up in Something Special, Gadsby’s third Netflix hour filmed at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, same as Nanette. There’s no knowing, triumphant introduction imparting on the viewer the sense that someone had to be made a little uncomfortable in order for this thing even to come into existence, like April’s My Name Is Mo’Nique, the uplifting conclusion to a protracted legal battle with Netflix over fair pay for women. Strolling out to “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” alt-rock duo They Might Be Giants’ 1990 celebration of the quiet, reliable glow of a nightlight, Gadsby immediately flashes a ring: “I got married!” If you were looking for more of the caustic social commentary of the last two specials, circle back to the last two specials. “I’ve dragged you through a bit of my shit over the years,” the comic explains, “and you’ve stuck with me.” For our reward, Something Special offers “a bit of ta-da.” Yes, the world is terrifying, but Gadsby doesn’t feel equipped to shovel us out of our rut: “For the next hour, we’re gonna feel good together, and then we can head back out there and be the mass-extinction event that we are.”

Just as Nanette and Douglas open with a kind of table of contents, outlining in elaborate detail what’s coming next, Something Special promises to recount the story of Gadsby’s proposal and marriage to producer Jenney Shamash, who dutifully lurks at the side of the stage. Like Nanette’s interrogation of the merit of comedy as a medium and Douglas’s braiding of Renaissance-art criticism, dog-park banter, and children’s-cartoon exegesis, Something Special’s romantic-comedy structure turns Gadsby loose in the halls of another institution lorded over by the hysterical “gender-normals” Nanette warned us about.

The pledge to keep the new stuff light is a setup for a series of feints throughout the show where a story gets grim and Gadsby chuckles, noting that it’s a “feel-good show” but also that this doesn’t mean we’re the ones meant to feel good. It seems like a new balance being worked out. Douglas advised at the start not to expect another outpouring of trauma like Nanette; Something Special doesn’t seem as interested in sociopolitical pith as Douglas, although it does gesture loudly and routinely to present-day and historical injustices. Early on, Gadsby explains why the cake at their wedding depicted a great white shark with two otters holding hands inside its mouth; it was the easiest way to trick a Christian baker into playing a part in a gay wedding. Planning was daunting because they didn’t grow up dreaming of the big day: “You gotta remember I grew up in a time when us gays weren’t even allowed to adopt a fucking highway, much less marry someone we wanted to touch.” Cis-hetero men get some ribbing — “Say yes, we get married; say no, I stalk ya!” — but otherwise, Something Special delivers the heaps of wholesome romance it promises, pushing much further than Douglas in its close-ups of the daily dilemmas Shamash solves for her wife and offering a tantalizing taste of intimacy while still preserving a great deal of privacy and distance.

The new special charms as an affecting queer love story and slice of life on the spectrum, but what it’s best at is threading a long, involved yarn where tiny, offhand details turn out to be seeds for a plot twist soon to sprout. Everything is a storytelling device: The paper rabbit onstage comes into play at the climax of a story. The comic’s exhausted delivery reinforces jokes about injuries and aging. The hour primes its audience for the lurid, unusual circumstances of Gadsby’s proposal, which is teed up with a grisly recollection of an ex skinning a rabbit they hit on a drive, and Something Special gets a little bit of blood on its hands (and/or in its mouth). An examination of Gadsby’s parents’ relationship as disciplinarians and raconteurs — “My parents’ parenting style was very much bad cop/asleep cop” — seems long in the tooth until the moment half an hour later where the parents’ habits snap in line with the quirks of the comic’s own married life, driving home how, in spite of everything setting this generation of the family apart from the previous one, the old ways, dynamics, and personality clashes endure. Without spelling it out or taking direct aim at the minefield of anti-LGBTQ figures in public life right now, Something Special deflates the notion that relationships and marriages that fall outside of the “man one” and “lady-born” norm are upending and diluting age-old cultural institutions. Douglas-era Gadsby would have called for people’s heads, though, and reviews of the Body of Work tour note Chappelle, Netflix, and others did come up, which is to say that there was a point where this set found the time to get out of its head and into the mounting troubles outside.

It feels like pulling a punch not to address the 2021 dispute and the rights struggles queer couples around the planet face when Something Special lingers on the subject of same-sex marriage and sidestepping prefab roles in relationships. There’s something powerful about creating a space hate doesn’t dominate (and something very deeply tiring about having to cut into memories of meeting and marrying the love of your life to address beef and bigotry for the benefit of the streaming service that paid for the stuff). But the instinct to coddle your audience, the tsunami of messaging in art and discourse that avoids the worst that’s happening right now … Is it a noble instinct? Should we be counter-programming divisive rhetoric with defiantly uplifting messages, or should we be pressing people about what they’re getting wrong and how to do better?

Gadsby’s special, in its calculated push toward (somewhat) breezier subject matter, feels like a savvy career play. Douglas addressed the charge Nanette faced — that Gadsby was a TED Talker masquerading as a comic — by piling on jokes. The new work seems equally eager to torch the portrait of the artist as woke scold — the better, you’d think, to smooth the process of presenting edifying life stories to international audiences, to avoid the humiliation Nanette described, and maybe to reach more viewers without upsetting too many of the fans who related to the weary resignation in the first special, a balance the new hour strives toward admirably.

Something Special feels like the closer in a trilogy in its nods to the past — the recurring perineum bit calls back to the pouch of Douglas bit, the “hands where you can see them” line references the opening of Nanette, and the riff about telling rom-com legend Richard Curtis “I don’t like the way the kissing sounds” expounds on a joke that might’ve flown under the radar in Douglas — and the quest for a more wholesome relationship with comedy in the future. That seems to mean keeping us at arm’s length right now, sharing snapshots of peaceful and occasionally awkward days, revealing only a trickle of unresolved trauma. We’re treated to a warm, uplifting experience that feels not just insular and private but also cloistered. The darkest moments in this recollection of the onset of a pandemic are the macabre things happening to rabbits.

Is Something Special a charm offensive, a pointed display of mundane everyday domesticity and the endurance of learned behaviors and psychologies, a rebuke to the lie that queer and trans people pose an existential threat to tradition because marriage made the comic who made Nanette hyperfocus on board-game nights and dog-walking capers, just like Dad? Is it weaponizing its platform by swatting away the spiderweb of phobias destroying lives globally and defanging them one hearty slice of country living at a time? Or has it shrunk from controversy and dialed back the abrasiveness of the old stuff, taking to heart the idea that to be the best celebrity is to always be the perfect hang, a bottomless well of grace, comfort, and likability? This is a feel-good review.

Hannah Gadsby Feels Good