Classy Clown

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?

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  • yeps says:

    Thanks for this pointing this out. Very enjoyable.

    Gadsby has been something of an unknown to me. Whenever I’ve seen her in the past she has been relegated to playing the thankless role of charming hipster prop for Adam Hills, or lost in the derivative, poorly edited slurry of ‘Agony [insert noun]s’), so hearing her talk intelligently and playfully on a subject about which she is clearly passionate was great.

    Indeed, I might be jumping a bit ahead of myself, but I’d actually be interested in seeing this developed into a television series. A jaunt through art history with a critic who could be funny and self-depreciating while treating the subject matter with respect – not just resorting to animating Whistler’s Mother into a zany Monty-Python-reject-flash-animation.*

    That sounds fantastic.

    * I’m not referencing anyone in particular, by the way, just channeling the usual Audiences-are-f**king-idiots-we-have-to-keep-them-from-switching-over-somehow-Television-Producer voice.

  • simbo says:

    Just to note, Gadsby has had a few one-off art programs on the ABC, none of which rated very well (the ABC is quite bad at promoting their own art programming). Hopefully the BBC does better by her.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    As I understand it BBC radio comedy shows don’t get a lot of PR/marketing support, but her show’s in an established comedy slot so presumably there’s a dedicated audience listening. It’s certainly the kind of show that we don’t see much of in Australia whereas in Britain it’s the kind of thing that gets a run. Good luck to her!