With her 2018 Netflix comedy special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby made me want to follow modern stand-up, explore it critically as a serious art form and pay attention to how jokes and personal testimonies can be fussed over and structured to deliver more than just laughs.
By now, you’re probably familiar with Nanette and its legacy. It’s the show where Gadsby shared her life story with details of abuse and homophobia, poking fun at her struggle growing up in Tasmania as a lesbian. She gets laughs early on from the way she framed an encounter with a confused bigot. But then a callback later in the show reveals that the encounter wasn’t actually funny. It descended into a violent assault.
Gadsby was criticized for using the comedy format meant for mirth (often at the expense of others) to share something traumatic and make it meaningful. Gadsby addressed that criticism and her own autism diagnosis in her follow-up comedy special, Douglas. That special was a not-so-heavy take on the patriarchy, with a Powerpoint presentation of art history, that was as sharp and purposefully built as Nanette. Gadsby’s new show, Body Of Work, which she’ll be performing at Massey Hall this weekend, purports to be a more light-hearted affair that nevertheless can’t avoid some of the shit that’s been going on.
“You must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny,” comedian Dave Chappelle told an audience at a show last fall. He framed the dig as a condition he’s putting on the trans community if they want to meet with him to discuss their issues with his transphobic material.
Some context: Chappelle made jokes about the trans community in his 2019 Netflix special Sticks And Stones. After receiving criticism for those jokes, he doubled down in 2021’s The Closer, which inspired a much bigger backlash. LGBTQ2IA Netflix employees and their allies staged a walkout. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos responded to the controversy by name-dropping Gadsby as an example of the diverse choices the streamer offers alongside Chappelle. Sarandos essentially framed Gadsby as the queer alternative to Chappelle on Netflix.
Gadsby addresses that situation in Body Of Work, along with her pointed response to Sarandos on Instagram. “You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real world consequences of the hate-speech dog whistling you refuse to acknowledge,” she wrote. “Fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult.”
Gadsby addresses that dust-up on a phone call with NOW, while also sharing her insights into the divisive nature of comedy today and the transphobic humour guys like Chappelle and Gervais peddle on Netflix. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nanette was not supposed to be funny. As you say, you were quitting comedy. And here you are with yet another show. This one, according to the logline, is supposed to be the feel-good show that you owe us. Can you give me the 411 on what this new show is about? What are we tackling?
Basically, we’re not tackling anything. We’re avoiding tackling and trying to steer a positive story throughline. Of course, occasionally in the show I get derailed by the state of the world. But I’m always trying to steer the ship back. I think it’s possible to live in this world with all the current affairs going on and truly be happy.
I’m looking at the Body Of Work poster. It looks like you’re like a Greek statue or something.
Busted. A little art history joke there.
I love it in the context of Douglas. I feel like in Douglas, you took on all of this art history to show a lineage of patriarchal systems of men telling women’s stories, from the Renaissance to Louis C.K. Now you’re posed as a historical piece of art.
You’ve nailed it. [The expression] “Body Of Work” usually suggests an oeuvre. It’s usually done in post, if you will. An artist dies and then they show their body of work. But it’s like a reprise. But this is new work. So it’s a play on that. In comedy, or what I like to do with comedy, I am my own body. My life, as I live, as I move my body through time and space, is my material.
That sort of leads to the controversial stuff that I want to tackle with you. A lot of it has to do with what the climate of comedy is thanks to the likes of Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais (the latter’s recent Netflix show also makes jokes about the trans community). It seems tough right now because you’ve got these guys who are too busy mocking others to examine themselves. You obviously take a very different tack. You make yourself vulnerable on stage, share very real and honest emotions and experiences and how you grapple with those. Talk to me about going that route – instead of looking out, you’re looking within to find something to talk about.
I think this has long been a tension in comedy. There are some forms of comedy where the comedian assumes human neutrality and they’re just talking to their audiences. There’s an agreement on what a taboo subject is and on what side of the taboo everyone lands. I guess this works back in the oldie days, before the internet, before everyone had a voice.
These are the sort of retrograde kinds of comedy. The age of the comedians that are doing this divisive kind of comedy is the most telling to me about this conversation. They’re the most powerful because they’ve been around a long time and had the most opportunities and have the most social and cultural sway. But ultimately, they’re not the voices of the future because they’re ignoring a huge part of the change of the socio-political landscape, which is social media, which is everyone has a voice now. So they’re busy on stage just going, “Oh, people on Twitter don’t like me. So I’m going to create a whole special about how I’m being attacked”. It’s just like, “Oh, you silly old men.”
Let’s talk about the Netflix side of it all. I understand you refer to this in Body Of Work. Ted Sarandos had this very dismissive attitude towards the concerns around Chappelle. You called out Sarandos for dragging your name into his abysmal response.
My problem is, I was being dragged as a binary into a conversation that I didn’t want to be in a binary with: me versus Dave Chappelle. I don’t want to have that conversation. I don’t want to be dragged into it by Dave Chappelle, or anyone who’s doing that kind of humour, because if I begin to be in opposition to them, then I have to mould the way that I communicate onstage into something akin to what they do. And I’m just not interested.
I just want to be in my own lane. I just want to do my own thing. And I was furious at Netflix for dragging me into it like that, first of all. And also, putting me in a position to be some kind of spokesperson. I’m not in the same pay bracket as these boys. I can’t be in opposition. Then I’m sitting [there] for all the trolls and everyone who are then just piling on. That’s not what my work is about. I live in isolation. I live in my world. I don’t live every minute of my day on social media. And then I create a piece of work that’s like a long-form social media. My work is essentially as soul-baring as the most cringeful Instagram page. “Here’s what I’m doing and here’s all my feelings.” It’s a very complicated thing. It’s got to do with the economics of what Netflix is trying to do. It’s much bigger than comedy. This conversation has been boiled down to a silly narrow point that cannot hold everything that’s going on on Netflix at the moment.
I’m so sorry that you’re the one being [pegged] as the figurehead or spokesperson in this binary division. But it makes sense because you’re one of the most impactful gay comedians. Dave Chappelle went for that divisiveness as well, when he name checks you.
And that’s absolutely fine. Except that when it comes down to my work and how I want to use my voice, that’s bastardizing that. I don’t mind talking about it in interviews, but it’s not what I do onstage. It’s really hard when there’s so much heat and the rhetoric is so aggressive, vitriolic, and black-and-white, so to speak. It’s really hard to oppose that without mirroring it.
From my very outsider perspective, the comedy world looks like it’s being divided on this frontline. You’ve got Chappelle and Gervais. I interviewed Russell Peters recently. I know he’s getting into gender identity in his show [Act Your Age]. Are you feeling that cultural divide within the comedy community?
Well, you know, I’m my own person. As someone on the spectrum, community has a much different [meaning]. A lot of these comics, they hang out with each other. They talk to each other. They blow smoke up each other’s asses. It’s a small community. I’m not really part of that. But I do like to throw Molotov cocktails into the group every now and again. But it has no actual bearing on my work cuz I’m an outsider.
But this is reflective of a broader cultural situation. They would never admit to this. But they’re towing a fairly popular idea on gender. Transphobia is the status quo. They think they’re being controversial, but in reality, they’re being very versial. They’re just being straight down the middle on a very unfortunate idea, which is that the transgender community should be a punching bag. That is the status quo. These comedians are not controversial at all by my standards. There’s a reason why this comedy is popular, because that idea is popular.
Going back to Sarandos, he dismissed concerns that this kind of comedy can cause real-world harm in a memo he wrote to Netflix staff. I feel like in Nanette, you gave a very explicit example of the slippery slope between homophobic jokes and real-world violence. Would you say that was part of the design in that joke, to draw that connection?
Yes. There is a connection. It’s not a direct line. How you communicate always influences how you interface with the world.
The problem with the conversation as it stands is that people either want comedy to mean nothing or to mean everything at the same time. It’s like “jokes are meaningless,” so therefore freedom of speech is useless. They’re positioning themselves as heroes of free speech, while also saying it means nothing. And I don’t actually understand on what foot they’re standing. Either speech is impactful or it isn’t. They’re arguing it isn’t impactful, so you should let me say whatever I want, because that’s freedom of speech. Well, why are you fighting for something that doesn’t matter?
You try to steer away from recent events in your new show, but of course you can’t avoid them. I don’t imagine this is in your new show but recent events include the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Where’s your head at when it comes to what’s going on there?
I’ve been following the debate around abortion for quite a number of years. It’s sort of where my head has been at any rate. I remember doing a round of press for Nanette for a good number of years and just seeing the States rolling back. I had to educate myself on American politics because the separation of church and state here is very in name only, it feels.
You’re Canadian, right?
Yeah. I’m Canadian.
I’m Australian. Why the fuck are we talking about them?
Because they have so much clout over us.
Do you know what I mean? How can such a stupid place have so much power over the rest of the world? They’re just so unhappy here. Such an unhappy place full of such raw divide on issues and no resolution on any horizon, no matter which place you land on in this country. And yet here they are controlling our conversations. And there’s no other side to it. There’s no solution in America. They offer themselves no solution. It’s an extreme culture.
Would you say your comedy show is a lot funnier than the conversation we just had?
I don’t know. I found this conversation very amusing.
I did too.
Sometimes, when I’m interviewed, I either channel my mom or my dad. And today you struck gold. I channelled my mom (Kay Gadsby).
Usually – and I’m sure my publicist is listening in on this – they love it when my dad takes over. [He’s] very mild. But mom. She is head straight in. So I found this interview quite amusing because I’m like, “Oh, Kay’s out of bed.”