Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution

It’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival time, and you know what that means: we continue to ignore stand up comedy just like we always do. But this year’s launch featured Australia’s biggest comedy superstar, Hannah Gadsby – and in good news, it seems that the future of comedy doesn’t necessarily have to involve jokes:

“I believe there is a revolution in comedy about to happen – a real, big, global revolution … where the joke is not the only tool in a comedian’s kit,” she said.

Guess [insert unfunny comedian’s name here] is breathing a sigh of relief right about now, right guys?

What’s actually interesting about this statement is the way that, while it’s not exactly… wrong… it reflects a reading of Nanette‘s success that doesn’t seem to line up with the facts.

(we’re assuming you know that Nanette was the world-over smash hit that turned Gadsby from a Melbourne-based comedian about to quit comedy to an international superstar now based in LA)

Gadsby has mentioned a whole bunch of times in interviews that for her the big deal about Nanette was that it was a show that didn’t have to rely on jokes (she’s even gone so far as to say it wasn’t really a comedy performance). Not only wasn’t it built around jokes, it was a huge success the world over, therefore – as her comment above seems to suggest – it’s fair to assume its success came about because comedy audiences currently crave performances with more to offer than jokes.

And while reviews of her new show Douglas are currently thin on the ground (it’s only been previewed in Adelaide to date), it does sound like she’s sticking to her guns:

But at its core Douglas is about names and labels, and how they can mean a lot, or very little. They can shape the world, be oppressive and belittling or even a little bit liberating, whether it’s pedants questioning Nanette’s classification as ‘comedy’, living in a world categorised and named by long-dead men or, perhaps, a medical diagnosis.

In and around Nanette Gadsby repeatedly said that she needed to quit comedy, and despite that show’s career-making success, she wasn’t wrong: Douglas shows that she’s now doing something quite a bit bigger, whatever you might call it.

So while there might be laughs aplenty in her new show, it also sounds like jokes are no longer the only tool in her kit. But the trouble with this “who needs jokes when you have truth” argument is that it ignores another possible reason why Nanette was so successful:

Gadsby won the festival’s prestigious Barry Award for best show in 2017 with Nanette, which went on to sell out tours in London and New York before being picked up by Netflix. Roundly praised by critics, it was a raw and personal take on her experience of abuse as a young gay woman, which tapped into the #MeToo zeitgeist months before the Weinstein scandal broke.

If anything, “tapped into the zeitgeist” is an understatement. As stand-up comedy (especially in the US) was rocked by various high profile types in the vanguard of artistic expression being revealed as sex pests – ok, it was mainly Louis CK – and across the entertainment industry case after case of high-profile men getting away with sexual harassment – again, mostly Louis CK – came to light, Nanette put Gadsby in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to express a lot of people’s frustrations with both comedy and society in general. It was the kind of art that people flock to as a way of understanding the current cultural moment; it’s highly unlikely Gadsby or Australian comedy will see anything like it for a generation.

Which makes it a little difficult to extrapolate any kind of universal comedy messages from its success. It worked because it struck a nerve, but Gadsby can’t go around saying that other performers need to follow her lead in doing the same kind of material she did in Nanette even though we all know that it was the subject matter that made the show a hit. Yes, it was a well put together show, but does anyone really think it would have done anywhere near as well if it had been about airline food?

(okay, a terminal illness might have worked – but even that isn’t a highly topical subject that roughly half the population are currently angry about)

It also worked because it expressed what was going on in society in a way that left no room for interpretation – not getting the joke isn’t a problem when you don’t really have any jokes. Which again, is fine when you have something to say that people want to hear; when your message is a little more mundane, it really helps to have a few decent laughs scattered in there.

Gadsby is a seasoned comedy professional with a global profile that’s the envy of every single other stand up comedian in the country, but there’s nothing her current success can really teach anyone. There are dozens of stand up comedians who work hard, create good comedy, never really get the success they deserve, decide to put on one final show to really go hell for leather, and then vanish without trace. The difference between them and Gadsby is that for a variety of reasons largely out of her control, Gadsby won the comedy lottery.

Good luck getting a lottery winner to teach you how to do it.


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