Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” Gets Real

By Nina Donoghue, Contributing Writer

Hannah Gadsby has mastered the art of keeping people on their toes. Her one-woman comedy show “Nanette” may not be one for the casual comedy fan. During the show’s five-week stint at the Soho Playhouse, audiences are treated to 20 minutes of a delightfully deadpan, often lesbian-centric Gadsby set, recalling cringy coming-out experiences and musings of a hopeless introvert. The cozy theater feels warm and lighthearted, Gadsby winking her way through her own fumbles. She recalls a ridiculous encounter at a bus stop– a man thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, until the girlfriend told him she was a woman. “Oh,” Gadsby mimics to uproarious laughter, “I thought you were a fag! I’d never hit a girl.”

Once the 20 minutes of laughter are up, however, she cuts the comedy short. She announces that she’s quitting comedy, and launches into a passionate and cutting speech about female and LGBT abuse. This is an artist at her breaking point, and the theater goes silent with the realization that now there is no punchline. Sitting in this tension, we’re experiencing Gadsby’s life offstage.

Born in Tasmania, Gadsby worked her way up the Australian comedy ladder. She won the Raw Comedy competition in 2006, performed highly lauded sets at the Melbourne and New Zealand International Comedy Festivals, and even appeared on a number of Australian television shows. She built her career off of her lesbian identity, and refusal to cater to the straight-white-male population, and this brand of straightforward individuality has entranced and empowered fans worldwide. Now, Gadsby is using that platform to get real.

Gadsby’s career as a lesbian in comedy, and the lived experiences behind her jokes, are what she aims to uncover in “Nanette.” As an already marginalized comedian, Gadsby argues that using her comedy to put herself down night after night “…is not humility. It’s humiliation, at my own expense.” Instead, she picks apart the anatomy of a joke– the tension, and the punchline, both tidied up enough to make audiences laugh. But this telling of jokes, she argues, isn’t based in reality. On the contrary, they end up overwriting her real, often traumatic experiences, and impeding her ability to process them. “Nanette” is Gadsby’s cathartic break from whitewashing, and in the audience’s unresolved tension, she is able to speak her uncensored truths.

Though “Nanette” may not be a fun romp for the casual comedy fan, it is essential viewing for anyone unfamiliar with the plight of women and LGBT people in 2018. It is also an unflinching look at the impact of jokes on those who tell them. Humor is a powerful coping mechanism, and Gadsby’s retreat from comedy and eventual healing is worth more than a few light-hearted comedy sets. She ends the night on a moment of undiffused tension: Voice wavering, Gadsby confesses that the man at the bus stop actually did come back, and “he beat the shit out of me.” It’s a non-punchline, and one that the audience won’t soon forget.

Nannette is at the Soho Playhouse until May 13th.

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