If you only know Hannah Gadsby from Adam Hills Tonight or Agony Aunts you might be surprised to hear that she has a degree in art history and curatorship from ANU. And like many people fresh out of uni with an arts degree Gadsby presumably found it hard to get work, so she went in to comedy, did a bunch of live shows about art, and had the last laugh. Last year Gadsby toured her live show The Exhibitionist around the local comedy festivals, then took it to Edinburgh where she was spotted by a legendary British comedy producer…and the rest was history. Well, she got a four-episode series for Britain’s Radio 4.
The legendary comedy producer in question was John Lloyd, producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News and Blackadder, creator of QI, and some time radio host and performer. He liked The Exhibitionist so much that he brought Gadsby to Radio 4, a well-loved BBC station known for scripted comedy, panel shows, radio plays, news and documentaries, and he even appears (uncredited) in the show as Gadsby’s comic foil. Hannah Gadsby Arts Clown, four comedy programs about famous paintings, is currently airing on the station on Wednesday nights and is also available on the BBC’s iPlayer Radio website.
The first episode looks at Edouard Manet’s “Olympia”, a 19th Century painting which shows a “reclining nude” with her servant. When it was first exhibited the painting was considered scandalous, and since then it’s continued to attract criticism. Gadsby pulls apart some of the criticism and gets much humour from the fact that a number of the critics compared Olympia to a corpse. As amusingly she points out some of the odd features of the painting, such as why Olympia is lying around in the nude while her servant shows her some flowers.
Amongst all of this are more some academic interjections from Quotebot, a know-it-all art history automaton voiced by John Lloyd. When Gadsby jokes that she got in to art because she realised she was a lesbian when homosexuality was still illegal in her home state of Tasmania and she wanted a legitimate way to check out boobs, Quotebot jumps in with some zingers. Although less known as a performer, Lloyd proves to be very good at playing a snooty, deadpan intellectual type.
Hannah Gadsby and John Lloyd aren’t a comic pairing anyone ever expected to see but they work well together, and with European galleries being full of well-known artworks it’s a double act that could last well beyond the four episodes in this series. Coming up this Wednesday night (UK time) is a look at Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait”, another painting featuring an odd looking pair and with heaps of comic potential. Historically the fine arts and comedy haven’t mixed very well but this series proves it’s more than possible to get laughs from masterpieces, the question is which artwork’s going to cop it next?