It’s time, she says, for men to pull up their socks

Around a third of the way through, Nanette, the Netflix stand-up comedy special by Australian Hannah Gadsby, transforms. No longer just a carousel of set-up followed by punchline, it takes on a greater meaning. We, the viewers, are forced to take stock. We’re made to look within, to examine the role of women in society and our own flawed worldviews. Nanette resonates with so many people across so many oceans because the things Gadsby says matter. The way she says them makes us both uncomfortable and exhilarated.

It’s a fine line to tread. Personally, the primary purpose of comedy is to make people laugh, even if it’s on the inside. It has to be, in a word, funny. Then come all the accompaniments: whether it makes the viewer think, its social impact (if any), why it exists. Humour is a tool for change because you take something back with you. The uncomfortable laughter can be scrutinised and assessed later, perhaps to understand the world a little better. But if I don’t laugh, I won’t think.

Gadsby seems to understand that. She starts off with stories about her life both inside and outside the closet. And she takes us across difficult terrain — homophobia, mental health, art history — through her assured delivery. The jokes are elevated thanks to her wry, world-weary, ‘well, what’re you gonna do?’ style of expression. She presents a look of mild, disaffected surprise — perhaps even contempt — at how terrible the world is. But then she flips things. She tells us she’s not going to make any more jokes. That she’s not going to be endearingly self-deprecating any longer.

Male ‘genius’

The first act is merely an appetiser, a way to ease viewers into the material she wants to explore. (Content warning: Gadsby talks extensively about abuse and gendered violence through her set.) The dramatised camerawork reveals her increasing exasperation. She’s getting angrier with each passing sentence. The classic “angry comedian” trope is employed, which she points out has always been the domain of the male comic. She tackles so-called male geniuses, and the way their misogyny gets swept under the rug (Pablo Picasso gets a particularly thrilling takedown). It’s time, she says, for men to pull up their socks. Gadsby pulls no punches while delving into loaded subjects, allowing her personal experiences the space they deserve, articulating her thoughts with biting wit. But, simultaneously, she sprinkles them with throwaway one-liners, finding that perfect counterpoint to her anger.

Stand-up comedy, by its design, requires a certain suspension of disbelief. As the audience, we’re expected to function on the premise that the jokes we’re getting are spontaneous and off the cuff. We’re not supposed to think about the comic standing in front of a mirror night after night, rehearsing her material and fine-tuning it to make it sound even more impulsive and free. How the sausage is made is a secret best left unexplored. This unspoken understanding gets further muddled when the comic attempts pathos and tragedy. The acclaimed Homecoming King from last year, a special by Hasan Minhaj in which he outlines the brown immigrant experience and the racism he faced growing up in the U.S., is one such example. It was a moving story which, I felt, was a little too theatrical, too hammy, too melodramatic in its performance for my tastes. For so many others, that wasn’t the case.

A vital narrative

Rehearsed anguish or fury is a lot harder to project to an audience than comedy. It can, at times, come across as insincere. Like the comic is playing a “role”, and not actually being who she is. But Gadsby doesn’t appear to be faking it in any way. It’s not a TED Talk; she’s not pontificating. She’s talking to us. Her delivery, practised as it may well be, reveals a side of her she’s brave enough to show. I’m less concerned with the ‘performance’ of it, and more with her personal journey and the message she’s presenting.

And that’s where she succeeds. The jokes remain, though sporadic, but there’s an underlying thought of forward motion that resonates with the viewer during Nanette. She points a mirror at the oppressor — most prominently in her set, the straight white male — and centres the equally (if not more) vital narrative of the oppressed. Being a privileged, English-speaking, Hindu-born male in India, I understand that my place in society is similar to that of the former. So I won’t do Gadsby the disservice of coopting her message or claiming I found it emotionally relatable. Instead, her force of personality is such that I could appreciate viscerally, truly feel, the catharsis that she — and countless others through her — felt during Nanette. It makes you look inward.

A freelance culture writer from New Delhi, the writer wishes he’d studied engineering instead.

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