Hannah Gadsby is back with Douglas — and ready to be a bit silly
Hannah Gadsby didn’t expect to be talking about what comes next. When the Australian comic, 42, famously declared in her 2018 Netflix special Nanette that she’d decided to “quit comedy,” she made it difficult to stage a return to the spotlight. “Nanette is probably going to be the way that people see me — and you can’t be too upset about that,” she says.
So in creating her next stand-up show, Hannah Gadsby: Douglas, which toured internationally last year before being filmed in Los Angeles in February, Gadsby decided, simply, to have some fun. “Silliness was the main motivator,” she says. “My idea was to take particularly heavy subjects and turn them over with a much lighter hand — without undermining them.”
She has some experience in this department. In Nanette’s final minutes, she revealed what she’d left out of the punchlines that came before: She was sexually abused as a child, beaten by a stranger, and raped by two men. Truncating traumatic life moments for the sake of comedy had become unbearable — hence the pledge to quit.
Now, with Douglas, she confronts the purists who insist all she does is lecture (by presenting an actual art lecture), and those who lazily label her a man-hater (by embracing a persistent, cheeky critique of arrogant masculinity, or, as she calls it, “a gentle and very good-natured needling of the patriarchy”). And in a broader attempt to wrest control back from critics, she tells her audience at the outset every topic she plans to cover, in order, up to the subject of her final mic drop (Louis C.K.).
EW talked to Gadsby about how she builds a one-hour special, the inherent softness of some Harry Potter houses, and navigating Pride as a queer person on the autism spectrum.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you doing? How’s your dog, Douglas?
HANNAH GADSBY: I’m fine. I like being alone. Douglas is struggling a little — he had to have a procedure. He’s fine, but very confused.
I had the privilege of seeing some of the earliest versions of this show in early 2019 at Dynasty Typewriter in Los Angeles, and it evolved significantly from there to your tour to this special, filmed at the very end of all that. Where do you start with creating a show?
Every show is different and forged under different circumstances. For Douglas one of the main motivators of process was, “How do you follow up a show like Nanette?” There were lots of other reasons but part of how I did that was just resigning myself to the fact that Nanette is probably going to be the way that people see me, — and you can’t be too upset about that. My idea was to do a completely different show, a completely different kind of show and that meant taking particularly heavy subjects and turning them over with a much, much lighter hand, without undermining them and the way I feel about them. Silliness was the main motivator. I want Douglas to be silly.
You make a deliberate choice in the first section of the special to tell us exactly what’s going to happen. How did you arrive at that structure?
It wasn’t always going to be structured in that way. I got a few weeks into the tour and the reviews started to come in, and people sort of do that to your show anyway. In comedy that’s kind of a spoiler — you read a review of a comedy show and you’ve spoiled a lot of jokes. And that’s funny to me, so I thought, how about I just review my own show and spoil it? But embedded was the idea that I would — I’ll call them call forwards. I make jokes that don't make sense until much later in the show. They don’t make sense. I’m making a show that really is for streaming because [they’re more like] Easter eggs. In Nanette I used very heavily the idea of a callback, but I subverted that because instead of calling back to a joke [to] make it doubly funny, in Nanette I made it devastating. But [in Douglas] I reversed it again and started doing call forwards. Repeating words became funnier because they got bigger and better joke context. The whole prelude in the beginning of the show didn't seem out of place. It was sort of like, let’s just do the whole show as a call forward. Also, it’s following a basic structure of a fugue. It gave me something to hang all my material on, structurally. A fugue has a prelude and then it’s got ideas and then you mix those ideas together and you have a lovely stretto at the end, which is what the final lecture is. I had great fun with the structure on this. It’s fun for people to know it. That’s just me being a great nerd. It’s not integral to the show to understand the structure, but I enjoy it.
Do you think of a show as having a thesis statement?
I think there’s a difference between American and U.K. and Australian comedy — because the way people work as a general rule is, for a special, you put all your best bits together. You go to a club and you try out 10 or 15 minutes, and that’s not how I've ever worked. I’m a festival comic — I put together long shows. I have my whole career. To keep someone entertained for a whole hour is a very, very different undertaking than to entertain people for 15 minutes. It requires a different building of peaks and troughs. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just different. Taking 15 minutes and building an hour is not my skill set. We’re just putting together the trailer and it’s hard to find two or three minutes to pull out. Everything I say in the last 40 minutes is so deeply embedded with references [to context that comes before]. The way I see it is the difference between training for a marathon or a sprint — and you wouldn’t know it looking at me, but I’m a marathoner. That's why I like touring the show. It’s constantly evolving. I’m trying to make something. It’s actually really hard to get people to finish a comedy show [at home], and I've really worked hard at making those changes of pace and the internal logic of it. There are very few spaces left that you would jump off — if you enjoy it. If you don’t like it, it’s not going to work on you.
There aren’t really any close-up audience shots in Douglas, and very few in Nanette. Why?
I don’t watch a lot of [comedy specials], to be honest. I always intend to but I also don't want to start sounding like other comics. I watch bits and pieces to get a sense of what they look like. I personally get really annoyed when a comedian says something and it cuts to someone laughing. If I’m laughing, it’s kind of okay. But if I'm not laughing, it’s shaming me. When you’re at a comedy show there is that balance when you’re laughing — you want to look around and know that everyone’s laughing. So I understand why it's done. This show is really dense, and I talk really fast, and there’s not a lot of room for that. You never saw the audience in Nanette, because I didn't want people to know how to react. I didn’t want them to look at the people in the room and take their lead. You needed people to [think], I have to work out how I feel about that. I’ve taken that into Douglas. There are some audience shots — I acknowledge their existence. You get the sense of it being a live show, but I’m trying to talk to people at home through the shows. It’s a different medium than just doing a live show.
There’s a joke in Nanette about seeing your first Pride celebration and wondering, “Where are all the quiet gays?” In Douglas, your sensitivity to noise has a different context — your diagnosis on the autism spectrum.
There was a point where I was going to talk about autism in Nanette and I thought it was too much. You would take what I say and see it through the lens of autism, but it’s certainly there, and that’s part of it. There are a lot of queer people on the spectrum and that part resonated a lot. Also the way that people see queer pride — it does tend to minimize the quiet gays. And that’s fine in the whole scheme of things, we’ve done pretty well in getting rights, and you can’t be too quiet in that process. My sensitivities to my environment make it very different for me to particulate in queer culture in the traditional sense. I’ve never been to [the Australian Pride celebration] Mardi Gras. I could not think of anything worse than Mardi Gras for me personally. It’s socializing for a start — en masse! With lots of color and shouting noises and late nights! I just honestly don’t understand. But then, stand-up comedy is a really difficult and impossible environment for me to be in. Touring is hell for me in a lot of ways. And one thing that Nanette afforded me to do was be able to put together a tour structure that wasn’t destructive. I perform better when I don’t travel on the same day, because traveling is really exhausting. Even though I couldn’t do the same things at the same time every day, I had things that I would do every day that would give me a sense of calm. The constant state of flux in the life of a stand-up has been a source of great, great distress to me my whole career. Being diagnosed helped me understand how I could be more proactive in buffering myself.
In Douglas you have a bit where you analyze each of the Harry Potter houses and personality types. Where would you be sorted?
I’m probably Hufflepuff, because they’re on the margins. I really identify with the margins. They’re there, it’s important they’re there. People reference them every now and again. But they don’t participate. They rarely change the narrative. And also it’s a soft word: Huffffffle-puffff. Too many S’s in Slytherin. The S would trigger sensitivity. Gryffindor — too much action, always in the center and that would make me feel queasy. Ravenclaw seems to be much too ambitious. I’ve thought about it. All those [sorting] tests are made to [show] you’re a Gryffindor, because everyone wants to be the center of the narrative.
To counteract the unfortunate reality of all things being named by men — hence the “pouch of Douglas,” for which this show is also named — you propose that women could rename men’s testicles “Karen’s handful.” How did you choose Karen as the holder of all these handfuls?
In my mind the Karens are the closest to the patriarchy, you know. There are the ones who least question — this is just silliness, by the way — but in my mind, Karens are the one who get all the perks of the patriarchy and question it the least. They’re the ones who are going to get closest to the balls and cup them.
Is that a perk?
I don’t think there’s actually a legitimate single perk of patriarchy, but they fool you into thinking there is. The closer you are to the patriarchy, the more you benefit from it and the least you question it and the more shit you have to do — i.e. cupping balls.
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas is now streaming on Netflix.
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