Hannah Gadsby: If Political Correctness Can Kill Comedy, It's Already Dead

Jun 27, 2019
Originally published on June 27, 2019 8:10 pm

If Hannah Gadsby's name doesn't ring a bell from last year, the name Nanette should. The Netflix comedy special became a surprise hit in 2018 and made the Australian comedian a household name.

Nanette starts as conventional stand-up, with jokes about everyday indignities and hilarities growing up in Gadsby's native Tasmania as a queer woman. Then, without warning, she takes a dark turn.

Gadsby shares stories of trauma and assault without flinching or easing the tension — even though she acknowledges that is her job as a comedian. She's done with that role, she says.

"I've built a career out of self-deprecating humor," she tells a stunned audience. "I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore — not to myself, or anybody who identifies with me."

She announced that she was quitting comedy, then and there on the stage. But the public wasn't ready to accept that. As word of mouth spread about Nanette, Gadsby had a sudden and growing fan base. They'd gotten a taste of her unique voice and were hungry for more.

So she returned with a new tour, Douglas. This time, she's taking on the idea of success and public identity in the wake of Nanette.

Hannah Gadsby spoke with NPR as part of a special series on women comedians on All Things Considered.


Interview Highlights

On publicly quitting comedy in Nanette

Well, it was always a theatrical conceit ... when I was writing the show, I'm like, "People are not going to like this." So a way around that, intellectually, I'm like, "Well, if I quit comedy at the beginning, people can't say that I did it wrong." So I quit in the middle of the show, and then I stopped doing comedy. Because it was an exhausting show to perform. So there was a part of me that was like, "It would be nice to stop." But things have happened.

On the traumatic story behind Nanette

It was when I was [a teenager] in Tasmania, at a bus stop, and I got mixed up in a man's rage at the way I presented myself, which was not straight or feminine. So it's about sexuality as much as gender. I tell the story in the show at first like it's a joke, and then I strip it back. So I do what's known as a callback. ...

He was bit of an idiot, drunk idiot, who thought I was a gay man trying to hit on his girlfriend. Which still amuses me. It's like: Dude, that's not how it works. ... It's a funny trope, and it's also laughing at the country bumpkins. You know, they're the homophobe ...

And then later on in the show, I go, "He beat me up." And, you know, that's what happened. And I was still sort of stuck in that trauma, and I realized it was because I'd been stopping short whenever I'd tell this story to the world. And the world's going: "This is an acceptable narrative: a stranger who's dumb, who's from the country, who's homophobic." ...We all too easily laugh at country bumpkins. But that's where I'm from. There are people like me living there trying to grow up in those places. ... You mock people, they take it out on vulnerable people.

On criticisms that she violated the rules of comedy in Nanette

Well, if they no longer make sense, I don't mind breaking them. And I'm a student of art history, as well. I've seen this pattern in other art movements. It's that, you know, changing of the guard. People break rules, they get accused of not being actual artists. And I was like, this is old news. ...

You gotta make 'em laugh. That's pretty much it. End on a laugh. Everything has to be funny. But if the only thing you have to do is make people laugh, then you stop thinking about what it is you're saying.

On women comedians

If you're a funny woman, the world's not necessarily easy for you to navigate. Men being funny is something that culturally, we accept and like. Women? It's much more of a high-wire act. ... I think men find it quite threatening, as a rule. I'm speaking very, very broadly but also — I've got a lot to back that up with.

On being diagnosed with autism, which she reveals at the start of Douglas

Well it was a long, slow process of just never quite knowing what I've done wrong ... in social situations. So what people often see is rudeness — me caring, but caring wrong. And once I understood that, I'm more compassionate to myself when I make mistakes. It's like, "Oh, this is just not a thing you're very good at." ...

It dramatically changed [my approach to comedy], because one of the difficult things I had in my voice, my comedic voice, was how to manage this really intellectual part of myself with this childlike naivete that I have. You know, I see things that other people don't. And I miss things that everyone else seems to get instantly. ...

I don't approach the world going: "I'm going to make this funny." What I do is like: "I don't understand what's going on." And so I study things. But sometimes I look into a problem and I'm like, "Well, this actually doesn't make sense. The world is believing a stupid thing, right? This is made-up."

On the potential opening in comedy in the wake of the #MeToo movement

Hannah Gadsby: I'm aware there's quite a considerable backlash going on. I think I'm an outsider. And I think it's a good thing for comedians to be reminded that that's what comedy is. It's being an outsider. So if you're getting worried that comedy is so delicate that people can't question it, then harden up.

Audie Cornish: Yeah, it's interesting. There's a lot of: "The audience is too sensitive. The audience is too PC."

Gadsby: No, comedians are too sensitive. If something as benign as political correctness can kill comedy, then comedy's already dead.

This interview was edited for broadcast by Courtney Dorning.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Comedy is big business. Streaming stand-up specials, comedian-led talk shows, podcasts and more are yielding what some see as a golden age. And women are emerging as some of the biggest stars and rule-breakers. Over the coming months, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED will feature some of them. And first up, Hannah Gadsby and her new show "Douglas." Gadsby, Tasmanian-born with an art history degree, kind of came out of left field last year with her special "Nanette" on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NANETTE")

HANNAH GADSBY: Art history taught me, historically, women didn't have time for the think-thoughts. They didn't have time - no - too busy napping naked alone in the forest.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But this show took an unexpected detour into the trauma of homophobia, sexism in art and her critique on where comedy fails us. It seemed like she was done with her own job as a comedian.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "NANETTE")

GADSBY: I do think I have to quit comedy, though. I don't feel very comfortable in it anymore. I have a built a career out of self-deprecating humor. I put myself down in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore - not to myself or anybody who identifies as me.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: We all thought you were going to quit.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: You clearly have not. So what happened?

GADSBY: Well, I mean, it was always a theatrical conceit. When I was writing the show, I'm like, people are not going to like this. You know, if I quit comedy at the beginning, people can't say that I did it wrong.

CORNISH: Yeah.

GADSBY: So I quit in the middle of a show, and then I stopped doing comedy because it was an exhausting show to perform. So there was a part of me that's like - would be nice to stop, but things have happened.

CORNISH: Yeah, a few people have seen it since.

GADSBY: Yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: Just so people understand the premise and why it would be exhausting is, in "Nanette," you dissect a joke and a kind of comedy we've all gotten used to. And I would look back at maybe Richard Pryor as someone who really popularized this in a big way - of like, here is something that's a very personal pain; it may have involved violence or something scary - but I'm going to make it funny. And for you, this was an incident where you were attacked for being gay. Can you talk a little bit about it?

GADSBY: Yeah. It was when I was in Tasmania at a bus stop. And I got mixed up in a man's rage. I tell the story in the show at first like it's a joke, and then I strip it back. So I do what's known as a callback. He was a bit of an idiot - drunk idiot who thought I was a gay man trying to hit on his girlfriend, which still amuses me. It's like, dude, that's not how it works.

(LAUGHTER)

GADSBY: That is not what...

CORNISH: So this is you reeling me in.

GADSBY: Yeah. So this is...

CORNISH: So now I'm like, oh, I'm comfortable. I'm...

GADSBY: Yeah. It's a funny trope, and it's also laughing at the country bumpkins. You know, they're the homophobe. And then later on in the show, I go - he beat me up.

And I was still sort of stuck in that trauma. And I realized it was because I'd been stopping short whenever I'd tell this story to the world. And the world's going, this is an acceptable narrative - a stranger who's dumb, who's from the country, who's homophobic.

CORNISH: Right. And also, she's fine.

GADSBY: Yeah.

CORNISH: Right? Like, that's what allows us to laugh - hey, she's fine.

GADSBY: They all too easily laugh at country bumpkins. But that's where I'm from. There are people like me living there, trying to grow up in those places.

CORNISH: The stakes are much higher than people realize.

GADSBY: Really are then, yeah. Because you mock people, they take it out on vulnerable people.

CORNISH: So you taking on these issues caused a lot of, let's say, consternation (laughter) in the comedy world...

GADSBY: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...A lot of discussion about whether you're even a comedian.

GADSBY: I mean, what's incredible about all that for me is that that's what they took out of the show. Like...

CORNISH: It seemed like people were saying - look - there are rules. This is what comedy is; this is what comedy is not. Are there rules? And has a lot of your comedy been about just breaking them?

GADSBY: Well, if they no longer make sense, I don't mind breaking them. And I'm a student of art history, as well. I've seen this pattern. People break rules; they get accused of not being actual artists. And I was like, this is old news.

CORNISH: Can you give an example of a rule?

GADSBY: In comedy?

CORNISH: Yeah, because we don't...

GADSBY: You got to make them laugh (laughter).

CORNISH: That's a good one.

GADSBY: Like, that's pretty much it. Like, end on a laugh. Everything has to be funny. But if the only thing you have to do is make people laugh, then you stop thinking about what it is you're saying.

CORNISH: Anything for a laugh.

GADSBY: Yeah.

CORNISH: And that has maybe real implications for women, in particular...

GADSBY: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...In terms of who you have to impress.

GADSBY: Yeah. If you're a funny woman, the world's not necessarily easy for you to navigate. Men being funny is something that, culturally, we accept and like. Women, it's a much more of a high-wire act.

CORNISH: In what way? What do you think?

GADSBY: Well, I think men find it quite threatening - as a rule. I'm speaking very broadly. But also, I've got a lot to back that up with.

CORNISH: (Laughter) You know, another thing I want to ask about is, in this show, you say something along the lines of, like, you like to needle the patriarchy. And when people hear language like that, it can be off-putting, right? Like, oh, no - is this going to be a lecture?

GADSBY: Yeah. So one of the underpinnings of the show is that online hate is a thing that's quite the lot at the moment.

CORNISH: Right, all of the shouts and murmurs from social media you get when you're a public person.

GADSBY: Yeah. And you know, sticks and stones will break your bones - like, yeah they did break my bones. But honestly, I think it's - names are the issue. Like, names are where the hate is born. That's where hate begins.

CORNISH: Yeah.

GADSBY: These are the seeds. This is where you got to dig them out.

CORNISH: One of the big reveals in "Douglas," although it's not a reveal because you tell us right away at the top (laughter), is that you've been diagnosed with autism. Why did you want to share that with the public? And how did you find out that you were autistic?

GADSBY: Well, it was a long, slow process of just never quite knowing what I've done wrong.

CORNISH: In social situations.

GADSBY: Yeah, in social situations. Like, so what people often see as rudeness - me caring, but caring wrong. And once I understood that, I'm more compassionate to myself when I make mistakes. It's like - oh, this is just not a thing you're very good at.

CORNISH: Yeah. How did it make you think about your approach to comedy?

GADSBY: Well, it dramatically changed it because one of the difficult things I had in my comedic voice was how to manage this really intellectual part of myself with this childlike naivete that I have. You know, I see things that other people don't. And I miss things that everyone else seems to get instantly.

CORNISH: You know, your ability to dissect and break things down, it reveals your mastery - right? - as a comedian 'cause you can tell me - that was observational humor; you're going to laugh at it. You're probably going to laugh at it in 10 to 15 minutes. And I was like, she's right. I was shaking my fist in the audience. Like, I did laugh at the Louis C.K. joke. How did she do it?

GADSBY: Well, that's right because I study things. Sometimes I look into a problem, and I'm like - well, this actually doesn't make sense. The world is believing a stupid thing. Right? This is made-up.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

It feels like we're in this moment - maybe because of the #MeToo movement, maybe because of someone like Louis C.K. and this kind of high-profile questioning of men and male behavior in comedy - that there's an opening.

GADSBY: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so. I'm aware there's quite a considerable backlash going on. I think I'm an outsider. And I think it's a good thing for comedians to be reminded that that's what comedy is. It's being an outsider. So if you're getting worried that comedy is so delicate that people can't question it, then harden up.

CORNISH: Yeah, it's interesting. There's a lot of - the audience is too sensitive; the audience is too PC.

GADSBY: No, comedians are too sensitive. Like, if something as benign as political correctness can kill comedy, then comedy's already dead.

CORNISH: That's Hannah Gadsby. Her new stand-up tour is called "Douglas." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.