Comedian Hannah Gadsby tells Joanna Mathers how she found humour from a past of trauma and tension
The clink of teacup on saucer; the soft pad of dogs' paws along a carpeted hall. The soundtrack of cultural insurgency.
The revolution, with its nana name (Nanette) and rebel heart, was searing of intent. Uncovering the culture of toxic masculinity that hides behind art. Repositioning the self-deprecating comedy of "otherness" as a harmful trope whose time has passed.
The creator of Nanette, Hannah Gadsby, is an iconoclast who loves nothing better than a nice cup of tea. We chat over a volatile line on a sizzling December afternoon; she's in Melbourne, I'm in Auckland. Her dog, Douglas, is sitting on her knee. He is one of the inspirations behind her latest show (named Douglas), which she brings to New Zealand in February.
"He's a lagotto romagnolo, a truffle hunter," she explains. "He looks like a sheep. When I take him out other dogs try to round him up."
Gadsby is charming, in the most effortless way. She's easy to talk to, quick of wit, brilliant, unintimidating. But post-Nanette, and its Netflix release, she's also a superstar.
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Like so many "outsider" comedians, Gadsby made her name on the comedy circuit as the butt of her own jokes. Not anymore.
"I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour," she explains in the Netflix promo for Nanette. "And I won't do that anymore. Not to myself, not to those who identify with me. To understand what self-deprecating humour is: it's not humility. It's humiliation."
Nanette is #metoo as comedy. It's full disclosure, unafraid, painful, excruciating truth. It kicked the genre in its white-male-dominated balls. And with it, Gadsby "broke the contract".
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For those who haven't seen the show, here's a heads up. The "contract" here is tacit agreement between comedians and their audience. In this agreement, tension is created (the build-up) only to be released by a humour (the punchline). Nanette dismantles this formula.
As the show unfolds, the "tension/release" formula begins to crumble. At the end of the show, the contract has been torn up and thrown on the floor.
It's a roller coaster ride. Starting with a retrospective of earlier material, it includes an "amusing" story about being mistaken for a man and nearly getting beaten up at a bus-stop. As the show progresses, she begins to unpack the processes behind comedy. She concludes that the self-deprecating comedy she has based her career on has furthered her self-hatred. Hatred that was fostered growing up in homophobic, painfully conservative, small town. Then she claims she is giving up comedy.
The king hit comes at the conclusion of the show. Having denounced and deconstructed comedy, she tells the real bus-stop story. The man actually beat the s*** out of her. No one stopped him. She didn't go to the police. In her own eyes, she wasn't worth it.
She tells us she was abused as a child, and raped by two men in her 20s. She doesn't relieve the tension. There's no punchline for this.
"This tension is yours. I am not helping you with it any more. You need to learn what this feels like."
To understand the genesis of Nanette, you need to understand Gadsby's story. She was brought up in the small Tasmanian town of Smithton, where bigotry was written into the inhabitants' DNA.
"It a tough place to live," she says. "It's a tough place to survive, for everyone. It's not an easy place to be a straight, white man. The people who live there work in industries like logging and fishing and the people who work there don't reap the benefits. Industries set up and close down, there's a constant threat of unemployment."
It took Gadsby a long time to identify as lesbian. Homosexuality was a crime in Tasmania until 1997. She also didn't see a similarity between herself and the most public face of the homosexual movement in Australia, the Sydney Mardi Gras. Watching the colour and dancing played out on the television show in her childhood home, she didn't connect.
"[It was the] first intro to 'my people'. 'Flaunting their lifestyle' in a parade," she chuckles in Nanette. "I used to sit there and watch it and think, 'Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?'"
But she couldn't escape herself and therefore had to move to the mainland. In Canberra, she studied art history, did odd jobs, was homeless for a time. But in her mid-20s, she found comedy. And it fit.
Forging a career from self-effacing humour, she became a well-known international comedian, touring the globe. She came to New Zealand with Australian compatriot Josh Thomas, with whom she starred on the charming television show Please Like Me.
I tell her I'm from Hamilton. She remembers it.
"I got out of the plane and was greeted with an overwhelming smell of cow poo. But I've always had an okay time when I perform in the regions, 'cos I talk slowly. It puts people at ease."
On her last tour before Nanette, things started to shift. Diagnosed with ADHD and, more recently, autism; and wrestling with mental health issues due to childhood trauma, the problematic nature of her comedy became apparent.
The "sad clown" was one of the catalysts. On tour, people bringing up the "sad clown": the damaged genius, hiding behind the mask of comedy. It started to jar.
"How can we [comedians] be doing something good for the world when such a high percentage of us are suffering from preventable mental illness?" she explains. "We aren't a happy bunch, us comedians. And that realisation really started to bother me."
The toxic environment around Australia's same-sex marriage postal plebiscite and the attendant homophobic hostility surrounding it, was also being played out around this time. The knives were drawn; the ugly, violent conservatism that simmers beneath Australia's surface painfully revealed. These dual forces underpin Nanette's creation. The show (which was named after an unpleasant waitperson in a small town, who only gets a brief mention) was released at the peak of #metoo.
The timing was uncanny. One of Gadsby's comedic heroes, Bill Cosby, was on trial for drugging and abusing young women around the same that Nanette was touring. Heroes fallen, idols smashed. The whirlwind gathered momentum so quickly, it left Gadsby giddy. She explains that as soon as she started performing the show, in Australia and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (for which it won the Comedy Award), she could sense it had a life of its own.
The United States, the great entertainment empire, also embraced Nanette. A single month of shows in New York turned into four.
"Things just got better, I was playing to bigger rooms, extra shows started to be booked, and it was so consuming I couldn't really process it. Then, when Netflix announced that they were wanting to run it as a special, I got the shock of my life."
The magnitude of Netflix can't be quantified. It increased the size of her audience exponentially. She has fans in places she's never visited.
"I was on the phone with my mum this morning and she said: 'I just heard that you are the top comedian in India.' I haven't been there," laughs Gadsby.
Back in New York, she was performing her new show, Douglas, when she discovered that Nanette had earned her the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. It played out like this: the Emmy awards ceremony took place on the last night of a run in New York City; Gadsby had made a running gag around the fact that she didn't win.
"I really didn't think I'd win. I'd come to terms with it. We'd actually arranged a projection that said 'Hannah Gadsby did not win an Emmy' that would be displayed behind me after the announcement. But when the time came, people started getting really excited in the crowd. I turned around and the projections said 'Hannah Gadsby won an Emmy.'"
Gadsby has no regrets that she didn't attend the awards.
"It's so embarrassing being in the room. Most of the people in the room are just feeling sad that they didn't win. It was great finding out about it in a room full of people who were there to see me."
The US was also home for Gadsby for a time. She spent a while in Los Angeles, a surprising choice of city for someone who claims their favourite noise is "the sound of a tea cup finding its place on a saucer".
It didn't last long: "Yeah, I landed there for a while. It's a showy kind of town. It didn't really suit me.
"I don't know where I live now," she chortles. She elaborates that she spends most of her time in Melbourne, and her parents still live in Tasmania. She has a good relationship with her mother now. It wasn't always the case.
While Nanette has been transformative, it was also harrowing. It made her sick: bronchitis, teeth problems, tremors and 18 months of emotional pain.
"It was actually really awful. It was so difficult to do it night after night. It was gruelling and I understood that it was also contradictory."
But unpeeling layers of historic pain has been ultimately helpful. "It's cathartic now it's all over, but it's taken a long time for the dust to settle."
After famously giving up comedy, she's back with Douglas. She's joked that she quit comedy the same way Louis CK (another disgraced comedian) said sorry. Inspired by many things, including the white male "haters" who have criticised Nanette, it's an easier experience than Nanette. It does, however, draw on some of the same source material, including Western art history.
One section of Douglas looks at the naming of the female anatomy, and how it is depicted in classical art.
"I went through a stage where I was obsessed with female anatomy," she reveals.
One of her discoveries during this period was the naming of a small section of the female anatomy by a physician called James Douglas. He staked his claim and promptly named the recto-uterine pouch the "pouch of Douglas". (Men staking their claim to the female body again.)
While not greeted with the hypermania of Nanette, Douglas has been well received generally. A Guardian review states: "Douglas remains a rich and entertaining show from Gadsby, one that achieves the impressive feat of both living up to Nanette and moving on from it."
As well as the art history "lecture" (complete with laser pointer and projections of Renaissance art), she also touches on (bad choice of words) disgraced comedian Louis CK and anti-vaxxers. There's also the official announcement of her recent autism diagnosis.
Douglas is not as traumatic as Nanette. In fact, she calls it a "joy to perform". What should be another joy for Gadsby is her new "rich and famous" status. But for this famously quiet, bookish comedian, the relationship with celebrity was never going to be simple.
"It actually feels really weird to me. Really unnatural."
Unnatural, maybe, but unlikely to change. She is now Netflix famous, and with a worldwide audience hanging out for the next instalment, 2020 looks set to continue this particular artist's upward momentum.
Hannah Gadsby performs Douglas in Auckland on February 1 as part of the Pride Festival and in Wellington on February 3. Douglas will play on Netflix later this year; Nanette is still available on Netflix.