When I was a kid I had a bit of a fascination with stand up comedy. This wasn’t something that had the same kind of intensity as my love for anthropomorphic adolescent turtles or robots in disguise or plumbers from Brooklyn; I just thought that standing in front of an audience and telling them jokes was a cool thing. To me, as a child, it was comedy in a pure form: someone is going to tell you funny things for at least a few minutes, and you’ll be invited to laugh about it. I remember that I had my own aspirations to be a stand up comic for a little while when I was in elementary school. I even had an act that I did in one of those school talent shows where no one gets turned away.
Perhaps the best punchline, in hindsight, is that I only had one joke to tell.
While I vaguely remember it having multiple beats about a chicken and a dentist, it was pretty thin material. I resorted to a form of prop comedy as I performed in overalls and a straw hat. I don’t remember why this particular costume was appropriate for the bit, but then again, my parents had a penchant for using school activities to put me in all kinds of strange costumes (I still remember the sock hop party my school threw which my mom insisted I attend wearing a cardigan and with a pack of candy cigarettes rolled up in my shirt sleeve); I want to say this is a weird quirk of my family, but now the internet exists and I realize that children serve the same function as domesticated animals: to provide existential salve to human adults as unsuspecting conduits for cuteness.
My love for stand up continued long after that failed one minute set, although it was more as a spectator than as a performer (though that didn’t stop me from listening to a couple of comedy albums ad nauseum in middle school so that I could recite them rote). I went through a Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall phase (the horror with which I recall my choices in humor and choices in music being circumscribed by my parents’ tastes is an ongoing source of consternation) before graduating to the likes of late George Carlin material (Carlin was probably the most subversive comic that I ever found myself enjoying, most directly because he was an avowed atheist, and I felt the same in high school even though I was scared to admit as much). Broadly speaking, stand up comedy has done a lot to inform the kinds of things I value at different stages in my life.
During college I stopped following stand up so much; it wasn’t something that any of my friends enjoyed that much, and I had other things to spend my time on. It wasn’t really until a couple months ago when I started thinking about stand up again because I happened to have some free time while being home alone, and I got the itch to watch some of the comedy specials that Netflix is always advertising. I watched stuff by Fred Armisen, Hari Kondabolu, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Ali Wong, John Mulaney, Tig Notaro, and some other comics who didn’t leave as much of an impression on me. I liked some of the sets better than others (Kondabolu’s material is particularly memorable, and Notaro’s style of deadpan delivery feels familiar and worthy of imitation; Rock and Wayans’s age as comics show in their trans- and homophobic material, and Mulaney’s schtick as the white guy from the northeast is inoffensive but unremarkable), but I found them all interesting in different ways. Stand up is this strange fusion of theater performance and long form essay, and each comedian has their own particular quirks in the way they construct and deliver their sets. Rock sort of announces his different bits by calling back to a specific line from earlier in a set that serves as his anchor point when he goes off on digressions; if you were to write up a transcript of his set, these lines would function sort of like subject headers. Wong and Mulaney rely on extremely stylized deliveries that define the show’s parameters as existing in a specific context; these are affected versions of the real people writing the material. Notaro does something similar with her deadpan, but she’s aiming for an affect that doesn’t read as affected; the way she plays with her audience gives a sense that she’s having fun instead of just giving a performance. Each comic has their own particular style that extends beyond just the experiences they discuss.
What they all have in common is the way they mine personal experience for their comedy. Besides Mulaney, who I already feel like I’ve discussed too much, all of the comics I’ve been interested in come from marginalized groups. A major part of their comedy is rooted in the experiences that come from that marginalization; it’s what makes them interesting to watch if you’re looking at stand up comedy as a form of performed personal essay. This marginal identity is what drew me to watch their specials in the first place; it’s important to listen to what people who have lived in the margins have to say about our society.
The most recent comedy special that I watched was Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. I saw a couple friends recommend it and a smattering of articles explain that it was a very different sort of set, and it was well worth watching for the way it examines and deconstructs the nature of comedy. It was probably the first time I’ve ever seen anyone discuss a comedian’s work with the same kind of respect for narrative surprise that fiction usually elicits in the form of spoiler warnings. It would be possible to explain why the set is so worthwhile to someone who hasn’t seen it, but the way the thing is designed to rely on the gradual building up of repeated themes and interconnected anecdotes leaves me feeling like this is a thing that’s best discussed in its entirety with someone who has already seen it. If you know what Gadsby will do with her set ahead of time, the impact seems like it might be lessened (I feel at this point that it’s worth saying that there should be content notes in place; there’s extensive discussion of both sexual and nonsexual assault, so if those are difficult subjects to broach in your entertainment, then it’s best to be forewarned about that before viewing Nanette). Given all that, I’ll be discussing spoilers for Nanette beyond this point.
What I find most fascinating about Gadsby’s set is the way that she builds this intricate structure that calls back and recontextualizes the early material in Nanette. The first ten to fifteen minutes are just relatively staid jokes about how hard it was for Gadsby to be a lesbian living in Tasmania, where homosexuality was outlawed until 1997. She tells multiple stories about casual homophobia that people she does and doesn’t know engaged in towards her. There’s the story about a man almost beating her up because he thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, thinking she was gay, and then stopping after he realized she was a woman; she also recounts coming out to her mom and her mother’s darkly comic reaction of wishing she didn’t know because it’s like telling someone you’re a murderer. She plays the fact that she hadn’t come out to her grandmother at all for laughs. In between all these anecdotes are bits about how her early material when she started doing stand up was very immersed in the subject matter of “gay comic 101.” Gadsby accompanies her explanations of the jokes she used to tell with direct samplings of those jokes, all while wryly intimating to the audience that while it may be funny it was also ineffective at combating homophobia.
About twenty minutes into the set, Gadsby introduces the core assertion of her show: she needs to quit comedy. It’s first placed in the context of receiving criticism from others that she’s not appealing enough to what they want from her comedy, but it quickly turns towards a meditation on the nature of stand up in general. Gadsby explains that so much of her humor as a queer woman relies on self deprecation, and she finds that self deprecation coming from someone already marginalized has a bad effect. It’s further humiliating someone with low social status as they try to make themselves heard, and she can’t continue with it any longer. From there she proceeds into material regarding art history focused around Vincent van Gogh (he was a functional artist, she asserts, because he received treatment and support from therapists and family despite his difficult behavior) and Pablo Picasso (he was a misogynist who had sex with an underage girl claiming she was “in her prime”). By the set’s end, the jokes all subside as Gadsby launches into an impassioned polemic about the ways comedy has become conflated with the hard work of discourse and the culpability of straight white men in pretty much everyone’s suffering.
The ending stretch of the show is particularly brilliant as Gadsby calls back all three of the stories that she used as examples of the sorts of jokes she used to tell when she started. We’re informed in rapid succession that Gadsby’s mother has reflected on the way she reacted to her daughter’s coming out, and she regrets her decisions in handling that (she suspected long before Gadsby told her, and she wanted to protect her daughter from the trouble that being gay in Tasmania would entail); that the man who caught her hitting on his girlfriend but got confused about what a lesbian was came back after he figured it out and did beat her up; that the failure to come out to her grandmother is an extension of the internalized homophobia Gadsby struggles with after growing up in an environment that is so toxic. These jokes occlude the realities of Gadsby’s experiences, and in the telling and the hearing they overwrite those lived traumas, lessen their perceived impact. Gadsby’s introspection about the way she’s been doing comedy is paired with an implicit accusation aimed at the audience for being complicit with this erasure and commodification of a marginalized person’s suffering. It recontextualizes all of those other comedy shows where the comics mine their lives for material, leaving you wondering what parts were cut in service of a laugh.
It seems silly to heap effusive praise on a thing that’s already receiving so much, but in this case it feels distinctly warranted. Nanette is more than an excellent piece of comedy; it’s a careful and precise examination of the way we interact with comedy and allow it to shape our social narratives. It is absolutely worth the time to watch.