The great Gadsby

The Kimmel Center presents Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas’

4 minute read
Finished with the gatekeepers of comedy: Hannah Gadsby is touring her new show, ‘Douglas.’ (Image courtesy of the Kimmel Center.)
Finished with the gatekeepers of comedy: Hannah Gadsby is touring her new show, ‘Douglas.’ (Image courtesy of the Kimmel Center.)

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, released on Netflix in June 2018, smashed the comedic glass ceiling and challenged our collective cultural understanding of what comedy is and should be. Named after the performer’s dog, Douglas, which recently had its Philly engagement at the Merriam, is the hotly anticipated epilogue that answers the question of what comes next.

Nanette evolved onstage from a standard comedy routine to reveal the achingly painful truths behind the humorous façade. Douglas is gentler, funnier, and more traditional in its pacing. Gadsby explicitly tells the audience what to expect this time, outlining her show’s contents in her first 15 minutes onstage, while avoiding full spoilers.

“I’m going to make a Louis CK joke towards the end. You’ll forget I’ve said this, but then I’ll get there and you’ll remember. I think it really doubles the enjoyment.” Twenty-seven puns also make the cut (including two fart jokes), a discussion of her autism diagnosis, and a cryptic hint. “I’m going to do exactly what they say I do, my haters, but it’s going to be funny,” she prefaces with a grin.

Not comedy?

Nanette debuted a year ago, as the #MeToo movement gained traction. Gadsby received praise for her frank, raw commentary, but she says men have also been providing “feedback” on what Nanette “really” is—because what it isn’t, many men claim, is comedy. It’s a monologue, perhaps. Or a lecture. But as Gadsby notes, this distinction is made not to elevate her work but to dismiss it.

This attempted recategorization of Nanette is not the only method of invalidating the show’s merit. Other male critics tell her that she’s fat and ugly in an attempt to silence her (though why men think that Gadsby, a lesbian, will be devastated by their lack of attraction to her is a mystery). To these critics, she responds with a resounding “so what?”

Seeing ourselves

She takes this opportunity to highlight the way we use unrelated, arbitrary expectations and standards to determine individual worth and validity. We associate physical traits with morality: it’s good to be pretty and thin, and a moral failing to be fat or ugly—as if beauty is something we owe the world, or a prerequisite to making a point. Mirrors, Gadsby notes, are a recent invention in human history.

“We are not meant to see ourselves!” she proclaims with righteous indignation and a hint of despair. “If we were, we’d have eyeballs on our fingertips.”

This is not necessarily breaking news, but it nevertheless needs to be said. Gadsby’s experiences and opinions are perhaps not unique but her platform showcases them as concrete examples of larger patterns of harmful behaviors we must address.

Living with autism

A significant portion of the show centers around Gadsby’s relatively recent autism diagnosis. To her, the diagnosis was an exciting moment; she finally had a word for what she was feeling. It meant that she wasn’t alone and there were ways to manage her discomfort.

She details the overwhelming stimuli of airports and the calming effect of stimming by flapping her hands. The audience gets a window into her life that’s perhaps less painful but equally as important as the trauma she explored last year. She describes how her autism has naturally shaped the ways she inhabits and interacts with the world, and how it leads to many of the societal observations enjoyed by her fans.

A lot of orbs and naked frolicking are happening over here: Raphael’s ‘The Three Graces.’
A lot of orbs and naked frolicking are happening over here: Raphael’s ‘The Three Graces.’

Gadsby sees connections that might be invisible to neurotypical onlookers. The topics she addresses in her show jump around in a way that illustrates her thought process, connecting ideas that at first glance may seem completely unrelated as she patiently illuminates their similarities to the audience.

Opening the door

Soon the carefully planned narrative becomes clear, as offhand comments reference earlier jokes and metacontent abounds. She ends with an art-history PowerPoint, a callback to Nanette critics who decried the show as "not comedy but a lecture," proving that she can do both at the same time. She goes through several Renaissance-era paintings depicting the Muses as three women with a particular affinity for holding orbs and frolicking naked in the woods. She flicks through several other paintings accompanied by witty quips—and yes, we discover Louis CK.

This is a different version of Gadsby than we’ve seen before. Knowing now what she’s capable of, there is some expectation for her to transcend comedic traditionalism in all that she does.

“I’ve put all my trauma eggs in one basket,” Gadsby says, addressing the question of what to expect after her surprise smash hit. Douglas has more jokes and its content is more deliberately funny, but many of the elements that made Nanette work so well are still there, like her delicate balance of tension and release, expert narrative setup, and attention to the normalization of dangerous ideas. She is still vulnerable and still asks audiences to confront uncomfortable truths, but this is not a show about trauma. It showcases Gadsby’s versatility—she can do that, but it’s not all she is.

No, Gadsby hasn’t quit comedy. She’s simply given up on the version created and gatekept by men, and created her own. She’s abandoned comedy as it was and instead opened the door to what it could be.

What, When, Where

Douglas. By Hannah Gadsby, presented in association with WestBeth Entertainment. June 23, 2019, at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.

The Merriam Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue with an ADA-compliant restroom accessible by elevator, but the venue may pose challenges for audience members with mobility concerns. For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected].

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