The breakout comic speaks to EW about breaking the rules of comedy, and why she 'needs to stop' performing 'Nanette' — and maybe stand-up entirely

By David Canfield
July 06, 2018 at 10:56 AM EDT
Ben King/Netflix

Hannah Gadsby is feeling a bit overwhelmed.

The once-niche Australian comic has emerged as the biggest stand-up story of 2018. After fine-tuning it around the world for more than a year, her new special Nanette launched on Netflix in June to universal acclaim, hailed by many as one of the best live comedy performances in recent memory. It’s been nothing short of a life-changing turn of events: Gadsby grew up in a remote town in Tasmania, an island state of Australia, and had remained predominantly locally known for most of her career. Now she’s a global sensation.

The irony here, perhaps, is exactly what Nanette is: a thorough, ingeniously structured critique of comedy, and particularly the way Gadsby has used it to, in her words, “seal trauma into jokes.” Gadsby is a self-described “butch”-looking lesbian (“gender-not-normal,” as she puts it) who came of age in an area where more than half of her neighbors believed homosexuality should be a criminal act. She’s wrestled with severe depression throughout her adult life. Comedy, at least initially, was one way for her to cope with that pain. But as she explains in Nanette, she learned not so long ago that winking self-deprecation wasn’t quite healing. “It’s not humility,” she tells her audience. “It’s humiliation.” And so in Nanette, Gadsby vows to quit comedy — to abandon the art for the chance to, goes her refrain, “tell my story properly.”

But of course, things for Gadsby have transformed dramatically since Nanette was filmed at the Sydney Opera House some months ago. She’s now reflecting on this improbable, immense success, commenting on it with a disarming mix of shock and eloquence, confidence and bewilderment. “It exists in the world without me having to perform it,” she marvels. “It continues to do what it needs to do.”

Netflix

Gadsby has performed Nanette more than 250 times, and as she speaks to EW, she’s gearing up for what will be — at least for now — its final show, near the end of July in Montreal. “It did take a toll,” Gadsby admits, before addressing the elephant in the room: whether she’s really moving on from stand-up for good. “I don’t know what the future holds; obviously, my life and expectations of what I can do have changed significantly. But I actually do need to have a rest. I do need to stop.”

Nanette begins innocuously enough, with Gadsby offering cutting jokes on her sexual development and various encounters with various dopey straight men, always stumped by her appearance, keeping things light and breezy. But she begins interrogating her relationship with the audience, breaking what she calls “the contract,” and delivers searing monologues that reveal her most vulnerable self: her self-loathing and internalized homophobia, her mental health struggles, her complex familial relationships. It’s a heavy act, one she’s revisited for hundreds of fresh crowds, live. “I was worried when I first started doing it that I was doing damage to myself,” she says. “But it got easier — slowly though — for me to leave the pain of performing the show on stage.” The topics covered have evolved too — Nanette initially centered on the marriage equality debate raging across Australia, until it was nationally legalized, and has begun heavily invoking the #MeToo movement, given the natural overlap in discussions of gender, power, and marginalization.

As for the Netflix special, there’s one particular element that might explain why it feels, at times, especially poignant: Gadsby’s mother was in the audience, visibly looking on. “I knew where she was sitting and I could see her as I was doing it,” Gadsby recalls. One of the special’s most stunning moments comes when Gadsby remembers what her mother once told her was her “biggest” regret, raising her daughter “straight” and not knowing any better — and making her daughter’s pain that much worse in the process. Gadsby’s delivery is so gut-wrenchingly true, with tears in her eyes; and throughout, she could see her mother sitting there, listening to the memory. Indeed, Gadsby notes that the energy in the Opera House was pretty extraordinary because of this. “There’s something that happened in the room when I put [that] out there,” Gadsby reveals. “[My] mum being in that room and being part of it was really, really difficult for me.”

Nanette’s overarching theme may be the limitations of comedy — at one point, Gadsby succinctly observes, “punchlines need trauma” — but if anything, the impassioned reaction it’s sparked proves that Gatsby was able to push those limitations, and change the form’s shape. The comic agrees, but adds, “I think that’s missing the point. What the point is — and it’s bigger than me — is the emotional connection I manage to sneak in through that.” Gadsby speaks with pride about involving her audience in such an intimate, discomfiting way: “I really did tell my story properly. And I don’t feel like I need to tell that story again.”

But still, not quite answered: Is Gadsby quitting comedy, as she so convincingly claims in Nanette, for good? Or have things changed? She laughs slightly, but knowingly. “I certainly feel for the next little while that I’m not going to be performing,” she reveals. Coyly, she then adds: “I may or may not have to live up to my declaration.”

Nanette is streaming on Netflix.

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