Apart from those in know, stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby was not a household name two years ago.
Now, thanks to the new comedy Colossuses that is Netflix and the power of her boundary-pushing special entitled Nanette, even your mom is probably a fan. So its funny that as the 41-year-old Australian-born performer prepares for her first American tour, she has to acknowledge the facts – even she must reckon with how Nanette looms over the current comedy scene. “It would be foolish of me to not acknowledge that I now live in the shadow of Nanette too,” she offers with her trademark dry charm. “I’m not going to try and surpass it. It’s quite a singular piece of work, and I can’t be like, I need to step up! No, that can leave and breathe in its own world.”
Before she broke mainstream in the States, Gadsby is quick to remind you she was making good on her side of the globe. “There’s been a lot of surprises for me, but I had been doing comedy for a good decade when I did Nanette. I got into [comedy] quite by accident – it was just another thing I did on the way to going nowhere. I had no real expectation that stand-up would work out any better than tree planting did. I wasn’t a student of comedy, and I think its important to mention that the Australian stand-up culture and the UK culture is quite distinct from the U.S. in that you CAN be a club comic, but there’s also the festival circuit. So I started off and did a lot of club comedy, that old microphone and brick wall situation, set-up and punchline. I can do that…. Once I wrote an hour long show and toured it around festivals of the world, that’s a different muscle, I think.”
Gadsby continues: “I lost my way a bit around 2016. I didn’t know who my audience was, I didn’t know what I was saying to them, the world doesn’t feel right. You know, 2016 was a big year! Some shit went down in 2016. Certainly as I toured Nanette, some bigger shit went down in 2017. It was sort of that ten years pottering along, the U.S. was never in my dream plan - you need a passport! The show I wrote
with Nanette was not meant to be popular, I just wanted to tell my truth. I was reasonably successful in the
circles I moved in and I was willing to let that drop. I thought this show would not appeal to a broad audience, but I felt I had to do it. I was compelled. So I was very surprised that in every one of my usual haunts, my audiences grew. I did standard runs in every port. And then the U.S., we know what happened there… I knew it was a good show for me, but I had no idea that people would say, ‘Yes Please!’”
With the new hour she’ll be performing at Jones Hall on June 2, entitled Douglas, Gadsby is finding inspiration from what worked and setting sail from there. “Certainly, I took what I did with Nanette and lets see what sort of things you can do just standing in front of a crowd, being funny, and giving the form a little bit of a nudge. I certainly reference Nanette, but [Douglas] is a much more fun show for me to perform. I’ve actually written me a show that’s fun for me to be onstage with. I just did a couple of weeks in Melbourne to run it in and I’m pretty happy with it. I think people will have a nice time.”
While Douglas is in high-performance performance shape, Gadsby also acknowledges the set is far
from locked. “I think Douglas has got his skeleton in place, so he won’t be changing his form. But the meat might move around a bit. That’s the lovely thing about live performance. That’s difference between stand-up and theater is you’re locked into a script. With stand-up, the audience will let you know what doesn’t work. Or things will grow, and things that sitting pretty now at a five minute piece might extend into ten and swallow parts of the show. But I love that part of the touring - people who come and see the show live will have a different experience than on filmed versions.”
While Douglas may be the new hotness, much of the comedy-viewing world is still trying to catch-up with the brilliance of Gadsby’s aforementioned 2018 hour, which balanced a howling deconstructions of stand-up itself with raw revelations about the comic’s own history of sexual assault. Using her performance as a manner to address difficult subjects is nothing new, Gadsby assures. “It was part of my voice from the beginning. I’m a pretty unchangeable character in my life and art, I think. I could not have done Nanette, like the performance of it alone, much earlier. But the idea of doing stand-up, it is ten years of being able to interrogate the way I think and being able to interrogate the ways I see the world, and interrogate my own life and stories? Twelve years of doing that gave me the robust ideas. I very much think Nanette is the end point of a long journey and hopefully the starting point of another one.”
While much has been made of the dramatic turn of Nanette – and rightly so! Perhaps not enough has been written about her bold deconstruction of the mere notion of group laughter. The way the comic explains the comedy mathematics of “tension and release” – one could make the comparison that such a bold gambit may
be akin to seeing a magician reveal their tricks mid-routine. Gadsby disagrees. “Look, I was pretty confident it would work. Comedians still laugh at other comedians, even if they know what’s going on. You know, it's part of the performance, it's part of sitting in a crowd, it's all those things. I think people do want to laugh together, so you always got that on your side. Magic is different, because it is genuinely is a trick, where part of comedy is communication. I never thought there was any danger in ruining comedy! But, I definitely reformed it for my own purposes. And people know how to laugh.
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"I think it's fairly arrogant for comedians to think the world needs them. The world doesn’t need comedians. The world DOES need to laugh. But people know how to laugh. You got friends, you got family. That’s covered. There’s something else that stand-up can do. But never did I think that was it for laughing! We don’t need to laugh anymore, it’s bullshit. You give permission over of when to laugh to a broken human, which most comedians are. We’re all broken."
As the Tasmanian-born funny woman boldly journeys to perfecting her next hour, it may be worth asking: can she do it again? If we all live in the shadow of Nanette, then Douglas may need some flashlights to keep the path illuminated towards the next Netflix recording. But ignoring the countless think pieces on the subject – does Gadsby herself agree with the notion that her little special has changed the game of stand-up comedy in the 21st century? Above all else, she appears humbled by the notion.
“I certainly hope it will give an evolution of the different kinds of voices. Stand-up is a form that was built for white guys - straight men. I think it's safe to say that they’ve dominated the form, because the form suits THAT mode of being. But I think maybe its – my wish would be that Nanette has opened up the form and [given] confidence to particularly women of color to say: Hey! I’ve got a different way of saying things. That would be my dream. Not that I’ve broken what we all know, that can still exist for those who feel like it's still enough for them. And good on ‘em! But I don’t think it’s a form necessarily for people who don’t have that life, or that mode of expression. That’s my hope. And it will give all the people who make decisions on who gets a special take a few more risks and not just known names, but people who are doing their own thing in a different way. Because the audiences certainly showed that they’re hungry for different voices and different ways of saying things.”
Hannah Gadsby's performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 2 at at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana . For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $44.75-$64.75.