The ‘Nanette’ problem

Comedy is at its best when it helps audiences understand their relationship to trauma, not when it makes them feel comfortably woke.

The ‘Nanette’ problem

Comedy is at its best when it helps audiences understand their relationship to trauma, not when it makes them feel comfortably woke.

It took me a while to write a critique of Nanette, the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s universally praised one-woman Netflix special that premiered in June, because I couldn’t quite figure out what I hated about it.

But when my cis, straight, liberal parents told me how much they loved it, the reason for my dislike coalesced: In order to make straight, cis viewers feel comfortably woke, Gadsby shits on an entire language of comedy developed over decades largely by Jews and queers. The greatest trick Gadsby pulls is convincing those who have little interest in actual gender, sexuality, or political radicalism — and apparently little knowledge of comedy — that they are watching something new and radical.

The “remarkable” (Washington Post), “soul-affirming” (The New York Times), “groundbreaking” (Vice), premise of Nanette is that comedy cannot tell the full truth, that the full truth is too difficult for audiences to handle. Gadsby spends the first half hour of the show telling milquetoast jokes about being a lesbian, and then dives into a dissection of men (they’re loud and abusive and overly sensitive to critique), art (Picasso was bad and a child predator (true)), and comedy itself.

Comedy, Gadsby says, cannot hold her trauma — and so she spends the last half of her show explicating her trauma, saying that she actually cut off a true story at the halfway point earlier in the set, because in truth it ended with her being beaten up for being gay, and that no one would laugh at that.

In order to make straight, cis viewers feel comfortably woke, Gadsby shits on an entire language of comedy developed over decades largely by Jews and queers.

Gadsby is good at relaying these powerful and heartbreaking stories of trauma. They’re important to tell. As a nonbinary person with trans and queer friends who have been harassed and assaulted for who they are, they resonated with me. But it’s in her analysis of comedy that Gadsby lost me.

Gadsby says that turning her trauma into jokes would allow the audience to leave unchallenged, without hearing the full truth. “I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger,” she says. “I just need my story heard.”

“That reluctance to ‘unite’ her audience may be the most radical thing about Gadsby’s act,” Andrew Kahn wrote in a glowing review for Slate.

But, as made obvious by the universal praise she has received, that’s exactly what Gadsby has done. She doesn’t use comedy to do it, instead opting for tragedy, but that doesn’t make her show any more radical. The audience is not challenged in any meaningful way to act.

All of this reminds me of R.L. Stephens’ 2017 critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates. The former Atlantic writer and MacArthur winner’s 2015 book Between the World and Me sketches a convincing narrative of how racism sits at the heart of the American experience, but its universal popularity among the media (and white people) shows that it failed to actually challenge our material world. The book portrays racism as an abstract concept, not one based in centuries of empire and capitalism, and therefore something that cannot be completely understood. It allows white people to think “I understand racism as a deep and complicated process I’ve been complicit in,” without implicating them, pointing blame at our current structures, or identifying a way forward (if the book did, say, call for armed struggle or a working-class overthrow of capitalism, it no doubt would be less-praised).

Nanette does the same thing for queerness. It locates the problem not in exploitative structures that might implicate Gadsby’s audience, but within ourselves. If only we could respect each other, then things would change. If only we could be more civil in our public debates.

“This is bigger than homosexuality,” Gadsby says after discussing why a man felt it was okay to assault her. “It’s about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things, it’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than to appeal to the humanity of those who disagree with us. Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.”

Nanette locates the problem not in exploitative structures that would implicate her audience, but within ourselves — if only we could respect each other, then things would change.

Nice sentiments, sure, but this makes for boring, trite, and even dangerous art: in order to convey her trauma, Gadsby dismisses all of comedy, the uses of queer anger, and the entire premise of self-deprecation as inadequate.

It’s true that popular comedy has become staid and perhaps insufficient for our troubled times (nearly every Netflix special released in the last two years has been terrible), but saying that all comedy is problematic or unable to express trauma is like listening to Macklemore and deciding that all rap is boring, or watching Taken and deciding all movies contain a lot of racism and star Liam Neeson.

Comedy can be radical; it’s just that when it is, it’s not typically on Netflix. Queer and trans people have been performing comedy that transgresses how we traditionally think of the form: sets without easy punchlines that are weird and often unreadable unless you’ve been deep into the lexicon of queerness for years. There’s new, fresh, and interesting queer comedy being performed in basements and clubs in New York and elsewhere (see: here and here ) — but it’s comedy that is written and performed in a self-referential vernacular built over years that makes it mostly accessible only to fellow queers (and less-covered by the mainstream media).

Listen to clips from 'Nanette' and an extended interview with Peter on the current state of comedy on The Outline World Dispatch.

There’s comedy that holds power to account, but instead of getting praised by the media, it’s often ignored, or actively punished. When comedian Jake Flores joked on Twitter earlier this year that white people were allowed to culturally appropriate Cinco de Mayo if they killed an ICE agent, he was visited by several agents from Homeland Security.

But even popular comedy has gone where Gadsby says it hasn’t: Richard Pryor used self-deprecating humor to relay his trauma about crack addiction in the 1970s while also using his stand-up to call attention to white supremacy. Dave Chappelle used comedy to create a conversation about race on his Comedy Central show; when he decided white people weren’t getting the joke was about them, not him, he walked away from comedy for a decade, and it was decided that he was a mentally ill drug addict, not a radical, for doing so — but still did not dismiss the entirety of comedy as he left the stage.

There’s comedy that holds power to account, but instead of getting praised by the media, it’s often ignored, or actively punished.

Even uncontroversial, mainstream comedy is able to take jabs at race and patriarchy. 30 Rock, for all its transphobic and racist failings, successfully highlights the sexist and racist assumptions most of us harbor, and allows us to laugh at them so that we can accept them, and hopefully change them.

That’s what comedy does best, and why I like it — even the problematic stuff — so much. It allows me, and I think a lot of others, to excise what’s deepest in us, what we can’t express politely. The worst comedy (often performed by conservatives) puts these hidden fears and prejudices on display in order to amplify them (e.g., Dennis Miller taps into our hidden racism and tells us it’s actually good). The best comedy does this so that we can acknowledge, process and heal our darkest thoughts.

When Larry David called Mel Brooks a “little Jew bastard” at an awards dinner in 2013, I don’t think he was using self-deprecating humor about Jews to make the audience comfortable — he was acknowledging that somewhere in him is a nagging feeling that he, too, and by extension all self-hating Jews, myself included, are “little Jew bastards.” When Sarah Silverman says in her 2005 comedy special Jesus is Magic something like, “Jewish girls can be sexy, we just put on a little red negligee and….yoidle doidle doidle,” going from a sultry voice to an exaggerated and loud Yiddish-American accent, she identified something so deep in my core about anxieties about my body, and my perceived inability to be sexy as a queer Jew (I’m too hairy, too nebbish, too unserious), that it struck me as deeply funny, and has stayed with me as an invisible, supportive friend to my self-consciousness, allowing me to laugh when I look in the mirror and feel better about myself.

I think that’s why comedy has been a uniquely Jewish art form in America — it allows us to feel okay about ourselves in a world that often hates us. I come from a family of Holocaust survivors, and I joke about the Holocaust a lot, not because I think the Holocaust is funny, or because I want those around me to trivialize it, but because the weight of my family’s past is so crushing and comedy helps alleviate the pain. Comedy helps me understand my relationship to trauma.

Freud proposed that Jews used comedy to cope with trauma, which explains why Jewish comedy boomed in the U.S. after the Holocaust. By 1978, TIME Magazine estimated that 80 percent of comedians were Jews.

Gadsby’s claim that self-deprecation is counterproductive is weighted, whether or not she realizes it, with judgement. There is no “right” way to experience and process trauma. Coming from someone who didn’t grow up Jewish, Gadsby getting praise for bad-mouthing self-deprecation strikes me as an erasure of its Jewish roots. It feels, well, disrespectful — maybe even uncivil.

“I built a career out of self-deprecation, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” Gadsby says. “Because you do understand what self-deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

Yet I don’t see how reliving your trauma on a stage is any different than “humiliating” yourself for comedy: both are exploiting personal tragedy for an audience. Whether the audience “gets” what you’re doing — whether they’re laughing with you or at you — is not the fault of the form, anymore than it is the world in which we live.

Comedy helps me understand my relationship to trauma.

So then why is Nanette considered so radical, transformative and groundbreaking by the mainstream media? Our answer, I think, comes at the very end of the show.

“I am angry and I believe I have every right to be angry, but what I don’t have every right to do is to spread anger,” Gadsby says. “Because anger, much like laughter, can connect a room like nothing else. But anger will not relieve tension — because anger is a tension. It is a toxic, infectious tension and it knows no other purpose than to spread blind hatred and I want no part of it because I take my freedom of speech seriously, and just because I can position myself as a victim does not make my anger constructive.”

In a few lines, Gadsby completely lets her audience off the hook, transforming justified queer rage (whether it comes in the form of outward anger or inwardly facing self-deprecating humor) that is often ignored by the mainstream press and the rest of society because it can be so challenging to power structures, into a fault within herself, and by extension all of us.

As a queer person, I want my anger to be heard. I believe my anger constructive, even if it’s self-deprecating, and even if you don’t get it. By telling us we need to challenge our anger, sublimate it into love and understanding lest we destroy the world, Gadsby is not challenging her audience, she’s challenging her fellow queers to be more respectful, more civil, to display our pain in ways that cis, straight people can appreciate, in ways that get us called groundbreaking by those who have broken no ground, and have no interest in listening to us when we speak in ways that are unreadable. Gadsby hasn’t changed comedy, she’s just let cis and straight people in on the joke. And there’s nothing radical about that.

Peter Moskowitz is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. They last wrote for The Outline about racism and free speech at Evergreen State College.