Nanette: Powerful end to self-deprecating humour

Australian stand-up comic, Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette has stirred up the stand-up comedy scene with her empowering one-hour special.

by Aisiri Amin

When I was a hormone pumped up teenager struggling with insecurities about my fast developing body, I got a lot of those so-called well-meaning comments and snide remarks about my body and when one of my uncles happened to hear about this, he told me a ‘trick’ to avoid those:

“Make fun of your flaws. If you beat them to it then they won’t be able to make fun of you because you are already doing it. So, go be a good sport.”

And thus began, my long friendship with self-deprecating humour which to the world was presented as a mask of accepting your flaws but in reality, it took away my self-worth in bits and pieces.

Validation was found in most stand-up comedians who made a living out of self-deprecating humour. C’mon, we know nothing sells like self-hate jokes. And no one questioned it. Until now. Until Hannah Gadsby.

Australian stand-up comic, Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special: Nanette is a powerful show in which we see Gadsby destroy the necessity of self-hate for the sake of comedy and talk about sexuality, gender, childhood trauma, and feminism.

She starts her show with the traditional set of jokes about growing up as a lesbian in Tasmania and slowly makes her way to address the pressure on the LGBTQ community to express their identity and pride in everything they do. Talking about the time when a self-appointed spokesperson of the community criticised her for “not having enough lesbian content” in her pieces. To that Gadsby says, “I had been on the stage the whole time.”

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She makes jokes about being a “quiet gay” and the pride flag being “a bit busy”. The light LGBTQ humour is refreshing and it also breaks stereotypes about the community; not every queer person is loud and not every one of them sees themselves fitting in the parade.

But few minutes in, just as the audience is getting comfortable, Gadsby announces that she is quitting comedy. In the rest of her one-hour special, she deconstructs the comedy scene that we see today and tells us why she is quitting.

“I built a career out of self-deprecation, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she states.

“Because you do understand what self -deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

Gadsby says that she put herself down in order to have the permission to speak and she is not doing it anymore. “I identify as tired,” she says.

In the rest of the show, she carefully illustrates how self-deprecating humour distorts and destroys one’s sense of self and constantly pulls them down in their quagmire of self-hate.

There are three parts to a story, she explains, the beginning, the middle and the end but for a joke there are only two parts, beginning and the middle because no one is interested in the end. Because the end is not funny. So, for the longest time, she hasn’t been telling her story right because the punchline had become more important than her story itself.

She uses joke callbacks to explain this. For instance, in her first act, Gadsby jokes about “forgetting” to come out to her grandmother who kept asking her about “Mr. Right” but it’s only later in the show when Gadsby deliberately stops being funny that she confesses she didn’t forget.

She didn’t tell her grandmother because she feels shame. A part of her is still ashamed of her sexuality, still trapped in the closet. But that ending isn’t funny so she stops in the middle and adds the punchline and people laugh but her story remains untold.

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©Netflix

Growing up in an orthodox small town where homosexuality was a crime till 1997, Gadsby says she sat in the closet “soaking in shame” for the longest time. “When I came out of the closet, the only thing I was allowed to do was to be invisible and hate myself,” she says.

In the last act, we see an enraged Gadsby talking about her childhood trauma, her struggle with sexuality and how self-deprecating humour became the easy tool for escapism. The narrative has to change, the story needs to be told right, she emphasises. 

In this one hour, Hannah Gadsby will make you laugh and she will also make you cry but most importantly, she will change the way you look at humour and how to look at yourself. She has made a bold choice, to not go with the conventional flow, to flip the comedy scene, to make it more empowering.

It’s riveting to see Gadsby let go of all inhibitions and dare to set the precedence for the much-needed change in stand-up comedy. When you see her on stage, you see that she isn’t afraid to show her vulnerability anymore, to show that she is angry, to show that she is broken but as Gadsby says, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

She concludes by asserting that she isn’t here to unite people with laughter or anger, she is here to tell her story right.

Gadsby with tears gleaming in her eyes and age-old suppressed anger reverberating in her voice says,“I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine. Not for blame. Not for reputation, not for money, not for power. But to feel less alone. To feel connected. I want my story…heard, to be heard, to be understood.”

Watch Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette to see her tear down the usual stand-up comedy wrapped around self-destruction and build a new one.

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