There is a point in Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special “Nanette” when the comedian’s reflections on sexuality, mental illness, art and sexism cease to be a joke. The difference between jokes and stories, Gadsby explains, is an ending. Stories have resolutions, some point at which a shift occurs and experiences are put into perspective; jokes use trauma to build tension and seal it with a punchline.
“Nanette” is unquestionably funny, riddled with lighter observations on the absurdity of gender norms or the contradictory nature of the color blue. In recounting her earliest memories of Pride, Gadsby asks, “Where do the quiet gays go?” What sets “Nanette” apart from other Netflix specials, or the stand-up comedy genre, is its impressive storytelling. Through the layering of anecdotes, Gadsby gradually reveals different elements of her experience as a masculine of center lesbian and survivor of sexual assault. This structure builds to a powerful critique of comedy itself and the ways that we tend to frame stories in general.
Toward the beginning of the set, Gadsby recounts being approached after one of her shows by a man who told her that taking antidepressants could not be good for her art. This individual suggested that if Vincent Van Gogh had been medicated we would not have the famous painting of the sunflowers. Gadsby, who majored in Art History, proceeds to inform the man that Van Gogh did medicate. One medication Van Gogh took for epilepsy could cause patients to experience the color yellow “a little too intensely,” perhaps leading the artist to create “Sunflowers.”
Gadsby holds that all art is rooted in human connection and not suffering. Sharing one’s pain with others, receiving tears or laughter as the audience identifies with the artist, reinforces the humanity of both parties. Exploring trauma in this way can be both reassuring and cathartic. Gadsby builds on this assessment of Van Gogh, attributing his failures as an artist in his own lifetime to an inability to form personal connections rather than the popular narrative of the suffering, male genius. This point ties into a scathing indictment of Hollywood, key figures in the #MeToo movement and the way historical narratives value men’s artistic genius over women’s pain.
Gadsby does not shy away from her own pain, shame, and anger, asking her audience to face these feelings with her. Engaging in this brutally honest social critique demands a kind of radical vulnerability from Gadsby and her audience. Amid media that glorify men behaving badly, “Nanette” asks viewers to interrogate long-held cultural narratives and our role in perpetuating them.
As “Nanette” draws to a close, Gadsby shifts the focus of Van Gogh’s narrative. She reminds us that Van Gogh was able to create art in the first place because he had a brother who loved him. Human connection might be the key to shifting conversations around different forms of prejudice. In interviews, Gadsby has said that while reliving personal trauma night after night takes an incredible toll on her emotionally, she has also never felt more connected to other people. In sharing her story, it has become bound up with millions of others. This is how “Nanette” transcends the comedic genre. Gadsby’s story wants more than a punchline; she is looking for an ending.