Comedy, at its best, is supposed to stare down the truth. Once a fairly simple task, any kind of reckoning with “truth” becomes slightly more complicated in today’s world, where there are as many truths to one story as there are people who lived it, witnessed it, and hear about it. It’s a comedian’s job, in the world of #MeToo, to figure out how to poke fun at trauma while actually taking it very, very seriously. No one has yet managed to walk this line better than the gay Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose stand-up show “Nanette” recently started streaming on Netflix.
Gadsby has been in a few Australian shows and comedy specials, namely the magnificent “Please Like Me,” where she played a frankly suicidal and self-hating woman in recovery. “Nanette” draws on aspects of her fictional character in “Please Like Me” as well as her career as a stand-up comic to talk about why she’s giving up comedy for good. Or at least, a certain kind of comedy. Self-deprecating comedy, Gadsby starts out by saying in “Nanette,” may be the go-to style for comedians who are in a recognized minority. However, for those who aren’t in power, self-deprecation “isn’t humility,” said Gadsby. “It’s humiliating.”
This is the thesis of “Nanette,” a special that Gadsby named before she knew what it was going to be about. The name is used as a sort of throwaway joke in the beginning of a show: A relationship didn’t work out with a “fascinating” woman named Nanette. Gadsby used the name as inspiration before she knew how that relationship would end. Though it seems like a good way to name a comedy special that really can’t be summarized in a name (what do you call an hour-long treatise on the sins of patriarchy?) it’s also perfectly emblematic of what Gadsby is doing in her half-comic, half-tragic one-woman show. She’s talking about a relationship that didn’t work out: Her relationship with comedy, which presumably ends with “Nanette,” her greatest, most critically-acclaimed triumph. How many artists can say goodbye to the art form to which they’ve dedicated their life with such a bang? And how many can give a farewell to comedy show that ends with a 12-minute soliloquy that could not be more serious, in which Gadsby details her own rape, abuse, and humiliation at the hands of a patriarchal society?
If this account doesn’t seem to make “Nanette” cohere, all the better. “Nanette” is not, and should not be, about narrative coherence. It tells the story of one woman’s continuing, semi-abusive relationship with comedy, with the world, with mental health, in an attempt to turn pain and sadness into outward, righteous anger. It succeeds, and it tears us apart in the process. “Nanette” must be seen to be believed, it must be seen to be understood as the great work of art that it is. In short, it must be seen.