Nanette, the Netflix special from Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, landed on the streaming service well over a month ago. For that reason, it should be the last thing WIRED is doing a piece on. However, in the six weeks since the special first dropped, the conversation around it has only increased—and by now, the special has established itself as a sleeper phenomenon. Dealing openly with the sexism, homophobia, and assaults Gadsby has dealt with in her own life, Nanette quickly became the title most frequently preceded by “Have you seen…” during the typically quiet months of June and July. And in the process, it completely upended what a comedy special could be in the process.
Which means we needed to talk about it, too. Below we gathered writers and editors Angela Watercutter, Jason Kehe, Alexis Sobel Fitts, and Peter Rubin for a roundtable discussion about Nanette and what, exactly, made it such an unexpected success.
Angela Watercutter, Senior Associate Editor: Strictly speaking, I may very well be Hannah Gadsby’s target demo: I’m a woman with a fondness for blazers and short hair and I like comedy. But that’s not why I watched Nanette the weekend it came out. At least not initially. I put it on because a friend of mine had sent me a clip of the part of the special where Gadsby relates a run-in with a mansplainer telling her she shouldn’t take antidepressants because she’s an artist and “if Vincent Van Gogh had taken medication, we wouldn’t have The Sunflowers.” (Yes, the part where she says “I tore that man a college-debt-sized new asshole.”) The thinkpieces hadn’t started rolling in yet, so I wasn’t expecting the twist. (If you don’t know what I mean by “the twist” stop reading now, go watch Nanette, and come back.) By the time I’d finished, my heart was on the floor. Everything she was saying—about art, about the tools of comedy, about the strength of broken people who rebuild themselves—hit like a locomotive.
Like many of you, I’m sure, that viewing led to lots of conversations about Gadsby’s special (as well multiple repeat viewings). I heard lots of feedback, lots of opinions; most of those came down to how mind-blowing and revolutionary Nanette was. The reasons people offered for why it is so vital are almost as varied as the people I talked to about it. But I think what struck me most was that I’d never heard anyone address the psychological layers of self-deprecating humor in a comedy show. Watching it, I realized I’d often relied on the same tricks of tension-breaking Gadsby does/did—though, admittedly, not as well—and hadn’t really thought about the implications. That bit has lingered in my brain for a while, and I don’t think it’ll ever leave.
Jason Kehe, Senior Associate Editor: Angela, you happened to be at our San Francisco office the day after I watched Nanette, and thank god, because I had to talk to you about it. Pretty sure I said something to the effect of: “NA. freaking. NETTE.” Like you, I was stunned, overwhelmed, floored. But I gotta ask: Does this count as comedy? Or stand-up? At least two friends of mine kept calling it a “speech,” which feels belittling. Others seem to prefer “one-woman show.” That’s closer, maybe (though—do we ever say “one-man show”?), but I still maintain it’s a stand-up comedy special. In a sense it had to be called that, because the whole point is that, midway through, she completely subverts what that means. The show worked for me in many ways, but the main one might be as a kind of meta self-interrogatory anti-comedy. Anyway, why this strenuous effort to categorize, name, label? My mental image is of the tongue-tied masses being like: GERP WHAT IS THIS?!
Alexis Sobel Fitts, Senior Editor: Oh, how little I want to slot in as resident buzzkill, and the genre-and-culture-bending comedy set of a masculine-of-center lesbian is not the mountain I intended to die on. And yet, here we are.
Look, from a structural perspective, I won’t deny that Hannah Gadsby’s performance is brilliant: The way she quietly built and broke different interlocking threads could (and should) be studied by grad students, dissected and mapped and explained as a masterclass on narrative. What I question is the hype. I’m not clear what makes her set so genre-breaking. Comedy is built to question its own existence, to be weird, to vary from form, to offer something closer to social commentary than … well, humor. Think back to a period when Louis C.K. was still comedian god, and remember that his entire live show revolved around unmooring the closing scene of the Grapes of Wrath. It’s not just white guys in the #MeToo set who get to do this: Tig Notaro, Wanda Sykes, Joan Rivers have offered up intimate performances that grapple with the darkest parts of society, that engage and enrage and place blame on the audience, that do much more than setting up jokes.
What made Gadsby’s special special, in my opinion, is the diversity of its audience. Louis C.K. might get to spew his weirdness into packed auditoriums, but when queer, female comedians tackle identity in a set, they’re usually speaking to a limited, like-minded room. Because Netflix had Nanette up on its homepage and the press covered it in a unified push, the resulting network effect transformed it from a television program into a can’t-miss cultural event. For example, I watched the show with my husband—a lovely, well read, open-minded, feminist-advocate … who is also still, a straight, white man. He was overwhelmed by Nanette, he wanted to send it to all of his friends, and talk about it ad nauseam. He also wasn’t used to bearing such close witness to the struggles of a queer woman within the patriarchy. “I know stuff like this happens,” he told me at one point, “but I’m not used to hearing it like this.”
Peter Rubin, Senior Editor: Alexis, I certainly agree that comedy can violate any definition one can dream up for it, and its slipperiest self might be the one that offers itself up as a sacrifice. We expect things from comedy—as Gadsby says: tension, resolution—but the truly indelible performances break that expectation. Artists have spent their lives onstage, developing a comfort that in the best cases has given rise to clarity; some of the most searing routines of recent years have dispensed with the distance of jokes, instead laying bare the artist behind the art. It’s no surprise that all the routines you mention are women; given the way the comedy world has worked for decades, they’ve got more than a little material to work with.
I also agree that what we call this thing doesn’t really get at the real question here, which is what exactly is so transformative about Nanette. Since I saw it, I’ve had conversations about it, and I’ve definitely thought about it, but I’ve also spent a lot of time considering my role as a viewer—and in comedy, that’s rare territory to find yourself in. There’s no one way to be a fantastic standup comic, but whether someone is a storyteller or a satirist, a common thread is universalizing your experience. Nanette points itself the other way, and tromps on the gas pedal. At every turn of the screw, her experience becomes more and more personal, more and more individual; connecting with the story isn’t a ohhh, hey, yeah! but a hoooooly shit.
And that’s the special thing here, to me. Nanette isn’t just brilliantly written, or emotionally honest, or performed by a comic with gift for disarming asides. It’s challenging. Gadsby forces you to feel another person’s pain and strength, but does so in a way that also causes you to interrogate your own position. I’ve been wondering what I would compare it to, and the answer isn’t another standup special but a first-season episode of Atlanta, in which Earn (Donald Glover) gives Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) the last of his money in hopes of a quick come-up. When the come-up does arrive, it slams home the economic catch-22 of check-to-check living, and does so in a way that no observation- or polemic-based comedy routine could. It’s an apples-to-Cane Corso puppies comparison, I know, but we’re also talking about two one-of-a-kind projects.
Each had predecessors that plumbed similar ground, but I’d argue that none did so as deftly as these.
So here’s another question: what happens now? Does Netflix start ponying up for more bracing, conscious comedy specials? Does Hannah Gadsby’s comedy retirement hold? If so, what’s next for her; if not, how long until her Kingdom Come?
Watercutter: Peter, I think you’re 100 percent right about Nanette causing audiences to look at their own role in the proceedings. It breaks down the fourth wall in a genre—stand-up comedy—that we typically don’t think of as having one because the orator is always addressing the audience. It’s an odd thing to ask a crowd, “What are you buying when you pay to laugh at someone?” With a lot of stand-up, that doesn’t seem like such an unfair bargain because the presenter is offering up scenes of humiliation—relationship dust-ups, the woes of travel, whatever—that seem, at least, relatively benign. What Gadsby does is point out the fact that the way she gets laughs is by joking about the very traumatic events in her life—and then makes the crowd confront what they were asking for when they showed up and said, “Here we are now, entertain us.”
With other forms of entertainment like movies or plays or even concerts, the audience also pays someone else to make them feel something, but the transaction is different. You’re made to empathize with a character in a 1-1 relationship: They’re representing a thing people can relate to; catharsis ensues. Both parties are, roughly, going through the same emotions. Gadsby’s special is her talking about painful experiences, getting both empathy and laughs, and then asking the audience to think about why they’re laughing—a particularly potent question, I think, for the segments of the audience who haven’t had similar life experiences. All art requires the consumer, on some level, to relate to the artist, but not while the artist is actively telling them that the thing they’re getting joy from was traumatizing for them.
I think that’s why folks are reticent to call Nanette “comedy.” When audiences see stand-up, it’s given under the illusion that the comic enjoys making people laugh, that everyone is in on the joke; Gadsby doesn’t do that, she’s not laughing along with her audience. (I’m weirdly reminded of Ellen DeGeneres’ bit about using the phrase “just kidding” to try to get away with saying something insulting: “Well, then you don’t know how to kid properly, ’cause we should both be laughing.”)
But Peter, you asked a question. What I think/hope the future holds for Gadsby is writing. I think what she did with Nanette, whether intentionally or not, was set up one really great mic-drop. She kinda can’t go back. (Also, if it is causing the kind of harm Gadsby says it is in the special, I kinda don’t want her to go back, at least not to the kind of routines she’d been doing heretofore.) She was writing for the show Please Like Me while she was on it, and it would be awesome if she could continue using her talents in that way … perhaps on a Netflix show! After that, if she wants to come back like Jordan wearing the 45 and give an encore, she can.