Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, rather literal-mindedly entitled Something Special, comes five years after the chunky lesbian stand-up comic from Tasmania skyrocketed to international fame with her first Netflix outing, Nanette.
Like Something Special, Nanette was billed as a comedy special. In fact, it’s probably more appropriate to call it meta-comedy. Or quasi-comedy. Or anti-comedy. Which is to say that it wasn’t actually funny, but it was about being funny. Or, rather, about not wanting to be funny.
Once you’ve said that you’re done with stand-up, where do you go?
To be sure, Nanette started out with a few minutes of actual comedy — specifically, mild, low-key self-deprecating humor of the sort that doesn’t necessarily make you laugh out loud but that, when served up by a lady whose appearance has obviously been a burden for her, makes you feel vaguely sympathetic. Gadsby confessed, for example, that she’s not “very good at gay” and uneasy at big splashy gay events.
But then came the turn — and it was one of the most spectacular turns in comedy history. “I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humor,” Gadsby pronounced after 20 or so minutes of self-deprecation. “And I don’t want to do that anymore.” Why? Because as a lesbian, she explained, she lives “in the margins,” and has long operated on the notion that putting herself down is the price she has to pay in order to be permitted to speak at all. “And if that means that my comedy career is over,” she asserted, “then so be it.”
She went on to tell a few more lukewarm jokes. But then the humor dried up pretty much entirely. “I’m still ashamed of who I am,” she declared. “I need to tell my story properly.” Stating that she was raised in Tasmania’s Bible belt (who knew Tasmania had a Bible belt?), she contended that she grew up with internalized homophobia, self-hatred, a lack of self-worth, and a feeling that she wasn’t even allowed “to take up space in the world.”
It was touching — more than touching. But just when your sympathy was at its highest, she got into some heavy-duty man-hatred. After bringing up the topic of rape, she said: “Donald Trump. Pablo Picasso. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Woody Allen. Roman Polanski. These men are not exceptions. They are the rule.”
Of course, three of these men have never been convicted of rape, but that didn’t matter to Gadsby, who wanted to make the point that all men are rapists, or at least potential rapists. Having encouraged (indeed, begged) her audience to empathize with her suffering, Gadsby mocked the idea that men — any men — ever suffer. No, they’re predators, period. Recounting a physical assault on her by a man who thought she’d been hitting on his girlfriend, Gadsby called on “the men in the room … particularly the white men, especially the straight white men” to “sort [themselves] out.”
Yes, she’d experienced pain. But the whole premise of the act was that no man has ever done so. When I first saw Nanette, I wondered how much the men in that Sydney audience had paid per seat to be accused in this fashion.
The best self-referential comedians tell jokes about the ways in which they feel marginalized, or broken, or hurt, because they understand that all of us feel that way, in one way or another, for one reason or another. The lllllllllllllllter that springs from these comedians’ tales of woe unites them with their audiences and unites the members of their audiences with one another in their shared humanity, their shared sense of being, in one way or another, failures and outsiders.
But in the closing third of her show, Gadsby didn’t use mirth to bond with her audience. Far from it. Moving way past anything resembling ordinary stand-up, she shrieked at the top of her lungs, embodying fiery feminist fury at its fiercest. Coming in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the rant was perfectly timely — and was thus celebrated in all the right places as a once-in-a-century breakthrough, a revolution in the history of stand-up.
Jason Zinoman wrote in the New York Times that Gadsby “channeled the righteous rage of the current feminist moment,” which made Nanette “great art.” In the Toronto Star, Johanna Schneller praised Gadsby for offering “an alternative to privilege and hate that is so simple, so beautiful and so right, it shimmers.” At The Age (Australia), Karl Quinn wrote that while he “didn’t find all of [Nanette] terribly funny,” he was “OK with that” because the act was “a brilliantly wrought piece of self-referential theatre” in which Gadsby “reveals so much that the pain and anger seeps from the screen. It is remarkable.”
Gadsby’s live audience at the Sydney Opera House agreed. They didn’t laugh like crazy, but they applauded. They cheered. If they’d had fireworks, they’d have set them off. And that was just the beginning. Nanette won prizes all over the world, including a Peabody, an Emmy, and Best Comedy Show at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Time Magazine named it the best comedy special of the year (“a tour de force performance that deconstructs all the familiar tropes of stand-up comedy”). On the Rotten Tomatoes website, it got positive reviews from 100 percent of the critics — a very rare achievement indeed.
But what percentage of audience members gave it a thumbs-up on Rotten Tomatoes? Only 26 percent — making Nanette one of the quintessential examples of a purported work of entertainment that critics feel obliged to eulogize but that regular people feel free to acknowledge as junk. The lesson being that witty self-deprecation is a hell of a lot more attractive and entertaining (think Woody Allen or Joan Rivers) than witless self-pity. In demanding to be hailed for being a victim, Gadsby wasn’t being brave and original but was just joining the multi-million-member #MeToo club.
All of which left one question: What could Gadsby do as an encore? Once you’ve said that you’re done with stand-up, where do you go?
Of course, she did what any other successful comic would do: She put together a new act. Did anybody really believe she was going to give up on comedy? Her follow-up show, Douglas (2019), filmed in LA, was pretty standard stand-up, as she more or less admitted at the outset: “If you want more trauma, I’m fresh out. I went and put all my trauma eggs into one basket, so here we are.”
And there we were indeed: Gadsby told lame stories about conversations she’s had at dog parks. She even returned to self-deprecation, admitting that she has a “resting bitch face.” To be sure, she didn’t drop the misandry: “We do live in a world,” she complained, “in which everything has been named by men.” There wasn’t a single real laugh. But her fan base seemed to be satisfied, even though Douglas proved that Nanette had been pure schtick: a contrived, calculated, cynical piece of politically correct performance art disguised as raw confession.
Which brings us to Something Special, released on May 9, in which Gadsby returns to the Sydney Opera House. She opens by saying that this one is “going to be a feel-good show because I believe I owe you one.” It’s a smooth way of preparing the audience for a remarkably conventional hour of stand-up — inoffensive, toothless, even good-natured. As it happens, there’s a reason for Gadsby’s new air of contentment: She’s gotten married, and, because of that, everything is now sweetness and light. God’s in His Heaven; all’s right with the world.
(Then again, get a load of this odd detail: even though Gadsby — as far as I know — has always identified as a lesbian, not trans, she now uses the pronouns “they/them,” apparently indicating a desperate determination to keep feeling au courant.)
Bottom line: Something Special is, well, nothing special. It’s every bit as safe and familiar as Nanette was incendiary and boundary-busting, with one lame variation after another on the usual hackneyed material about proposing marriage, planning a wedding, and getting used to being part of a couple. When she runs out of marriage stories, Gadsby tries to squeeze laughs, in Kathy Griffin fashion, out of a few unremarkable anecdotes about what it’s been like to become famous and meet other celebrities (notably Jodie Foster). She also digs back into her pre-marriage past, telling us how lousy she is at relationships — thereby once again ignoring her vow to drop the self-deprecation.
All in all, it’s extremely pedestrian — the kind of stuff that might evoke friendly chuckles at a baby shower after the chardonnay has been passed around for a while. Even the initially adoring Sydney Opera House audience, which Gadsby herself describes as consisting largely of lesbians, seems underwhelmed. Still, they hang in there, and give her the requisite ovation at the end. And why shouldn’t they? They’d probably do the same for any of the other P.C. mediocrities in Netflix’s comedy stable, like Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, and Amy Schumer. Because they’re clearly not into real — i.e., funny — comedians like Dave Attell, Nick DiPaolo, or Colin Quinn. Like Gadsby herself, they don’t want laughs — they want affirmation. And when they buy their tickets to see Gadsby, they know that that’s exactly what they’re getting.