This is one last appeal to people out there — please watch Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette.” You’ve probably heard about it by now. It’s been making the rounds. And to be completely honest with you, though I’ve written this column for a few years now, for sure I’m no theater critic. But I wanted to try with “Nanette” in hopes that you might give it a try, too.
If you have Netflix, it might already be in your queue somewhere. And it’s easy to push off until later, or dismiss altogether. A ‘masc-of-center’ lesbian from Tasmania with mild autism does stand up. See? It’s sort of hard to sell. Beyond that, it has all the hallmarks of a gay comedy special – a lone microphone on a stage, a comedian wearing all black, and large doses of self-deprecating gay humor. And that’s it. Or at least the first half of it. And then roughly halfway in, it turns on its head.
The first half is what you could call a normal comedy show with the standard formula — a set up and a punchline, or as Gadsby describes it — a “question with a surprise answer.” Then there’s what comedians call the ‘callback.’ Essentially circling back to a story or a joke told earlier, looping it all together. The audience loves it because they feel involved, in on the joke. Some of my favorite shows mastered the callback, like “30 Rock” and “Seinfeld.” Callbacks tie things together and the audience gets to pat themselves on the back for paying attention. And there’s a lot to circle back to while watching “Nanette” — Vincent Van Gogh, Gadsby’s mom, cubism, people that from a distance mistake her for a man.
But then there’s the second half of “Nanette.” For queer comedians, the coming out story is easy fodder for jokes. This is how I did it, this is how it went down. This is the funny thing that my mom said in response. But what happened after the coming out? What is mom saying now about it all? We’re reminded that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Gadsby warns us not to seal things off into jokes, to finish the story. Humor is hugely important, maybe even more so to queer kids. And queer kids are taught early on to recognize and defuse tension. And it’s sometimes wondered why gays are so funny and sharp. We’re given tension in the form of bullies, uncomfortable questions about ourselves we’re not ready to answer, scores of awkward encounters. Humor can deflect, defuse, distract, to dust hurt off our shoulders. But Gadsby’s tired of self-deprecating humor, asking us if we “understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.”
There’s a real need, as Gadsby says, to tell a story properly. And that goes for her, her story, and all sorts of stories, from Van Gogh to Pablo Picasso. Granted, I had no idea Picasso was such a complicated, troubling figure. We all knew that Picasso was a womanizer, but that was almost dismissed as the eccentric trappings of an artist cultivating a reputation. Up until now, anyway.
There’s a lot more callback left in “Nanette.” And it’s not mine to tell but maybe mine to encourage others to hear. If we are to have honest conversations in this #MeToo time, “Nanette” almost takes the Me Too Movement to the next inevitable level. The story is valuable and important, but once we hear the story, we the audience become a player.
Setups. Punchlines. Stories. Humor is all well and good. But she notes “laughter is not our medicine. . .stories are our cure.” That’s the surprise answer. And the audience didn’t know we were being set up the entire time.
Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” is currently available on Netflix.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Blade.