When I look at Hannah Gadsby, I see myself. The stand-up comedian from Tasmania holds her body like a tall woman is wont to do: chest puffed out, shoulders turned inward, weathered from years of hunching. I know this because I am a tall woman. I have hovered around the six-foot mark since I was twelve. Then there are her delightful inflections: the thick, broad Australian accent that clicks between tongue and teeth, the dips in cadence (it can be squeaks or muffled growls depending on the level of immersive impersonation). I am most endeared to her deployment of slang, the familiar turns of phrase I didn’t even realize were locale specific until I moved from Melbourne to New York. “Aw, it’s a bit much, really,” she says as a default response to anything she finds inappropriate, bespectacled eyes squinting, eyebrows jumping up above the frames. She is comfortable in her awkwardness: mouth close to the microphone, hands slipped in pockets, a stutter that peaks and breaks in its proclivity. The charm here is in the “bit”; the crucial dip in register falls on this syllable, turning a throwaway sentence into a charged moment of linguistic intimacy.
I am in the SoHo Playhouse theater on Vandam Street, sitting on a brown leather chair that doesn’t quite accommodate my height. The set is pleasant and simple: the trademark glass of water on the wooden stool, the microphone, and a backdrop of leafless trees against a watercolor blue. It seems as if everyone in the audience feels a certain kinship to Gadsby, even if they themselves aren’t Australian, tall, and queer, and perhaps that is one of the reasons her Off-Broadway debut, Nanette, has had its run extended by two months.
I have an unfair aversion toward the general stand-up comedy scene. Melbourne is dominated by white male comedians who are barely funny, and while I was aware of Gadsby and other interesting and more progressive voices, I failed to ever take them in. But now my pull to Gadsby is tethered to multiple threads. I find myself missing the Australian sense of humor: the spirited deadpan, the almost lackadaisical ease in the telling of a joke. And my parents—two queer women, one of them in particular a hard judge of film and theater—had told me about Nanette over the phone. Its emotional impact was such that one of my mothers (the tough critic) was rendered motionless, agape in her chair for minutes afterward.
Nanette is ostensibly Gadsby’s farewell to comedy. It’s difficult to consider how she’ll fulfill such a commitment due to the success of the show, but the decision to leave the stand-up world behind is, of itself, the crux of Nanette’s brilliance. Gadsby must stop doing comedy, she says, because her entire existence has become a punch line. As a queer woman who grew up in a conservative Tasmanian town (she contextualizes it as the Australian Bible Belt for an American audience), she realizes that making fun of herself is neither humble nor self-deprecating. Instead, it is a self-inflicted form of repressed hatred that she cannot continue. Here, I no longer see myself. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a queer-oriented community where self-deprecation didn’t have to function as humor. So my connection to Gadsby thus far, I learn, is tethered by purely aesthetic codes: my height and my cultural identity. These codes are undoubtedly significant, especially in queer communities, but are nonetheless superficial. The points of comfort that I have been craving in this performance—a familiar disposition, an Australian sense of humor—perhaps can’t satisfy me entirely for a stand-up comedy show, and anyway, Nanette is funny for only thirty minutes of its hour-long run.
When it comes to craft, Gadsby proves herself to be an expert. The multiple layers of Nanette can be read from the deceptive title alone. The show is named, she tells us early on, after a barista she met who seemed interesting but turned out to be not very interesting at all. Then Gadsby decided to shift gears, to use her hour onstage to tell us about the realities of her coming-out story and the traumas she endured. Gadsby tells us that she is leaving comedy for reasons unknown, and she forays into nuanced and considered expositions of Australia’s inherent heteronormativity. I begin to shift, nervous and a little uncomfortable, in my already uncomfortable seat when she begins to rail on society’s color-coded signifiers between baby girls and boys (pink and blue). Gadsby says that we should get rid of pink for babies. All babies should be affiliated with the color blue. I don’t like this very much, for I care about pink; I wear it in subversive response to being an androgynous-presenting queer woman, and I think that Gadsby’s value of blue actually perpetuates an ideal of symbolic masculinity. What follows, though, is stirring and unexpected: an unpacking of the color blue and its many meanings. All children would be primed for a life of welcomed honesty if they were connected to the universality of such a tone, Gadsby argues. There is, of course, feeling blue—countered, then, by a blue sky being a resounding symbol of optimism and the broader implications of “out of the blue” meaning something totally unexpected.
Gadsby doesn’t constrain her critical lens to Australia; she also tells us what structurally constitutes a joke and how it differs from a traditional narrative. As a writer—and not a stand-up-inclined one—I’m intrigued by this interpretation. Gadsby tells us that while a traditional narrative has a beginning, middle, and end, a joke is divided into only two parts: the tension the comedian creates and the punch line that then undercuts the tension. A story can exist without a middle or an end; it’s just an incomplete story. But Gadsby suggests a joke cannot exist without a punch line. There is no such thing as an incomplete joke; without a punch line, there is only tension.
I am laughing a lot. I may be laughing more than I have laughed in a long time. It is manifesting as a steady exhale—a relief. Both within and beyond her cultural critiques, she is a deft comedian. She lands a recurring gag every time, grounding it in her sardonic delivery. She tells us about a disgruntled audience member who approached her at the end of a show to express her disappointment that there was not enough “lesbian content.” “You know, I was onstage the entire time,” Gadsby responds. This mandatory “sprinkling of lesbian content” is then alluded to every few beats through a physical gesture: Gadsby’s limp hand blithely scattering imaginary seeds on a phantom plot of land. The ambivalence and compliance she communicates are enough to send us all into bursts of laughter. This motif becomes an enduring form of connection, with the intimacy of an inside joke. I feel nervous again when Gadsby starts an anecdote about being mistaken for a man. Is she going for a separatist, transphobic jab? Thankfully not—the perspective she offers is sharp and, at least for me, relatable. She is regularly mistaken for a man, yes, but “only from a distance.” Gadsby’s impersonation of flustered salesmen when they realize she is actually a woman is rendered with awkward facial expressions—a taken-aback eyebrow raise, a scrunched-up squint—and she shifts between this character and her own perspective with a seamless confidence.
Nanette, my mother told me, prompted her to realize how problematically she had been treated by men throughout her young adult life. For the first half of the show, I’m searching for the lines that triggered that emotion. I find none. Then, in an instant, the air changes. The seat in which I’m sitting is no longer the most uncomfortable thing in the room. There’s an absence of laughter. What would typically be a bad sign at a comedy show is the point of this one. After a steady stream of guffaws, giggles, and heavy honks of amusement (I could, at times, see the tears of laughter glistening in the corners of my fellow attendees’ eyes)—nothing. This is not a pregnant pause nor a pause in any sense; hardly fleeting, certainly not unintentional, but uncomfortable. Gadsby’s demeanor changes when she has stopped us from laughing. There is an urgency in her voice. What was charmingly awkward is now alert, arresting, and indicting. The breaks that gather up at the back of her throat no longer feel endearing, not at all; they are snaps and cracks of anguish, of fear. The once playful eyebrow raise is permanent now, giving off a sense of unrelenting desperation. The gestures of her body haven’t changed, but the meaning the audience imposes on them is completely different; the same can be said for the subject matter. Gadsby’s anecdotes continue, but the tone is somber, and the punch lines are raw. A humorous story she told earlier in the night about nearly getting beaten up by a guy at a bar who thought she was hitting on his girlfriend counters itself: she was beaten up, it turns out, and brutally so, while a group of onlookers stared at and beyond her battered body. She tells us that she was gang-raped. She tells us that her mother—a character who has appeared thus far as a stereotypical foil, a conservative, comic shrew in the face of her daughter’s queerness—ruined her integrity and self-worth and has left her with a wealth of internalized homophobia. She tells us that today she still hates herself. Decades of oppression and vitriol are far from being undone.
My mother is indelibly part of this narrative. She told me so. She sees herself in it. I wonder now what it would have been like for her in the seventies, as she drove through the Australian outback with her lover, or what it was like to be the only woman living on a rural mining site when she was nineteen. And I see myself in Nanette as well because I see myself becoming my mother as I age. We have always been similar, bound by a passion for the arts and far too much sensitivity. Recently, I’ve chosen to cut my hair and dye it from peroxide blonde back to my natural tones, which are like hers. I wear her secondhand clothes: a pink-and-white striped shirt from Barneys that reminds me of toothpaste and Michael Jackson. But as I sit in this uncomfortable chair, in this almost tangible silence, I must acknowledge that this show isn’t about me at all. I exist within the fold of a peculiar paradox. I possess an inherent queer privilege that has been with me my entire life, a privilege that I was assured could never exist.
I grew up with lesbian mothers and realized I was queer at thirteen, when I fell in love with my best friend. While it was a unique coming-of-age tale, I had also been led to believe it was an inherently tough one. However comfortable I felt about myself, and however strong and supportive my family environment, I was told I would always be in opposition to the dominant heteronormative society, who would perpetuate, or perhaps endorse, my alienation. But when I moved from my family home in Sydney to Melbourne, I steadily curated a queer community of my own, among whom my upbringing was revered. That I was queer and had two mothers was a point of envy. Perhaps straight people outside of my community would object to my upbringing, but I was never explicitly confronted with it. I was lacking a coming-out story. My parents picked up on my uncharacteristically intimate female friendships when I was thirteen, and that was that. I used to see this as a disadvantage somehow, but watching Gadsby, and seeing her and my mothers’ pain and the pain of countless others, I realized I was privileged, undoubtedly so, in the exact ways I was societally encouraged to feel ashamed of. I have never lived a life of anxiety because of who I am. Gadsby showed me how that anxiety pervades her, and I was faced with a reality I couldn’t understand, a reality I knew only through vicarious experience.
The tension has been manifesting in my body—a seizing of my shoulders, an inclination to turn away from the stage—and I look forward to the final release, the inevitability of the punch line, but it’s becoming more apparent that the punch line will never come. The “sprinkling of lesbian content” is deployed again, but this time, it’s performed with a tragic, mechanical angst. Some audience members emit a tittle of laughter, but it’s promptly suppressed. I was holding onto a vague notion that there would be some reprieve. Now I’ve resigned myself: there will be no such thing. The presence of seething discomfort is swelling in the room, and the resolute conviction in Gadsby’s eyes feels impenetrable and vulnerable all at once. For a moment, my mind exits the theater: I imagine that I’m back in the cold chill of Vandam Street, that I’m smoking a cigarette after the performance and thinking about how exactly I’d attempt to describe what I had just seen. Perhaps my predisposed resentment toward stand-up comedy endures. Can Nanette even be defined as stand-up? It’s an experience that grants its audience thirty minutes of very satisfying laughter followed by thirty minutes of very uncomfortable silence, which then transforms into an unrivaled tension that permeates the air to the point where it feels like no one is breathing. I think about how after Gadsby left the stage, my mother remained in her chair, motionless and winded like she’d been punched in the gut. I forget about my queer privilege. My mind reenters the theater. I let myself sit with Gadsby. Whether I see reflections of who I am or not feels, all of a sudden, wildly beside the point. All I can see is her.
Matilda Douglas-Henry is from Sydney, Australia, and is an M.F.A. candidate in nonfiction at Columbia University.