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Hannah Gadsby Nanette Review – Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette Is Required Viewing
If you go to the Van Gogh Museum’s website, you will find a catalogue of some of his most famous works. Search “sunflower.” There are nine results that pop up, but if you select the one from 1889 entitled Sunflowers and then zoom in as close as you can and then put your face to the screen, you will end up nose-to-pixel with a digital stroke of yellow paint. If you squint, you may find that it looks more goldenrod. Or perhaps that the brush stroke looks more diagonal than vertical. Or that the paint doesn’t even really look yellow when you’re that close. Here. Go do it. Get really close, slowly move backward, and take a minute to assess what you see. Then come back.
Sunflowers takes up just a few minutes of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the Tasmanian comic’s debut Netflix comedy special. Gadsby has this way of hilariously maneuvering among topics she knows so well—art history, being a lesbian, growing up in Tasmania—and then applying it to something greater than herself. Unfortunately, just past the 16-minute mark, she admits to the crowd, “I do think I have to quit comedy though.” It’s a shame, because those first 16 minutes are pretty hysterical. But what Nanette evolves into is something different than any stand up special before it.
The start of Gadsby’s show is delivered like a hysterical bedtime story. A self-described “quiet gay,” she jokes, “I don’t even like the [pride] flag. Controversial. There I’ve said it. The pride flag—I love what it means… but the flag itself? A bit busy. It’s just six very shouty, assertive colors stacked on top of each other. No rest for the eye.” Her timbre rarely raises above a polite inside voice as she traverses the particulars of gender identity and Tasmania’s laws against homosexuality—where it was illegal until 1997.
But it’s when she jokes, “I identify as tired,” that the tone of the show starts to change. Comedy has always been a bit of a boys’ club, one that until recently shielded its own dark history from the world. Even as the bubble of scandals neared its popping point, male comedians continued to score laughs off of jokes around sexual assault. But the conversation within comedy has started to change. Specials like Rape Jokes from Cameron Esposito aim for comedy and discussion around sexual assault to be led by survivors. In an interview with PBS Newshour, Esposito explained, “I don’t think any topics are off limits, but I think if… the way to deal with taboo subjects or subjects that can be painful is to lead with personal experience, if you have it. If you don’t have personal experience, you need to be aware of that.”
And that’s precisely why Gadsby’s Nanette hits so hard. She spends the first third of her special introducing us to who she is, making sure that we know she is a lesbian. That we’re aware of her appearance and how it subverts gender norms. She lays out everything about her that a self-deprecating comic would use to garner a laugh: her hometown, the relationship with her mom, coming out, her art history degree—all the way down to a confrontation in which a man thought she was a guy hitting on his girlfriend.
And we laugh at every joke, because they’re funny and devoid of any reason to feel guilty for laughing. Then she turns her entire set on its head.
Only by drawing the audience in with grace and humor and her quiet queerness is she able to accomplish what she does so masterfully in the back half of her special: She implicates herself and all comedy for playing on stereotypes and tropes of marginalized audiences. She explains that a joke is comprised of a beginning and a middle, with the end being eliminated for the sake of the laugh. But a story? A story has a beginning, middle, and end—and she uses the rest of her special to tell her own story, often elaborating on jokes she’s already told.
By Nanette’s end, you’ll wonder why a person would have to endear themselves to you for their story to be heard to begin with.
Going back to the man who thought she was a man, Gadsby describes that the part of the story she left out was that he returned upon realizing that she was a “lady faggot”—and then proceeded to beat her. She admits not going to the police, because she thought it was “all that she was worth,” adding, “That is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.” She works through her jokes, fleshing them out into stories and shining a light on something larger than whatever your definition of comedy might be.
In a society rife with stories of assault and prejudice, Nanette’s narrative is so effective because it forces you to fall in love with Gadsby’s self-deprecation and sincerity before she sheds her quietness for full-blown shouting. It’s a (tired) comedic trope all on its own: the shouting woman. But this time it’s different, because the trope isn’t funny. And by Nanette’s end, you’ll wonder why a person would have to endear themselves to you for their story to be heard to begin with.
No longer making an attempt to be funny, Gadsby’s final moments are a plea to humanity, with a particular focus on the straight, white men in the audience. Be better. Change the world. “What I don’t have the right to do is spread anger,” she admits. “Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure.” Gadsby’s perfect concoction of wit and expertise and pain is what makes Nanette worth watching—its charge to improve the human condition is what makes it required viewing.
Okay, so back to the sunflowers. In your head, answer the question: What did you see?
Likely just sunflowers, right? If you have a background in art, you might have seen more, but for most people, if you’re being honest, you saw sunflowers. You wouldn’t have any other idea how to answer that unless someone had told you, or had prior experience, or was Van Gogh himself. But Gadsby, with a background in art history, explains that Sunflowers came to be because of Van Gogh’s brother—one of his few connections in his chaotic world. It’s a detail many of us would never know without hearing it from someone who knows more than us.