The Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has not won herself too many admirers on the right, including here at NRO. That’s not surprising; she’s a left-wing lesbian who makes her politics a part of her act. But it’s a shame nonetheless. Her two Netflix specials, Nanette and Douglas, each have something to offer, and the former especially pushes the limits of what a comedy special can achieve.
Nanette came out in 2018 and served as a breakthrough for Gadsby in the U.S. It begins like a normal funnyman routine, with Gadsby, well, telling some jokes.
But then it takes a turn. The jovial spirit evaporates. Gadsby starts to talk about how she’s fed up doing comedy, especially anything involving self-deprecation, and even carefully dissects some of her own jokes. Most affectingly, she tells painful stories from her own past, including one in which she was the victim of an anti-gay hate crime. It’s hard to watch the special without being moved. The show is truly an accomplishment.
Some criticisms of Nanette center on the fact that it’s hard to say what the show even is. It takes the form of a comedy special, with a single person, indeed a professional comedian, walking around on stage talking to the audience, but a lot of it doesn’t even try to be funny. This might be a fair criticism if the routine didn’t work so well. But as it happens, the difficulty of classifying Nanette just makes it more impressive: Gadsby took the comedy-special format and made something truly great out of it that isn’t a comedy special.
Of course, a straight conservative watching Nanette might not relate to it and might disagree with the substantive arguments Gadsby makes. But art you can’t personally relate to serves an important purpose: It gives you a window into the ways other people experience the world and why they believe the things they do.
There’s a lot of debate about free speech and open debate now, and every time this happens, we spend a lot of time going over what counts as a violation of free speech and what doesn’t. The First Amendment pertains only to censorship by the government, but the actions of employers, media outlets, and social-media companies can certainly dampen the broader spirit and culture of free speech. And I would argue that individual consumption choices play a role in that culture too: Free speech isn’t doing its job if people never experience thoughts they disagree with. Nanette deserves to be on conservatives’ watch list as part of an effort to experience the best the other side has to offer and to understand where victim-centric ideologies come from. Sometimes our society really does treat minority groups poorly, creating victims who deserve our sympathy.
To be sure, I wouldn’t want every comedian to turn every routine into something as dark and serious as Nanette (though Dave Chappelle’s new 8:46, free on YouTube, is another recent example of a special that succeeds while rarely aiming to be funny). Gadsby herself seems to agree, because Douglas, released last month, is much more of a typical comedy affair: roughly an hour of reasonably funny jokes, some politically tinged. It’s not the must-see that Nanette is, but it ain’t half bad.
Take, for instance, her rant against Waldo, the elusive striped-shirted character from the children’s books:
Where’s Waldo’s another one [that angers me]. F*** him. Because why is Waldo. Why? Why? Why have we wasted so many hours out of the lives of generations of children looking for that pr***? Because you look and you look, and looking is an investment, you’re caring, and you start to worry — I hope he’s okay! — and then you find him and nothing is ever the matter. Ever! He’s only ever on holiday, having quite the nice time of it. F*** you, Waldo! He should have to find himself like the rest of us have to. Honestly. If you want to see a children’s-book illustration of white-male privilege, it is that guy. Because here is a man who makes no effort, no effort to help himself yet fully expects everyone on earth to give a sh** about his whereabouts at all times.
You don’t have to be steeped in silly leftist jargon to find that at least a little amusing. Ditto a section of the show where Gadsby pillories Renaissance artists and some of their more bizarre depictions of female nudity.
Hannah Gadsby is a woke lefty, but her act is not only for woke lefties. It’s a window into a world and a mindset that others should want to understand.