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Hannah Gadsby: A humourist who leaned on hard truths to rally a generation behind her

As Hannah Gadsby turns a year older, here’s a deep dive into her brand (or the lack thereof) of her humour and her seamless ability to connect with millions despite her crippling social awkwardness. 

Shreya Paul
Jan 06, 2022
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Hannah Gadsby’s comedic voice erupted through the walls in 2018, when Netflix decided to premiere the stand-up comedienne’s 2017 Sydney Opera House performance across continents. Incisive, brutal, and non-hilarious, Gadsby broke down the core of stand-up and laid her vulnerabilities bare for the audience to be the best judge. 

Titled Nanette (based on a woman Gadsby met and decided to write an hour worth of material on her, but ultimately chose not to), the comedy special took a less-traversed in-road into Gadsby’s childhood, her teenage years all through to her current disillusioned self. 

At the onset of the show, Gadsby declared, “I identify as tired,” presenting the audience with multiple scenarios where her homosexual orientation became a cause of concern for the people around her. Having grown within an exacting atmosphere in Tasmania, Gadsby was constantly questioned and judged for being her natural self.

Gadsby’s voice spoke to millions after her debut on Netflix. Her strategy to go about doing that was to completely deconstruct and unpack the axioms of comedy. 

She began her performance as a confession, declaring that her dissatisfaction with comedy has been long gnawing at her conscience and that she needs to disassociate with the art form at the soonest.

Launching a monologue on identity, self, body, and comfort, Gadsby said that her love for making people laugh was now interrupting with her sense of self. 

The performer, with Nanette, opened about being sexually abused as a youngster and how she had to constantly field questions about her ‘butch’ persona. 

Growing up in an orthodox Tasmania, Gadsby described being a lesbian as, “Gays, why don’t you just pack up your AIDS in a suitcase, and fuck off to Mardi Gras.”

Nanette was revolutionary in that it was not trying to be such. Gadsby had reached the proverbial end of career and had dealt with too much ‘tension’ (as she terms it), for her to overlook the loopholes. 

She confessed that the periodic abuse she faced for being unwomanly (also narrating a harrowing instance of an abusive guy mistaking her for a man and beating her up relentlessly) while growing up and even as an adult, brought her to the realisation that she had channelised too much energy in trying to dissipate this tension.

After being diagnosed with autism, Gadsby was further sure of the fact that her ‘alienness’ would only increase. And this truth, she stated, had to effectively stop her from spiralling further into oblivion. 

Thus, Gadsby decided to permanently bid adieu to stand-up comedy and stitch her life on terms that were more acceptable and far less escapist to her as an individual. 

Talking about shouldering this constant burden of ostracisation Gadsby had said to her audience, “This tension? It’s yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time, because it is dangerous to be different.”

Through her trauma, Gadsby managed to evoke a tirade against the miscreants of the world, with millions backing her unassuming revolution. While nations descended into a vicious loop of #MeToo and noted names came to the fore with heinous truths, it seemed everyone had a personal story to tell. 

Through Nanette and its 2020 spinoff Douglas, Gadsby took the leap of faith to tell the millions around her that she would always remain an oddity, and that she was tired of feeling guilty about it.

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Gadsby’s excruciating honesty in narrating each detail about her life is both endearing and disconcerting at the same time. But this discomfort is what Gadsby uses as her tool, to tell audiences that she has been facing it all her life. All she’s doing now is narrating facts about it. Gadsby’s personal struggles with autism were painstakingly dissected in Douglas (the show was named after her pet dog).

Through both Nanette and Douglas, Gadsby was successful in creating a safe space where she felt vulnerable enough to tell her story, flaws and all.

While Nanette was raw anger, Douglas was silent acceptance. The special saw her as more celebratory of her shortcomings, more at home inside her mind that takes her to “places that nobody else lives in”, more accepting of her “puffer-fish moments” (an unsubtle call back to hapless moments of impotent rage that leave her sulking), and most definitely more at peace about punching up to misogyny and privilege.

But Douglas too sees Gadsby take a harsh dig at her primary detractor – white, male supremacists who suck the life-juices out of the marginalised, happily ensconced in the lap of entitlement.

Despite these hard truths and insurmountable sadness in her funny words, Gadsby’s brand always holds a ray of hope by the end of it all. Her persona is so lovable, that you immediately want to pull up a chair next to her and gape at those expressive eyes as they tell you a thousand stories. 

Gadsby’s sheer integrity as a performer and human being could be her two sole USPs for the worldwide success that she unwittingly received after almost abandoning her comedic career. Self admittedly, Gadsby is all about the smile. Primarily, because, as she says it, “if the world is right, and I’m right in it, I can find my funny zip, and my thinking expands. Because there is beauty in the way that I think.”


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