Published Jul 28, 2018When Hannah Gadsby walked on stage at the lovely L'Olympia Theatre in Montreal to perform her groundbreaking hour Nanette for the final time ever, she was greeted by ear-piercing screams and a standing ovation. "This outta be a cinch!" she quipped.
It wasn't. Neither were any of the other 200-plus times she performed this incredible act of comedy, courage, confessional and catharsis. Even with waves of critical acclaim that greeted the special's arrival on Netflix; even with an incredible outpouring of support; even with the potentially millions of fans that know her name and like her work and want more of her comedy, Nanette was never a cinch.
Backing up: Hannah Gadsby is a Tasmanian comic whose been working for over 20 years, mining her small-town upbringing and her sexuality for comedy in a number of different specials. She amassed a loyal following of fans, especially within queer and marginalized communities, and successfully turned childhood trauma into entertainment that, one figures, is at least a reasonable facsimile of closure.
But as Nanette explores, that closure isn't healing, it's sealing: yes, it frames personal tragedy as jokes and removes the pain, to some extent, of the wound, but it also freezes the experience, not as a fully told story, but as a punch line. Comedy requires only two parts: setup and punch line; storytelling, Gadsby eloquently explores, has a third part — a beginning, middle and end.
Nanette is, on the surface, an ironic retirement party — Gadsby is quitting comedy, she says here, precisely because she can't seal her trauma as punch lines any more, she needs the whole story to be heard. As a result, the show is not wall-to-wall comedy; Gadsby spends the first half offering up what might have been a more typical special for her, before turning the tables on exactly how the comedic structure of tension and release has actually failed her, personally, in terms of self-care.
The second half then moves into an examination of exactly how comedy can work in opposition to, not in service of, personal growth.
On the filmed special, this turn is one of its best, most compelling tricks. The first half is filmed conventionally as a comedy special; the second half, as it gets deeper and more serious, maintains a singular focus on Gadsby's face — you can't look away, you can't ignore her message.
In a live setting, this impact is less, simply because it's less intimate. The fan-packed crowd — quick with an applause break, hooting and a lot of loud, performative clapping — was on board with her before she started, so there was less power of revelation. But the emotional impact was felt regardless.
Not everyone was listening and taking to heart what was on offer; not everyone has reached the point that Gadsby has reached in her healing process: near the very end of the show, as Gadsby was reaching a summation of why telling these stories was crucial for her, someone yelled "Do you need a hug?" Gadsby was startled, and quipped "What part of any of this says I need a hug?" before realizing she may have snapped a little quickly, adding: "I'm really fine, I wouldn't be able to do this show if I needed a hug."
The filmed Nanette ends with a conclusion about the power of being heard: "I just needed my story heard," she says, "my story felt, by individuals with minds of their own." To conclude her final-ever performance of this show, she added "I just wanted to put something positive into the world. And I think I have."