Back with a new show, the Australian stand-up talks about sharing comedy awards and cancelling early retirement
Before the Edinburgh Comedy Award judges and Netflix execs came calling, Hannah Gadsby had announced that Nanette would be her stand-up swansong. She was done with an entertainment environment where you were expected to push down your trauma and laugh through the pain. The audience might get a release from a punchline but what if you left the stage feeling worse rather than purged?
Having spent more than a decade sidestepping her own demons (chief among them, being criminalised for her sexuality, a brutal assault, and the abortion she had after her rape), enough was enough. The deeply affecting (yet still very funny) Nanette brought all those traumas to the surface without letting anyone off the hook with a gag to ease the discomfort.
'The fact that a show challenges comedy is not necessarily new,' notes Gadsby. 'But my voice in that particular moment with that particular show was something different. To talk about a post-Nanette comedy world is a handy marker and a confluence of situations. I bumped into Bridget Christie the other day, and I absolutely could not have done Nanette without the work that she did. A Bic for Her was a huge moment in Edinburgh Fringe history particularly for a female comic. Before Bridget Christie, a show like Nanette would just have been lost.'
Having already won the 2017 Barry Award at Melbourne, Gadsby brought Nanette to Edinburgh and was the talk of the Fringe as she garnered a heap of five-star reviews while drained audiences left a show they would never forget. In the end, the Edinburgh Comedy Award panel took an unprecedented decision to share the main prize with Gadsby and John Robins looking hugely embarrassed as they took to the stage to receive half an award each.
credit: Ben King
'Absolutely no disrespect to John Robins at all, but just in that moment with the public discourse around women's voices and the #MeToo movement, I saw it as quite a conservative decision when an arts festival could really have stepped up,' states Gadsby. 'Because I said I was quitting comedy, I knew that they didn't really want me in the mix which was kind of dumb. There's a danger in the award culture because they don't want to be in the moment that the show is happening; they try to have a conversation with what happened the year before and what they think is going to happen the year after. I wasn't emotional about having to share the award, I just thought it was funny. I was doing that show in a 90-seat venue where it was like someone kicking off at a family reunion. I took massive risks with my show, so how about you take a risk with your decisions?'
Having announced during Nanette that she was quitting comedy, Gadsby later backtracked, but now explains that it was never really a genuine promise. 'It's a complicated little idea that went into the writing of that show. On a basic level it was a trap for the criticisms that I would get for Nanette because they'd say, "oh it doesn't belong in this genre", so this was a way to answer that before they got to it. But the other part was finding that lifestyle quite toxic. When I wrote the show I wasn't talking to a global audience, I was talking to an audience that I had built up over ten years. It was an audience I felt I knew but didn't know how to talk to anymore. There was a conflict between who I am to people onstage and who I needed to be offstage. I needed to break that rut I was in. I don't like using the word, but I wanted to mature as a human as opposed to keep being an easily accessible idea of a comedian. Had Nanette finished at the end of Edinburgh like all my other shows, I would have taken a few years off, but it carried on. So I would have been an idiot to say "well, I said I was going to quit and so I had better just quit".'
With such a global success as Nanette behind Gadsby, the next challenge was to put a new show together. The resulting work is Douglas, named after one of her dogs, the other being Jasper: 'if I go for a name trilogy, maybe he could get the next one. Although as a feminist that's obviously very problematic … '
Gadsby doesn't believe she could have written this new show previously. 'Douglas is about me enjoying the success of Nanette which I couldn't really do while I was in it. Douglas is certainly a lot more playful. And I'm in a privileged position because people are interested in what I have to say now. My hope is that Douglas shows people there is life after trauma. It isn't at the centre of who you are; it's a huge part of your flavour but for me that comes in the form of resilience instead of victimhood. Getting there is a long difficult path, but it can be done.'
As well as those victories in Melbourne and Edinburgh, Nanette also scooped the Adelaide Fringe comedy prize while the Netflix special gained a prestigious Peabody Award. But Douglas has already made its own waves with more rave reviews and another award to accompany the Nanette gongs. The Helpmann Awards were first handed over in 2001 and recognise 'distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in the many disciplines of Australia's vibrant live performance sectors'. Gadsby won the best comedy performer Helpmann in 2017 with Nanette and now Douglas has nabbed that accolade too. 'That's really lovely for me at this point because it's the new show that's won. I was going "thank god", not for winning an award but that my life is not just Nanette.'