The Muse and the Amused

I watched Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ and my, what a show that was! I am not just going to write a long post on why one must watch her show, if you haven’t watched it please do. Watching her show got me thinking, in fact at certain points I had goosebumps. It’s not one of your run-of-the-mill comedy shows that end on a high note or slapstick humour and the most overused tool of comedy i.e. sarcasm. I try to watch as many specials as I can and comedians usually play on familiar tropes. But, what Hannah Gadsby did was change the meaning of comedy, what it does and what it can do.

Comedians usually come under fire for political opinions and for quote-unquote “controversial” humour. I don’t believe such a type of humour exists, it’s only controversial because someone couldn’t laugh at the joke and found it a little too close to hitting home. This particular special got under the surface of superficial comedy. Gadsby dove into the idea of drawing on experiences to make a joke and showed the mess behind a joke, what happens after the punchline or more importantly what didn’t happen. The idea that jokes draw on trauma was not news to anyone but for the first time a comedian called it out. The joke is only a part of a story, it’s up to you to decide which is more important, the joke or the story.

You’d think living and existing are easy things, but unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It’s not black and white. For me, it felt very real. I was laughing while being just as close to crying. The thing is a comedy doesn’t always have to be funny, and some people expect comedy to make them laugh. But life isn’t funny. There are two schools of thought one is to be sensitive of the situation and the other to be able to laugh in the face of adversity. But how often do we get under the skin of a joke, understand where that joke has come from? It’s easy to laugh when someone tells you a joke but maybe the situation out of which the joke was born wasn’t exactly what you’d call funny.

Comedy is serious business, and what it does for me is make me more empathetic. When she called self-deprecating humour humiliation, that’s when she won my respect. I’ve always thought that it was but never understood why it became such a tired genre of comedy. Why is it ok to put yourself down when it’s not ok to put someone else down? I do it too but I know it comes from a place of insecurity and lack of confidence. The more you put yourself down the more you think that you’re not worth anything more than that joke.

“I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humour. That’s what I’ve built my career on. And…I don’t want to do that anymore….because do you understand what self-deprecation means? When it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak…in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.” – Hannah Gadsby, ‘Nanette’

I wouldn’t say I identify with Gadsby I do in some senses and in others, I can’t. Even in the places that I couldn’t relate though, I had a great amount of respect for what she went through because braving it isn’t easy. Her comedy special has finally called out all those people who complain that women always want to be seen as victims. I have heard men who are well-educated and consider themselves respectful of women ask why we constantly reiterate the negatives of our past, related to sexual harassment, being told we’re playing the victim card. It’s easy to make these statements when you haven’t faced it or when you don’t relate. They also go on to say, “You don’t see men complaining about sexual harassment…” Well, that isn’t healthy, whether it’s a man or a woman.

Gadsby rightfully pointed out how hysteria around gender has grown in recent times. In the fear of being incorrect people are striving to be overly accurate. We seem to not be able to acknowledge that gender is fluid. We have stopped treating people like people. While laws are making progress at least at snail’s pace, mindsets still remain firmly where they always were. Gadsby’s comedy special is going to get mixed reactions, whether we like it or not. I’m not sure how much change it will bring, or what the overall effect of her special on the comedy scene will be. All I know is, I found a new comic I can look to for intelligent and poetic humour.

To be fair I haven’t watched her other specials and was very disappointed when she said that she wanted to quit comedy just when I was getting to know her. I don’t blame her. Comedy is a messy place and I say this as a complete outsider. As part of the audience, there are huge fissions, yet I’ve seen comedy acquire new layers. Comedy has become more representative. Although comedians are doing more than just representing their identity, they are pushing the envelope, there is a call to action in comedy today and I was waiting for that. Some comedians just stopped short of doing so and today Gadsby took that extra step unabashedly. How many of us identify with self-deprecating humour and search for representation in comedy, but when will we believe that we’re more than just a joke?


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