Wednesday, August 1, 2018
John Olb and Madeleine Parry | Nanette
by Douglas Messerli
Hannah Gadsby (writer), Jon Olb and Madeleine Parry (directors) Nanette / 2018
As philosophers and others such as Henri Bergson have long argued, laughter—although seemingly giving us pleasure—is not always grounded in joy, but much like growling, is often a way we have of dealing with the tension between reality and what we would like to be the truth. As comedians well know—John Osbourne showed us this in his The Entertainer, just as Robin Williams demonstrated it in his suicide—comedians are not always happy folks, often using humor as a kind of armor, deflecting their own feelings of insignificance and fear to hide what they most feel inside.
The wonderful Tasmanian-born stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby explores this territory in her performance titled Nanette, which is filled with laughter but also with a great deal of anger, aimed particularly at self-privileged males.
Born lesbian into a society that simply did not accept the idea of homosexuality, time and again, throughout her youth, she was awarded for her successful golf tournaments with dishware, while the male competitors were given money and other more solid awards. Her grandmother, she quips, kept telling her that “Mr. Right was just around the corner,” forcing her to be very warry about the corners in her life.
Gadsby takes the opportunity of her stand-up show to help educate us about comedy and how it works. She argues that basically a comic line depends on a two-part structure, the short narrative which builds the tension and the release of that tension with a quick twist in the tale.
Yet Gadsby’s performance, in this case, is basically written in three parts, the first of which—part of the build-up—reveals the problems of her childhood, those problems, as in most comedy conclude with quick zingers that shuffle those problems into another dimension, as we, seemingly with her, laugh them off.
In the second part, this skilled dialogist, suddenly declares that she may be giving up comedy, as she explains the nature of a joke and how for all these years she used those quips to protect herself from having to actually face those childhood difficulties. Still, she allows some remarkable releases, allowing us to share some of her informative explanations of her craft in between bits of laughter.
By the third part of her amazing “talk,” one that bears similarities to another comic-dialogist, Spaulding Gray (who also committed suicide, he by drowning), Gadsby switches gears, letting out the very anger which has allowed her to deflect the truth over and over again, and turning against the male aggressors in her life, whether passive simply in the male presumptions of priority or active in what appears to have sexual abuse (she insistently names no names and refuses to indicate what relationships these men might have had to her), but as she recently mentioned in an interview with The New York Times, this film-version of her piece, was the very most difficult since her mother in the audience.
What we have previously released in our growls of laughter now quickly turns to tears, particularly if you have any empathy, which even uncomfortable straight men in the audience should have developed by this time given the amazing talents she already revealed. Many critics have characterized this last section as going “beyond” comedy, of taking the genre into new territory. But I might suggest that she is simply returning to the first part, the narrative build-up, but projecting with an entirely different lens, of opening herself up to show us the real pain and suffering she endured for all those years. Instead of continuing to protect herself through the armor of laughter, she has permitted herself to talk to us straight-forwardly, to ask us to truly hear her pain and anger that she still retains for having to suffer in silence for so many years.
As she insists: “You wrote the rules, and I read them!”
I was startled, I admit, to hear her report that as a child she become silent, seemingly appearing to be shy and unsocial, when she obviously was a quick-witted, intelligent woman. Just the week before I had read an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Guy Branum, describing how, even as a young man, his obviously effeminate gay voice while growing in Sutter County, California—a place clearly not that very different from the Tasmanian island of Australia—altered his behavior; as he puts it:
By the fourth grade, I learned that there was something about me that
made me audibly different from the other boys my age. I could not mask it,
I could not change it, I could not fight so well that I could earn the
respect of my classmates. My voice evoked rage and disgust from
my peers and teachers. I kept it hidden and tried to fit into a role that did not
fit me. I played football, I tried to date girls. None of it worked, so I
became quiet, very quiet, for a long time.
And suddenly I recalled a piece I’d long ago written about my own childhood, something to the effect, after being terrified on the playground by the school-yard bully, that for years after I grew silent, turning in to read, write, and dream in private. I am sure that no-one who reads this today might ever believe it! When you're quiet for so many years, perhaps you feel you have to make up for it.
I was, nonetheless, still a privileged male, and was never abused by a grown-up that I know of—except for my father’s almost hysterical view of homosexuality. And Gadsby is still very righteously angry at a time that I realize I led a rather fortunate gay life. We all adapt differently to the bigotry against lesbianism and gay life. Moreover, things have changed much, if not yet sufficiently.
I think Gadsby’s moving performance ought to be perceived as both a Kaddish for all the lives of those in the LGBTQ community who have been traumatized by the dominant heterosexual world and, particularly during the AIDs crisis, even died for their sexual identities. Here, finally, we have a new conversation that needs to be heard and at least listened to by even those who may feel uncomfortable by its truth. Simply being quiet or laughing, for that matter, is no longer an solution.
Los Angeles, August 1, 2018