How Hannah Gadsby's Nanette painstakingly sketches the limits of the comedic medium

Kartik Maini

June 30, 2018 20:01:00 IST

There is a certain ocular charm in performances. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is many ocular adjectives, but not charming — it is honest, raw, devastating; it leaves you not with comedic relief, a concept Gadsby continually returns to problematise, but a cold and ruthlessly exacting critique of gendered selves, queer representationism, and the comedic medium itself. Gadbsy’s monologue, as it is being called, is being reviewed both adoringly and widely for its significant representation of queer lives and worlds and the pleasures and tribulations of negotiating a world configured so differently and unfavourably to oneself. It is being hailed for its articulate discomfort with what it means to be queer, particularly as certain images and ways of being counter-representations become stiflingly hegemonic. Gadsby grounds the force of her polemic in the difficult terrain of history, particularly of art, and makes peace with anger as a form of radical protest. To review is, as Gadsby tells us of comedy, to freeze and render monolithic; our eventual and ultimate cure is in stories, and to assess Nanette, itself a story told, a story need necessarily be retold — that of comedy, or more broadly, of the comedic medium.

This is a history at whose troubled end Gadsby finds herself and knows well enough to set afloat, and away.

The origins of comedy, or its ‘stand-up’ incarnation as we know it today, are vague but not indescribable. While it took more seriously comedic forms in the United States, where the economy was ever too capitalist and liberty glowingly enshrined, in Europe comedy was humorous but rarely about humour. Its birth coincided, in the 19th and the 20th centuries, with the construction of satire as a literary device, and to be satirical did, more often than not, mean to be seditious. As identities took their contemporary shape, this was also a time of profound identitarian flux, and the music hall where comedy was ‘done’ emerged as a critical anthropological fixture where they could be articulated, and only gradually, even negotiated. The comedian took neither power nor identity to be sacral, questioning bourgeois common-sense to its veritable end.

From Hannah Gadsby's Nanette. Image via Netflix

From Hannah Gadsby's Nanette. Image via Netflix

One is not idealising a time bygone or suggesting that such an impulse has withered away (Nanette, in fact, is the greatest contrarian), but giving a world, and its comedy, a character. This character, however, was difficult to hold on to, and after decadal depredations of war and the rise of the radio and the television, artistic performance in Europe took the increasingly digital faces we live amok, even if it was not strictly digitalised — in other words, the artist was atomised, isolated, and as Gadsby would conclude, rendered lonely.

Hitherto the comedian was alone but rarely lonely — he/she came from a wellspring of thought and sentiment and was unafraid of articulating it sensitively, if not courageously. In the realm of the digital, the comedian lost his audience and with it, his substance. Comedy became data to be consumed, not a difficult story to be difficulty heard, and its producer a subject who does not tell and has no identity. As Gadsby tells us ever so often, only the ‘straight white man’ can be so transcendental. Such, too, has been the fate of satire, turned inwards to find an empty subject and so compelled to radiate outwards. By the logic of what is considered funny (that is, the marginal and the abnormal), comedy preys, subordinates, and it does so, Gadsby tells us, by self-deprecating. With the advent of comediennes negotiating the stage with avant garde comedians, self-deprecation has only attained a solidity because the comedian has. When we laugh at comedienne Bharti Singh’s self-deprecation, we assert that it is funny to be fat, and indeed, even woman. As Gadsby confesses, “creativity does not mean that you suffer (…) comedy freezes trauma – it does not let you undo its damage.”

Also read — Nanette review: Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix comedy special is a norm-breaking, eye-opening experience

Nanette is not comedy, but the self-narrated story of a damaged self broken by homophobia, gender, and as its comedienne reminds us, the ‘straight white man.’ Hannah Gadsby speaks of feeling terribly alone as a ‘not-normal’ woman in Tasmania, the sentimental difficulty of coming-out and its perennial incompleteness, of being brutally and brazenly assaulted by a man for “being a f**king f**got,” of the impossibility of realising her worth in a world that has been unsparing — and she does not expect you to laugh. She packs all the punches, but no punchlines. She understands the limits of anger, but is unafraid and unembarrassed to be angry. One wishes she had not resisted going far enough, for she begins with and returns to the myopic hope that identities be annihilated — a hope consistently contradicted by her presentation of her queer self and sometimes churlish expressions of reasonable anger against the ‘straight white man.’ Nanette acknowledges, even if acknowledgement does not mean whole-hearted acceptance, that identity is our political present on which our critique and imaginations of radical futures must lie. It painstakingly sketches the limits of the comedic medium and concludes with its abdication, as Gadsby reclaims performative dignity and refuses to be a transcendental subject. In militating against comedic narration, it pulverises simple, almost primordial traditions of telling stories into well-deserved focus, and in arguing that this be the cure, spares comedy the humiliation of departure by giving it new life. Nanette does not humour; it mourns, grieves. And it tells us, above all, that it is okay to do so.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2018 19:07 PM