Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special, Douglas, the follow up to 2018’s Nanette. (Photo: Netflix)
Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special, Douglas, the follow up to 2018’s Nanette. (Photo: Netflix)

TelevisionMay 27, 2020

Chasing Nanette: Hannah Gadsby’s new special Douglas is a gentle piece of genius

Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special, Douglas, the follow up to 2018’s Nanette. (Photo: Netflix)
Hannah Gadsby in her Netflix special, Douglas, the follow up to 2018’s Nanette. (Photo: Netflix)

Two years ago, her genre-busting show Nanette broke the internet. Now Hannah Gadsby has released a new stand-up special, and expectations are sky high. So how does Douglas hold up?

“If you’re here because of Nanette, why?”

The elephant in the room is quickly addressed in Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special named after her dog, Douglas. Namely, the fact that you’re watching this because you watched Nanette, her 2018 special that caused a once in a generation kind of chatter. A lot of people loved Nanette, a lot of people thought it was a bummer, and a small, predictable group of people (straight white men) thought it wasn’t stand-up comedy at all.

Nanette was probably the first special since Tig Notaro’s Live (in which Notaro famously made her cancer diagnosis public) to make a big splash outside the fairly niche realm of comedy nerds. Overnight, Hannah Gadsby became the “most-talked about comedian on the planet”, according to Gadsby herself. Nanette tore down the idea of stand-up comedy, a form that has always held both tension and trauma, presenting the idea that Gadsby’s self-deprecation was actually a form of self-harm. By joking about her past onstage, she argued, she was actually internalising her trauma and obscuring her own story. Gadsby ended the special thus: “Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.”

Even more importantly, Gadbsy took aim at the patriarchy, and what stories the patriarchy values. She brilliantly used her art history background to highlight how we focus on Picasso’s painting, rather than the 17-year-old child he married. She explored the ways we’re told to separate the art from the artist, but only when the artist is a man. This didn’t make Nanette an easy watch, but it was a healing, paradigm-shifting one. Two years later it’s not lost any of its power. The world is still full of tension and trauma, perhaps more than ever.

Gadsby wasn’t the first to make jokes about straight white men, not even close, but Nanette felt like a move of the needle; they’re acceptable targets now. Look at the world since Nanette: “straight white man” is to contemporary stand-up comedy what “take my wife” was to comedy 20 years ago. It’s become a joke that the audience knows the punchline to; they know where the gun is pointed, and they can either laugh along or get defensive, depending on whether or not they’re in the crosshairs. For lesser comedians or writers, it can be a crutch; a chuckle where a laugh should be – see my use in that first paragraph up there. The only difference between “straight white man” and “take my wife” as a punchline is that the former is generally punching up (unless it’s a straight white man referring to himself, in which case it’s performatively punching inwards, and relying upon an even lazier crutch) while the latter is always, always punching down. 

Nanette was deconstruction as its own art form. Its brilliance came not from the fact that Hannah Gadsby played with form, but that it made deconstruction – of genre, of audience expectations, of patriarchy itself – the entire point. We need to change the way we tell stories, and the way we hold them. Gadsby said of Nanette in a TED talk last year, “The point was not simply to break comedy. The point was to break comedy so I could rebuild it and reshape it; reform it into something that could better hold everything I needed to share.” Every comedy special, especially those that value emotional vulnerability over punchlines, exists in the wake of Nanette. 

Hannah Gadsby and a prop version of her dog Douglas in her new special. (Photo: Netflix)

That includes Gadsby’s own Douglas, and the comedian is aware of it. It’s half the reason why she front foots it, I’d wager. (Although she’s smart enough to also ask why the hell people are seeing her show if they haven’t seen Nanette.) The other reason for Nanette’s early prominence in this new special? It’s because Douglas is more than a little bit meta.

In the first 15 minutes, Gadsby sets up the entire structure, beat-by-beat, of the show we’re about to watch. There’s no gut punch like Nanette, intentionally so. She tells us that she’ll be making fun of Americans, doing some observational comedy, then a story that includes some “good-natured needling of the patriarchy”, and so on. The deconstruction also includes a self-labelled spoiler of her own autism diagnosis. It’s similar to a relaxed theatre performance in this way, with a preface to help orientate audiences and help them engage with what they’re about to watch. 

A relaxed performance is essentially a contract that establishes trust between the creators and the audience, and it seems almost antithetical to the art of stand-up comedy, which relies on set-up and surprise punchline. Gadsby knows this, and presenting the show to us like this, though it might seem laboured and self-indulgent, is actually establishing a new contract for the show. There will be hater-baiting, there will be exactly one Louis CK joke, and there will be a lecture. Now you know that, you can enjoy the show. She says that Douglas is a show about autism, and she commits to it. She shares her journey with her own diagnosis in a way that her chosen form (and frankly, her approach to that form) absolutely supports.

It’s a brilliant choice, because it allows the structure to be as much of a joke as the actual content. If you ever needed a demonstration of form marrying content, you’ve got it with Douglas. Douglas is Gadsby’s “look ma, no hands” moment; it’s tempting to ignore for a moment the actual jokes (rapid fire, the right blend of absurd and approachable) and sit back and marvel at how brilliant she is as a performer.

You don’t necessarily have to, because Gadsby does enough of that herself, in the best possible way – like when she chastises an audience for rising to applause-bait. Metatheatrics can be a crutch (comedy is full of ’em), because it’s so much easier to say something’s a good joke than to actually write a good joke, but it never feels like one for Gadsby. When she deploys it, it’s not hanging a lampshade on a joke. She’s amplifying its effect, and letting the audience in on that joke. Her jokes are funnier because we’re on an even playing field. She’s established the contract of trust, and rather than having jokes told to us, we feel like we’re having jokes laid out for us. It’s a subtle but welcome difference, and that she can do that while ripping into her usual target, like our old friend the patriarchy, is proof of her genius.

A bit of Douglas is lost, as with any stand-up special, by not actually being in the room. Both Nanette and Douglas are shows that implicitly address tension – one builds it, the other does its best to eliminate it – and that’s lost when watched through a screen. There’s a moment when Gadsby actively calls out anti-vaxxers, telling parents who don’t vaccinate their children to “fuck off”. Onscreen, it’s great, but when I saw the show earlier this year (sorry to be that guy), the energy in the packed Civic Theatre palpably shifted. Perhaps even more uncomfortable was the moment where she correctly labelled who her audience was (take a guess, you’re probably right) and that there’s a lot of crossover between them and that particular anti-science movement. That moment was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever seen an audience, amplified even more given the genuine comfort felt throughout the rest of the show, but it doesn’t translate through the screen. There needs to be some real life target for that discomfort, or you need to be sitting in a lounge full of anti-vaxxers. In which case, hey, it probably does translate. Sorry to you and your lounge.

The only time the genius falters a bit – and this is still nowhere close to a fail, but more like a couple of scratches on a brand new manicure – is when Gadsby takes aim at what I’d call acceptable targets; the ones we all know it’s OK to attack. It’s like making a Simon Bridges joke in a room packed with Labour voters; there’s no chance you’re not going to get at the very least a sympathetic laugh. There’s a thin line between knowing your audience and pandering to them, and Gadsby tips towards the latter a bit too much. There’s a strangely vicious Taylor Swift joke, an extended bit on paleo diets, and of course countless jokes at the expense of straight white men. They’re never not funny, but it’s more that Gadsby is straying into territory covered by other (frankly lesser) comedians. The gulf of quality between these jokes and a brilliant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bit that brings in her art history background is huge. When Gadsby is introducing new ideas and concepts, she’s brilliant. When she’s treading familiar ground, she’s merely great, relying on crutches neither she nor her audience need.

Douglas is not Nanette. It’s not going to shatter you or lead you into difficult conversations with the men in your life (unless they’re especially fragile). But we’re living in a post-Nanette world, and Hannah Gadsby has made Douglas for that world. Nanette was breaking something down, while Douglas is building something up: the idea that comedy can be comfortable, that it can take us to a known destination without shattering us. It takes care of its audience, which is more than can be said for a lot of comedy. Nanette was Gadsby breaking comedy. Douglas is her building it back up, on her own terms. 

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas is streaming on Netflix now.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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