Comedy for Believers: Hannah Gadsby’s Woke Comedy Gospel

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas (Netflix)
This is woke comedy that fetishizes victimhood.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ver the last week, woke mobs have stormed the streets and social media, demanding conformity to proper beliefs about systemic injustice. If you’ve watched the news, there isn’t much to laugh at. Now, the leading woke comedian, Hannah Gadsby, has returned to the spotlight. She has released her sophomore stand-up special, Douglas, on Netflix. But unless you are one of the initiated, there still isn’t much to laugh at.

Gadsby spends the first fourteen minutes of her new show setting expectations. Her last show — the breakout, Emmy award-winning Nanette — focused singularly on her history of trauma. The problem, however, as she states in the “expectations” portion of her new show, is that she is fresh out of trauma!

In Nanette, Gadsby played the role of the scolding schoolmarm, arguing that her life as a comedian had forced her to stand in front of audiences, reciting one humiliating, self-effacing joke after another. For years, she explained, she, as an anxiety-ridden lesbian woman and victim of sexual abuse, had felt neither comfortable in her own skin nor accepted by society. And comedy had made her feel worse about herself.

Portraying comedy as a tool of the oppressor, Gadsby turned the tables on comedy itself, or rather, her audience. In Nanette, which was supposed to be her parting shot before retiring from comedy, she exacted vengeance on her audience by lecturing them on how they, by laughing, have participated in the systemic injustice of a comedy-club-industrial-complex designed to crush the self-esteem of historically marginalized groups. Isn’t that funny?

Perhaps not. But laughter is not the point of Gadsby’s performance. Her whole schtick, rather, is highly theoretical. And that is the problem. Gadsby often incorporates art into her routine, and an art analogy might be the best way to describe her approach to comedy.

In Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1975) — a satirical, laugh-out-loud romp through the art world — Wolfe bemoaned the trajectory of modern art, whose practitioners demanded that viewers judge their art not in a common-sense way, by its realism, but by its theory. When realism reigned in art, Wolfe argued, one could appreciate art by seeing it. When the modern rejection of realism reached its zenith in Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, one could supposedly appreciate art only by thinking the right way, buying into the right theory.

According to Wolfe, the greatest theorists of Abstract Expressionism wanted to “clear the tracks at last of all the remaining rubble of the pre-modern way of painting,” which had realism as its aim. Gadsby, the greatest theorist of the woke comedy boom, wants to destroy the vestiges of barbaric comedy, which had, if you can believe it, mere laughter at its aim. How backward! In Gadsby’s world, comedy should be judged not as it naturally is — by spontaneous, involuntary, gut-busting hysterics — but by the theory to which it corresponds.

The principal aim of her woke-brand of comedy is not to evoke laughter; it is to show, by your laughter, that you are enlightened, that you are in the know, that you are part of the in-crowd, that you are one of the elect; not one of the damned ignorant middle-class muddle. Of course, as Tom Wolfe observed, “nothing is more bourgeois than to be afraid to look bourgeois.” And even Gadsby admits that her target audience is as bourgeois as it gets: wealthy white women, that is to say, the Whole Foods crowd.

Woke, anti-bourgeois, comedy dogma lives loudly within Gadsby. Douglas is essentially a ruthless, mean, unfunny, self-righteous screed against anyone who does not think the right way. After all, Gadsby declares, “theories are sexy.” She even rails against the natural beauty of Renaissance art, much like those modern art theorists Wolfe describes in The Painted Word.

Gadsby’s high-flying theory, though, might even be tough for the most ardent woke adherents to understand. She rages, for example, against Waldo, the children’s book character. “If you want to see a children’s book illustration of white male privilege,” she exclaims, “it is that guy!” Gadsby explains that Waldo represents white male privilege because he does nothing, stands around, and makes everyone look for him. Get it? It’s uproarious, really, once you understand it, you bigot.

Throughout the show, Gadsby repeats that she is on the autism spectrum. This is necessary, because her comedy would not work if she could not claim intersectionality as someone who is a lesbian and autistic. This is woke comedy that fetishizes victimhood. Being a victim entitles you to express rage at those who do not subscribe to the right beliefs, who reinforce systems of oppression.

Strangely, in this special, Gadsby targets closed-minded anti-vaxxers. It is okay to make fun of these “sociopaths,” she remarks, because they are “outnumbered.” Here, she gives us a preview of how minority viewpoints will be treated in a woke world.

Comedy at its best is a unifying endeavor, providing fresh and humorous insights into our shared human condition. But when comedy is tied to theory, it is divisive. It becomes a superficial affair, not about humor but about purity, devotion to the cause. This kind of comedy is not universal. It is only for insiders. It is only for believers. Once you buy in, then you can laugh. As is the case with abstract art, there is no use viewing it if you do not buy into the theory behind it. So if you are not one of the elect, give Douglas a pass.

Aaron A. Zubia is the Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University.

Most Popular

World

The ‘Rough Sex’ Problem

John Broadhurst, a 41-year-old multi-millionaire from the United Kingdom — convicted of “manslaughter by gross negligence” after he killed his 26-year-old girlfriend Natalie Connolly during so-called “rough sex” — will walk free after serving only half of his 44-month sentence. Like many countries, ... Read More
World

The ‘Rough Sex’ Problem

John Broadhurst, a 41-year-old multi-millionaire from the United Kingdom — convicted of “manslaughter by gross negligence” after he killed his 26-year-old girlfriend Natalie Connolly during so-called “rough sex” — will walk free after serving only half of his 44-month sentence. Like many countries, ... Read More
U.S.

A Stay-at-Home Mom on Her Reasons for Leaving Portland

While covering events (see here and here) in Portland, Ore., National Review writer Luther Abel sat down with Joanna -- a college-educated, stay-at-home mom and now Trump voter -- who feels it is no longer safe or healthy to live there. They discussed the change that has happened in the city politically, the ... Read More
U.S.

A Stay-at-Home Mom on Her Reasons for Leaving Portland

While covering events (see here and here) in Portland, Ore., National Review writer Luther Abel sat down with Joanna -- a college-educated, stay-at-home mom and now Trump voter -- who feels it is no longer safe or healthy to live there. They discussed the change that has happened in the city politically, the ... Read More
Elections

The Man Who Wasn’t There

At first glance, Joe Biden’s strategy of avoiding the spotlight is paying off. He maintains his consistent lead over Donald Trump in national polls. In June, in the aftermath of the Lafayette Park fiasco, his advantage in the RealClearPolitics average expanded to ten points. The critical swing states of ... Read More
Elections

The Man Who Wasn’t There

At first glance, Joe Biden’s strategy of avoiding the spotlight is paying off. He maintains his consistent lead over Donald Trump in national polls. In June, in the aftermath of the Lafayette Park fiasco, his advantage in the RealClearPolitics average expanded to ten points. The critical swing states of ... Read More