No one is as deft at using their own narrative as a diagnostic tool for a society currently bent over its own fulcrum. Hannah Gadsby is an art historian. She is openly gay. She is a rape survivor, a victim of a hate crime assault, and a daughter with a renewed relationship with her mother. Many people are some of these things. But no one is all of these things.
Angry white male comedians are still revered as the urban sages, the savviest of the social commentators. Pissed-off white guys are smart and rational men intellectually exasperated by the irrational world around them. Middle-aged lesbian comedians are cranky malcontents who need to lighten up. Because angry lesbians just ruin the fun. George Carlin is a brilliant social critic but Hannah Gadsby, had she aired her special even just five or ten years ago, likely would have been marginalized as “too sensitive” or “too niche”. When I was a teenager she would’ve been called a ‘feminazi’. She would not have been hailed as “groundbreaking”. Now she’s being critiqued as the future of comedy — long dominated by men. White men. And not even funny white men. That’s right, Netflix. Why in the flaming hell is Louis C.K. still at the top of the search results? Twice! I tried to watch Ralphie May. Once. Never again.
Amy Schumer’s vagina monologues notwithstanding, we still view male and female comedians differently.
We’ve always adulated Carlin’s outrage as being fueled by his acerbic intellectualism. But the way society treats women, their bodies — and their comedy — is gendered. If that’s a term that annoys you, I get it. But I can’t help you. Jog on. A man beat the shit out of Gadsby because “it’s okay to assault ‘lady faggots’”. Until now she had never told that part of the story. She didn’t believe that comedy or comedians allowed for the whole story. Comedy only allows for the creation and the release of tension in the form of a punchline. Until now. Now a comedian is deciding for herself what comedy allows for. If Eddie Murphy can do a 10-min impression of his dog-kicking dad on a bender, Gadsby can swing effortlessly back and forth between jaunty banter and heart-stopping rage.
Let’s do an experiment. I transposed these comedians’ quotes on their images on the banner above. Did you read the “Carlin” quote (that’s actually a Gadsby quote) with his surly grandfatherly wisdom? Did the “Gadsby” quote annoy you? Did it seem like she was predictably beating a dead horse? Maybe not. Maybe we’re making progress.
If your search is just for “stand-up comedy” and not “rant” or “politically incorrect” or “Raunchy stand-up comedy featuring a strong female lead”, (yes, that’s an actual filter), then we do get more than just white male faces dominating the screen.
But none of these comedians deviate from the formula like Gadsby. I googled “Tasmanian angel” to see if she had been crowned with this moniker yet. Instead I came across a flower that lends itself well to sappy metaphor. And I shall proceed shamelessly.
“With their white margins and mottling, the jagged leaves of ‘Tasmanian Angel’ are a real showshopper, (sic), and in late summer, 3-foot-tall, pink-and-cream flower stalks heighten the effect. The variegation may be less pronounced as the leaves age, but the plant still draws the eye.” — Allan Armitage, Plants to know and grow, Fine Gardening issue #119
Gadsby is the mid-summer showstopper that dropped all the bombs. And the internet is rightfully going wild. I didn’t cry like many rave reviewers did. But Gadsby’s deadpanning through the early parts of her special lulled me into a false sense of familiar security. I watch a lot of comedy specials. And I swam into this one buoyed by the praise of writers I admire, a small choir of angels trumpeting on my newsfeed. But I was not prepared for the hairpin turn. I was not prepared for the stillness taut as a steel bridge.
Nothing is less pronounced about Gatsby as she has aged except her shame. She has come a long way from using herself as the only punchline. To paraphrase, self-deprecation is not humility when you’re already existing on the margins. It’s humiliation. Once she gave herself permission to “take up space”, she brilliantly takes down pedophile and misogynist Pablo Picasso for glibly referring to a 17-year-old girl as “being in her prime” — and that having a “relationship” with her was ok because he was then at his prime — 42. It is one of the many art history examples she uses to rewrite the rules of society by rewriting the rules of comedy.
40-year-old Gadsby’s jagged edges and white margins are exactly what draws the eye. And we can only hope, the hearts and minds.
Whether she quits comedy is obviously her prerogative. Or maybe we can just broaden the scope of what comedians are “allowed” to do.
Media writer Lara Zarum sums up Gadsby’s work well.
“Nanette finds Gadsby, who is gay, adjusting the goalposts — reorienting our view of who gets to be angry and make people uncomfortable, of who gets to dish it and who has to sit there and take it. Nanette, which Gadsby is performing through June 30 at the Soho Playhouse in New York, is very funny, but it seems almost inaccurate to call it a comedy show. It’s more like a humorous yet serious treatise on comedy and how it can, intentionally or not, normalize the status quo. What do all those angry white male comics have to be so upset about, anyway? If they’re having a tough time, Gadsby jokes, the rest of us are screwed.”
White, male, straight or gay — whatever you are or aren’t, Nanette definitively heightened the effect of comedy as a forum for social commentary — who gets to say what. And how. Now it’s up to each comedian to decide.