Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s farewell to comedy – though not, if you pay close attention, to live performance necessarily – has been going gangbusters the world over since it won the 2017 Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It’s gone on to win Best Comedy at the Adelaide Fringe, the Edinburgh Comedy Award, and a shed-load of glowing reviews from both UK and US critics as she’s toured the English-speaking world. There’s even a book due later in the year, titled Ten Steps to Nanette. It’s now available on Netflix. And it’s not a comedy.
Thing is, this isn’t news:
Thing is, Nanette’s not comedy.
“No. It’s narrative,” Gadsby says. It’s a string of stories that draw together the varied dark events of her life in the cause of demanding that the audience understand the damage society can visit upon children who find themselves on the outside. Like her.
Audiences and critics who have borne witness to the raw power of Nanette tend to leave the theatre not remembering the jokes so much as the emotion invested in the performance.
So, to get the obvious side of things out of the way: Nanette is an astonishingly powerful and well-crafted hour of stand-up, an absolute must-see for which words like “devastating” barely scratch the surface. Shows this memorable and angry come along rarely; we humbly suggest you don’t let this particular kick to the head pass you by.
That said, if you’re desperately in need of the healing power of laughter, this may not be the show for you. In fact, a large chunk of the show is built around the idea that laughter is not the best medicine, and can (and often is) be used to hide some of the harsher truths of our society. These truths aren’t exactly news to anyone paying attention to the current state of our society – straight white men, hang your heads in shame – but they’re illustrated with a depth and power here that hammer them home hard.
So effective is Nanette, and so deeply personal is Gadsby’s story, that there hasn’t been all that much (that we’ve seen) discussion of her thesis. Which is a shame, because it’s one that deserves further unpacking: if there are things comedy can’t do, what do we do with comedy?
In Nanette, comedy is largely about creating tension, then defusing it. But according to Gadsby, this artificial tension is fake; worse, it’s part of an abusive, manipulative relationship. She then proceeds to burn down the whole edifice in electrifying fashion, driven by an anger that’s clearly exhausting to deal with – and she’s been dealing with it for her entire adult life.
The problem with countering her argument is that many of the examples where comedy has been used to tackle issues seemingly above its pay grade have been made by the aforementioned straight white men. And make no mistake: this show is not on their side. During a blistering take-down of the history of Western (high) Art, Gadsby makes it very clear that she has very little time for artists who claim that their art allows them free reign, or just suggest that painting nudes is about more than what gets their rocks off. It’s a show driven by anger, but its message is one of compassion – and disdain for art that encourages us to see others as less than human, because that leads to a whole lot of very bad things.
Unfortunately, no matter which direction you’re punching, seeing others as less than human is also how comedy often works. And so Nanette consigns comedy to the bin.
Nanette is a show by a performer who feels that comedy no longer enables her to accurately tell her truth, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll come away from it disagreeing with her. So raw and bruising is that truth that it only feels right to agree that anything that stifles that voice is something we should cast aside.
But she’s talking about comedy. You can see our dilemma.
Haven’t seen the show… but the idea that comedy/art heals is more wishful thinking than effective treatment. Or as Plato (!) might have said, standup comedy is a pharmakon, a narcotic, for good or bad or strange/different… it all depends on the ingredients and environment, the changes that come about.
Making art can make you feel worse or reproduce negative perspectives, which is especially frustrating if you are simply expecting art to heal you. Governments lumping together mental health programs with arts funding assume art is good for you. They don’t grasp the destructive/negative components of the arts…