Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s debut Netflix standup special Nanette rewrites the punch line. In a stunning queer and feminist performance that questions the foundations of comedy itself, Gadsby expertly leads viewers beyond the levity of our lives—and through anger, laughter, inspiration and sadness.
“I know more facts about unicorns than lesbians,” Gadsby announces to a thrilled crowd at the beginning of the show. “I cook dinner way more than I lesbian,” she explains, despite her pigeonholing as “the Lesbian poet.”
Then, things take an unexpected turn.
Gadsby grew up in Tasmania, Australia where queerness was a crime until 1997. She brilliantly starts her performance by riffing on the punchline tactics of the average comedian—and then begins to deconstruct the idea of self-deprecating humor, and what it means for an already marginalized woman to have to resort to dehumanizing herself for a quick laugh.
Gadsby uses the trauma she experienced as a queer woman in Tasmania’s political climate to make quick jokes at the start of her set, telling the audience about a man calling her a “trickster woman” when he became confused about her identity.
But the story behind that man calling Gadsby a trickster woman doesn’t end with a punchline—and neither does that part of the special. After the scene that the audience already internalized, Gadsby tells them, the man came back, called her a “girl faggot” and proceeded to beat her to the point where she needed medical attention. She reminds viewers that 70 percent of the people in Tasmania—and, as such, in her family, did not support the legalization of queerness in 1997. “70 percent of the people in my family,” she recounts, “hated me.”
Unlike a typical comedy routine, Nanette leaves viewers with a tangible anger. It’s a comedy special, sans much of the levity. Gadsby talks on stage about childhood sexual abuse and the shame that plagued her childhood and adulthood as a queer person—delivering punchlines that the audience must then contemplate having laughed at in the first place.
In her closing remarks, Gadsby reflects on the ways we can redirect self-deprecation as a comedic tool and instead point the laughter at power—putting the weight of comedy not on the people at the margins, but instead at those who push them there. “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself,” Gadsby declares.
Then, the audience rises to give her a standing ovation.