No one sets out with the intention of becoming a one-hit wonder; just ask the Baha Men or Los del Río. At first, it seemed like Australian comic Hannah Gadsby may be one such lightning-in-a-bottle act on the international stage. She vowed to quit comedy in her watershed Netflix special Nanette, a thought-provoking look at the relationship between trauma and humor. Gadsby returned behind the mic, however, to our collective benefit on the considerably lighter but no less insightful Douglas (named for her dog).
As much as Nanette was about trauma, Douglas is about autism, a diagnosis she received as an adult. Gadsby sets forth this intention quite plainly during the verbal table of contents she provides at the beginning of the special, a hilarious precursor that spectacularly defies the old entertainment adage of “show, don’t tell.”
Comedians are often praised for having a “fresh voice” or a “unique perspective” that makes their humor especially surprising and entertaining. Gadsby’s neurodivergence is part of what makes her so funny, and in revealing more about herself, she consequently helps us learn more about comedy. Her mind works in ways literal and unexpected thanks to autism. She remarks at the beginning of the special that she’s not very good at observational comedy and that she tends to be a bit too “vague” for it, but throughout the special Gadsby proves quite the opposite. She’s constantly noting the world around her in ways that a neurotypical person usually doesn’t, and these connections feed directly into her comedy. One of the most charming anecdotes she shares is about a lesson in prepositions from when she was a child, involving an imaginary box and a penguin. Young Gadsby was caught up in the literal implications of the grammatical exercise, and the audience is caught up in every joke involving the word box. Gadsby puts it best when she declares near the end of the special, “There is beauty in the way I think.”
Gadsby’s focus on her autism is all the more impactful considering that just this last week, Florida woman Patricia Ripley was charged with the murder of her 9-year-old nonverbal autistic son, Alejandro, as reported by NBC News. As much as Douglas remains silly, ever in contrast to Nanette, the underlying truth is that our world operates in a way that puts autistic people at a distinct disadvantage and even danger. Gadsby herself was homeless for an extended period of time as an adult, a situation that only fully made sense after she was diagnosed, she explained to NPR. Underneath the shiny exterior of jokes and her goofy slideshow presentation, the Australian comic exposes the harsh reality of how our society treats individuals with autism.
Naysayers may remark, “Oh, so she has to have a message each time. First trauma, now autism.” And yeah, whatever, they’re right. That may not be what they’re looking for in a comedy special, but that’s fine. They can move on and watch some other set. Gadsby understands innately that stand-up is a conversation with the audience, but the nature of that dialogue varies greatly. We are used to specials that are the equivalent of small talk—occasionally with something biting or lascivious thrown in, but not much more than that. And that’s okay. Some people are really damn talented at small talk, and it’s not always easy to do engagingly. But it’s even more difficult to forge an emotional connection and encourage strangers to rethink their own world views in merely an hour, while still making them laugh the entire time. Gadsby pulls it off, though, and we’re the better for it.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.