Great Gadsby: The jokes Hannah will never make

By Michael Idato

Comedian Hannah Gadsby in West Hollywood, Los Angeles.Credit:Cole Bennetts

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once wrote: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” That familiar aphorism appeals to us because it reinforces what we often think is true: that adulthood, in all its complexity, is fashioned in infancy and that what we become can be conveniently blamed on some earlier shortcoming.

Which makes Hannah Gadsby’s primary school report card all the more compelling. “Hannah does not apply herself. [She] is falling well short of her potential,” it warned, in the kind of ominous tone that has knitted many a parental brow. But as predictions go, I would not have bet the house on it given that Hannah, all grown up, is a globally recognised comedian with two Emmy Awards.

“I feel like potential is the tricky word there,” Gadsby says, as we settle into a long conversation in the back garden of her Los Angeles home. “Who gets to decide your potential? Potential is nothing without the context of the world. And in the small world of my childhood, maybe I wasn’t, but I can’t objectively look at where I am now and think about it in terms of my potential because it’s become a silly place.”

Hannah Gadsby spoke to us about potential, pain and potato scallops. Credit:Cole Bennetts

That silly place is, of course, success and consequently fame. As with the cyclone that opens The Wizard of Oz, it has a tendency to uproot everything and plonk its subjects down in a real world of make-believe, much of it operated by men hiding behind curtains and fiercely operating small levers.

For Gadsby, it means a set of critically acclaimed Netflix comedy specials Nanette and Douglas, sold-out tours, a Peabody Award to add to her shiny Emmys and, now, a memoir, Ten Steps to Nanette. She is many things, but lacking in potential is surely not one of them.

“I always believed that I was a successful comedian,” she says, of her pre-fame life. “I had my own audience, I sold out my shows reasonably. I had to hustle a little bit, but I had built up a career as an artist that I didn’t need to supplement. I’ve transitioned into a world that I feel is not normal, and I feel quite comfortable knowing that. And my philosophy approaching this is it’s not going to last.”

The book is the result of a deal that Gadsby has had on the table for a decade. “I am accident-prone and originally, it was going to be a collection of essays about all the little accidents I’ve had,” she says. “But every time I’d pull it out to have a look at it, I couldn’t quite work myself out, and I’d put it away.”

Everything changed, she says, when she was diagnosed with autism in 2016. “Everything just tessellated into place, and then I realised not being able to work myself out was part of what helped me finish the book,” Gadsby says. “It’s all the same soup. There’s a lot of writing in the book that I wrote before I was diagnosed, and I’ve left it in there because I was writing as honestly as I could.”

Hannah Gadsby was born the youngest of five in Smithton, a remote town in the northwest corner of Tasmania, in 1978.

The book is more than autobiography. Gadsby frames her story on a delicate structure of humour, candour and not too much nostalgia. It revels in the everyday, particularly the minutiae of ordinary family life that feels extremely relatable. Even down to the family’s takeaway fish-and-chip dinners, which the book recalls in lovingly descriptive detail.

“You can steal chips out of someone’s mouth, but you couldn’t touch their fish,” Gadsby writes. So, I ask, what about the noble potato scallop, which, despite a passage devoted to a guest appearance from crumbed calamari, seems to escape without mention?

“We didn’t,” replies Gadsby. “We just got chips to share, and if we were lucky a piece of fish, and then sometimes dim sims. We erred on the dim sim side of things. Lips, tits and assholes, as mum would say. The scallop potato came much later, and I’m of the opinion that it’s the roadkill of potato.”

We sit and look at each other for a moment. I am appalled, and Gadsby registers my shock. “It’s all right, but the [batter-to-potato] ratio is not quite right with it,” she says. Upon reflection, she may be right, so I graciously concede the point.

In conversation, Gadsby is more gregarious than her self-effacing asides about conversational discomfort and social awkwardness would suggest. Even encumbered by a broken leg – sustained after she fell over while touring her latest show Body of Work in Iceland – and the advancing afternoon sun which forces us both behind the safety of sunglasses, she is an enthusiastic and candid subject.

Gadsby, now 44, was born in Smithton, a remote town in the northwest corner of Tasmania in 1978. As the youngest of five, I ask her which Brady Bunch kid her experience most resembled: Cindy, the youngest, or Jan, adrift somewhere in the crowd? “I was Alice,” she says, referring to the Brady family’s middle-aged housekeeper. “Existing but not quite participating in the order of things.”

A young Hannah Gadsby didn’t mind cake – but family fish and chips were her favourite.

This is not to say the book reflects an unhappy home life; quite the opposite. In the passages recounting her upbringing, and her struggle to fit in at Smithton High School, the reader never loses a sense of the extraordinary affection she has for her mum Kay.

“Mum is a fierce person,” Gadsby says. “She has her story. They’re a good team of parents. Dad is very accepting. And the wonderful thing about mum is she’s always evolving, and I don’t always see that in people past the age of 30. She makes a lot of mistakes and is always better for them. And she’s hands down the funniest person I’ve ever known.”

Consequently, Ten Steps to Nanette is quite funny. As with the comedy special from which it takes its name, it does not skirt around Gadsby’s battles with anxiety and depression, nor the homophobic or sexual abuse she has experienced. She talks candidly about it all in both.

To the reader, they are potentially triggering subjects. To the author, the process of transcribing them onto the permanent record, in a process generally coated in affectionate nostalgia, was something else.

“The shadow of my childhood is very long [and] I feel like I’m just getting out of the other side of it,” Gadsby says. “And the problem with trauma is you’re not able to look back through your life with that positive, let’s call it nostalgic [lens]. There’s hot memories in there [but] I’m able to now go back through there and live in those memories without the darkness and the depression that has been clinging to me.”

Hannah Gadbsy says the shadow of her childhood is long.

It is a state of mind she credits to her life in the here and now: a successful career – Adam Hills Tonight and Please Like Me led to her critically acclaimed debut comedy special Nanette in 2018, and then a second hit, Douglas, in 2020 – and a home built with her wife, producer Jenney Shamash, whom she married last year.

“That’s the gift of where I am at the moment, I am able to go back through those [memories] and see the good parts for what they were, and that feels really nice,” Gadsby says. “I made a conscious decision to focus on the positive parts without diminishing or avoiding the darkness because I do feel like my childhood did set me up to survive the worst of what came at me.”

Gadsby’s comedy – perhaps like all comedy, nowadays – lives in a sensitive and uncertain space between the expression of humorous ideas and the always-moving line of everyone else’s offence. In 2021, Gadsby found herself swept into the cultural maelstrom when she was name-checked by Netflix chief executive Ted Sarandos as proof that his platform supports the LGBTQIA+ despite streaming controversial comedian Dave Chapelle.

“I would prefer it if you didn’t drag my name into your mess,” Gadsby wrote to Sarandos in a statement she published on her social media. “You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real-world consequences of the hate speech dog-whistling you refuse to acknowledge. F—k you and your amoral algorithm cult.”

The topic is not one Gadsby want to get into today. As far as she is concerned, the matter is closed. But we do talk in general terms about the problems of navigating the line and the oft-cited criticism of criticism that it is stifling comedians from nudging the line. “It’s all about context, and we’ve taken away the context of space,” Gadsby says. “What’s acceptable? What was funny 10 years ago is not now funny, and change is difficult for people to accommodate.”

Critically, Gadsby says, being funny is not the most interesting thing about stand-up comedy. “I think it’s essential to it, [and] if you’re on stage performing comedy, you’ve got to have the funny bones,” she says. “But when you live in a world with un-moderated internet conversations where anyone can say anything, do we need comedy to think about the line? The line is being crisscrossed all over the place by amateurs. What’s setting us apart?”

Hannah Gadsby, now 44, celebrates her birthday with her family.

“I think there was a time when perhaps it was a relief to get up and say the quiet bits out loud, but we live in a world where the quiet bits are being said out loud all the time,” Gadsby says. “There’s very little public, private distinction anymore, so I don’t see it in terms of comedy has changed. The world has changed. And I think comedy has to adapt.”

Part of that change, Gadsby says, is bringing her inner self into the comedy. “Bringing the personal into it in a way where you’re fallible,” she says. “I think a lot of comedians have been raised being the loudest voice in the room with only drunks heckling. But you’re heckled all the time now. For me, the line is the most uninteresting thing; it’s so narrow.

“We’ve lost the ability to have an inside voice and an outside voice,” Gadsby adds. “I have lots of jokes I’ll never make in public because it doesn’t feel right anymore. And I think a lot of comedians are asking, who’s going to make them if we don’t make them? But everyone is making them. Go online. You’re not saying anything new.”

Hannah Gadsby when she won Raw Comedy in 2006.Credit:Penny Stephens

The stage is not a lonely place for Gadsby, she says, in part because of the transactional nature of the interaction. “Touring is a lonely space, but someone like me, I do well with transactional interactions,” she says. Making small talk: tough. Talking to an audience: easy. Our interview: not difficult, because of the structural nature of it. “You ask a question and I answer it,” she says. “I don’t think people who see me on stage or see me and interview me would understand how much difficulty I have with interpersonal communication.”

“The stage works very much within that [structural] context,” Gadsby says. “I spend a lot of time thinking about stuff, and then I collect it and craft it. I build something that holds ideas and feelings that I have, and then I’m able to make a connection. And through doing stand-up, I found myself slowly lift myself out of the profound isolation I’d felt my entire life. So for me, it isn’t a lonely place.”

A looser environment, she says, is tougher. “The way that autistic people are wired, we flourish when we’re thinking and engaging with what is interesting, whereas neurotypical people, what is easy for them is to think about and engage in what is important,” Gadsby says. “That’s just a different way of communicating. I feel like I speak two languages. And I’m much better at talking about stuff I want to talk about as opposed to acknowledging that we both know what the weather is.”

Hannah Gadsby’s book has been a decade in the making (and thinking).

Dealing with her fame is something else. “I see fame as a necessary component of what I do and not the reason I do it,” Gadsby says. “I live for the craft of it and the performance of it. I really like doing what I do. I’d be an idiot to say I don’t need people to know about it, but it’s not what drives me. I’m not like, I wish people were thinking about me right now. I don’t think we’re wired to know as many people as we know [in the social media era] and to know people we’ve never touched before.”

In public, she says, she has found strangers incredibly respectful. “It is an odd power dynamic when someone feels like they know you, and they essentially do,” she says. “I have friends who are comedians, and they get their personal space invaded when [but] fans are really lovely to me. They’re like, I don’t want to interrupt. It got a little intense after Nanette, but these things pass. I’m very much in control of what I put out in the world.”

The two-year sabbatical brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic gave Gadsby a chance to recharge her batteries, she says. “What had happened to me with the success of Nanette threw me into a world I had absolutely no ability to process in real time, so that gave me a chance to stop and get bored,” Gadsby says. She also, obviously, finished her book.

“I did a lot of gardening, but there’s that thing, how do you say that you’re happy in a world that’s falling apart? It’s very difficult to say I had a great pandemic,” she adds. “That’s the battle of the moment, that to be a useful member of society you have not to be consumed by an anxiety about something to which you have no actual physical, personal control over.”

At the same time, she says, looking away is not the answer, as somewhere in the distant northwest of Tasmania you can hear that infamous report card exploding into flames. “You can’t just retreat into the closet of ignorance,” Gadsby says. “I feel like this is the workout people should be doing more than trying to lose weight after the new year. This is actually the heavy lifting we have to do.”

Ten Steps to Nanette (Allen & Unwin) can be pre-ordered now and will be published on March 29.

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.

To read more from Spectrum, visit our page here.

Most Viewed in Culture

Source: Read Full Article