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Hannah Gadsby’s Comedy Coup Puts Stressors Center Stage
The 'Nanette' comedian doesn’t go for easy laughs — and that’s why she has everyone’s attention.
By Fran Kritz
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The summer of 2019 may be remembered not only as one of the hottest on record, but as the “Summer of Hannah Gadsby.”
The Australian has been working the comedy scene for years, but she garnered international acclaim when her one-woman showNanettelanded on Netflix this June. Her subversive, anti-comedy comedy special has the world talking — not to mention squirming and wincing and thinking.
So why is Gadsby such a phenomenon, and what makes her the perfect antidote in these stressful times?
“Every generation has different genres of humor, and much of it relates to the relief people are looking for,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, the executive director of the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit based in Fort Worth, Texas, whose founders included the comedy legend Bob Hope and the author ofFuture Shock, Alvin Toffler.
According to Dr. Hanna, audiences respond to physical or slapstick comedy — what she terms “avoidance of my real life” humor — at times when they may feel less personal control over their lives. “But now people are so hungry for authenticity that they're drawn to someone who can keep it real,” she says.
“Humor is often used strategically for different outcomes, including entertainment, influence, and well-being,” says Hanna, who is also on the board of directors of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, a Rockford, Illinois–based community of psychologists, educators, and other professionals who believe that humor can promote health and wellness. “Here, the humor is really being used as a platform for influence to share a much more emotional topic.”
From Levity to Darkness — and Back
Gadsby, 40, who identifies as a lesbian, begins her special in a familiar stand-up vein — weaving jokes into her account of growing up and coming out in her native Tasmania. She recalls how her grandmother told her that "one day you might walk around a corner, and there he'll be — Mr. Right." As a result, Gadsby says, “I’ve been approaching every corner with caution since then.”
Nanette, Gadsby explains, is named after a woman she thought might be interesting. “Turns out, no,” she admits. She describes the Pride flag as a “bit busy,” and wonders, “Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?”
But things get darker as the show progresses. Gadsby recounts being harassed by a guy who thought she was a man hitting on his girlfriend. When she later circles back to the story, it brings terror and trauma: Upon learning Gadsby is a woman, he beat her up.
“Gadsby draws us in disarmingly when —bam!— we’re hit with universal social truths, like it’s dangerous to be different,” says Helen Friedman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in St. Louis, Missouri. “The pain is mitigated by the laughter, making it tolerable to listen to, and maybe even sought after.”
Dr. Friedman, who has given talks about the therapeutic value of humor, says that Gadsby is in the tradition of comedians who use humor as social commentary. “We’re finally in an era when Gadsby’s topics — sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual assault — are coming out into the open,” she says.
At the same time, Hanna adds, there is a cognitive turmoil underlying this kind of humor. “We find ourselves laughing and then feeling guilt or shame or unsettled because the topic or story or joke is quite sad,” she explains. “It’s that dissonance that sets Gadsby apart."
Closing the Door on Comedy?
AsNanettecontinues, Gadsby suddenly tells her audience that she’s done mining past traumas just for laughs. She says she’s leaving comedy — though in the show, whether she does or not remains an open question.
Gadsby has reportedly written a memoir about her decision to quit comedy. TitledTen Steps to Nanette, the book is scheduled to be published next year.
Friedman believes that people relate not just to Gadsby’s humor and social truths, but also to her declaration not to put herself down anymore.
“Everyone has pain,” says Friedman. “You don’t have to be a lesbian to relate, you just have to be human.”
Building and Relieving Stress
Friedman believes Gadsby helps the audience relieve stress in several ways. For one thing, she says, we feel angry when our sense of integrity is violated, and her humor reflects that.
“But she’s not putting anyone down,” Friedman says. “It’s a positive message. We don’t feel stressed by her message. We feel a sense of our integrity, and that is a stress-buster.”
“Gadsby is saying that she’s tired of carrying this pain and that she is not going to relieve the tension the audience feels,” Hanna says. “Because people need to relieve that tension, they’re doing so by talking about Hannah Gadsby and her act and her stories with each other.”
The stress-reliever, instead of being the punch line, is the conversation people are having aboutNanette, says Hanna.
“I love the conversationNanetteis creating, and I hope it does something sustainably meaningful as a result,” she says.
But Is It Comedy?
Some may question whether Gadsby’s work can be called comedy. Sophie Scott, PhD, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, thinks Gadsby is a “spectacular comedian.”
“While Gadsby builds up the stress and doesn’t resolve it for quite a long time, she’s still giving the audience a framework for laughter as she addresses very different topics,” says Dr. Scott, who has herself done stand-up comedy.
Gadsby breaks down barriers and helps get people “across enemy lines,” Scott says.
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