Comedy specials rarely have to reckon with a particularly small venue, but almost always have to reckon with a large one. Something that was immediately noticeable about John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous earlier this year—a special I really liked—was how Mulaney’s stage presence was dialed up to fill Radio City Music Hall. It totally works—I’m not criticizing Mulaney, I’m just saying it’sinteresting.
You notice something similar in the first few minutes of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. Gadsby addresses the cartoonishly cavernous Sydney Opera House with her hands essentially in her pockets, mumbling as if through chewing gum and barely looking over her glasses. But she has charisma to spare, and you’re immediately struck by how effortlessly she seems to reach the back of house despite never moving out from behind the mic stand. “Cool!” I thought to myself. And it was.
But little did I know that Gadsby has to start small, because Nanette grows and grows, past the confines of a comedy special and into something completely different—a riveting screed against misogyny in all forms that utterly abandons its reliance on jokes. In fact, she announces her last joke ten full minutes before the special ends, and by the time it does, the Sydney Opera House can barely contain it.
It is, despite being extremely funny, the anti-comedy special. That’s not a label I’m putting on it—Gadsby announces her intentions for the special very clearly. It’s a work of art that—as someone who both loves comedy and often feels conflicted about its place in our cultural landscape—I’ve been waiting for for a long time without even realizing it.
Brilliantly named for the woman that it isn’t about, Nanette’s central preoccupation is Gadsby’s exhaustion with the idea of using comedy to process pain. Her idea is that a joke must end where it is funniest, rather than where the story actually ends, and as such, communicating the trauma of her life through comedy has actually ended up bottling up that trauma at the midpoint and causing even more damage. It’s an idea that comedians and comedy fans regularly balk at: that comedy might not be the best solution to a given problem. But it’s irrefutable here.
This concept dovetails perfectly into the section of the special that is most likely to make headlines and should, given that it feels like the most direct and possibly the only proportional artistic response to the long-overdue blood transfusion happening in the entertainment industry right now. Unpacking the legacies of powerful men from the Renaissance to today, Gadsby is quick to identify the problem with separating the man from the art. “How about you take Picasso’s name off his little paintings there and see how much his doodles are worth at auction: fucking nothing,” she says. “Nobody owns a ‘circular Lego nude,’ they own a ‘Picasso!’”
The larger point here, however, is that this will continue as long as we feed our collective obsession with reputation over humanity, from which famous comedians, regardless of how they position themselves as underdogs and outsiders, are not immune. “These men control our stories,” says Gadsby. “And yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity. And we don’t seem to mind, so long as they get to hold on to their precious reputation.”
It is an extremely angry hour, an extremely cathartic one and an extremely necessary one. An art form cannot thrive if it refuses to look itself in the face and question its own necessity. If it does, it might emerge on the other side stronger and more vital.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.