When Things Get Too Serious For Laughter, There’s Always Nanette

Hannah Gadsby’s live show Nanette has been receiving a second round of rave reviews now that it’s available on Netflix, many of them repeating the same few points over and over again because yes, it’s a show that really is shocking and powerful and deeply moving. The sharper of these new round of reviews usually mention at least one of two things: the show intentionally isn’t all that funny (especially in its second half), and it’s also very timely in the age of #metoo. We’d go further; Nanette is very timely, but part of what makes it timely has nothing to do with #metoo – and everything to do with it not being funny.

Nanette is a show that deconstructs comedy – well, a fairly specific kind of performance-based comedy, it’s not like Gadsby spends twenty minutes on single-panel gag cartoons or anything – to reveal that comedy is in many ways the enemy of truth. Comedy, according to Gadsby, is based on creating tension and releasing it, which creates an abusive relationship; you’re making people feel bad so that you can then make them feel good. Worse, when comedians act like they’re telling the truth, they’re really leaving out the truest part of the stories they’re telling – to create a punchline, you have to strip all the nuance out of a story. Crudely put, comedy is bad, and she doesn’t want to have anything more to do with it.

Gadsby is a skilled performer delivering material that’s clearly heartfelt. She’s also telling an audience that came to see a comedy show that what they came to see is bad and they should probably feel bad for being a part of it. You’d think that this might be a tough sell, but Gadsby knows what she’s doing: she also details a number of brutal experiences she’s had at the hands of white men, while pointing out that the white male-dominated art world (and by extension, our world in general) treats anyone who’s not a white male very poorly indeed. It’s not a big leap to conclude that this is the truth that comedy won’t let her say; in the age of #metoo, who wants to stick up for comedy after that?

It’s this idea that now is not the time for comedy – that today, things are simply too serious to be laughed at – that’s the real point where Nanette surfs the zeitgeist. Despite feeling like the natural order of things, this is a fairly recent development: back in the mid-00s, AKA the last time America was ruled by a right-wing despot determined to plunge the world into chaos (gee, it’s almost as if the USA has some long-term structural problems that need to be addressed), two things were different: a): George W Bush had started two legit wars that had killed hundreds of thousands of people, which is something Trump hasn’t yet managed to do, and b): comedy was the last hope of western civilisation.

We exaggerate slightly. But back then The Daily Show and Jon Stewart, along with various other truth-telling comedians and comedy documentary makers, really were a big part of the US push back against Bush Jr. and his cronies. Back then, when things were probably pretty much just as shitty as they are now (two words: Dick Cheney), comedy was seen as a vital way to tell truth to power and a general force for good. Back then, laughter was a way to release all the anger and tension people were carrying around thanks to the general crappiness of the situation they found themselves in. Now, barely a decade later, comedy only makes things worse.

The shift was a gradual one. With Obama in power, the old left-wing comedy scolds had less to scold; the generation that replaced them – your John Olivers and so on – were more about nailing it on smaller issues. Then in the run up to the last US election everyone in comedy spent nine months mocking everything there was to mock about Donald Trump and he became president anyway, which took the wind out of their sails and then some. Now the idea that comedy is going to “nail” anything is pretty much dead; even Saturday Night Live has largely put away their Trump sketches.

And then the years of rumours around Louis CK turned out to be true and he’s one of the first high profile sex creeps taken down by #metoo. Which is another problem for comedy, because CK had been one of the shining lights of progressive stand up, a guy who was seemingly doing things right. We’re not saying that his demise was in any way enough to take down an entire art form, but if you’re a certain kind of progressive comedy fan then his fall definitely casts a pall over the whole thing.

After all that, here comes Nanette – an extremely well-made and powerful piece of theatre that relentlessly demolishes the idea that comedy is anything more than lies that make people laugh under false pretenses. At a time when comedy clearly has no impact on the outside world and some of its biggest practitioners are hypocrites and molestors, is it any wonder Gadsby’s message resonates so strongly?

Let’s not forget, in 2018, the idea that a work of art should be judged on subjective merits is firmly on the way out. Audiences increasingly want art that aligns with their (political) beliefs, and does so in a way that’s both straight-forward and obvious. As comedy is notoriously subjective – what you might find hilarious someone else might not find funny at all – then all comedy is suspect unless its message is firmly on-point.

That’s why Nanette is perfect for our times: it’s a comedy show where Hannah Gadsby gradually discards being funny entirely in favour of getting her message out there in the bluntest possible terms.

And because her message is good, her show is also good. Which is about as blunt as it gets.

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