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Stray Thoughts: Hannah Gadsby is a Goddamn Genius

🐕 At the dog park!

Hannah Gadsby's Netflix special Nanette was a ground-breaking and rule-breaking performance that completely shattered the paradigm of what a comedy special could be. Halfway through the show she "quits" and starts reframing the content of the first half in terms of the trauma behind it. It broke the internet a little and made Gadsby a household name in the States, while also being a cathartic crie du coeur that spoke to millions. It's her masterpiece

So let's talk about Douglas.

Douglas was the show Gadsby wrote after Nanette, and it's one of my favorite comedy specials. I think I've watched it four times now. I don't know if it will every surpass Eddie Izzard's Dressed To Kill, but it is nonetheless fantastic. "At the dog park!" has become one of those lines we just say around the house now. And while I find it funny--because it's quite funny--what I truly admire is the unique way Gadsby employs a framing device. You see, the first ten minutes of the show is her giving the audience an outline of what the show is going to be. She spoils the narrative of the show right off the bat under the guise of "setting expectations". It's weird, and it's lengthy, and it feels like it shouldn't work. But it does, and that is fascinating to me. Because it's quite clever writing that manages to sidestep the inherent hurdles that are baked into the show. And I am a sucker for clever writing that solves problems! So what are those inherent problems and how does her framing device get around them? Well, hypothetical reader, I'm glad you asked.

It's the Follow-Up to Nanette

This is the biggest problem that has to be dealt with. Nanette kind of broke comedy, so how do you follow that? Most of the people attending this show or watching on streaming will have seen exactly one previous show from Gadsby, and it was the one where she relives some pretty horrific trauma right up there on stage without giving the audience any warning. So what the hell are people even expecting to see? Gadsby tackles this right out of the gate, before she even gets to outlining the show. And here's where the idea of setting expectation" is important. Because while she can say up front that there won't be any more trauma, the audience is not incentivized to believe her. The whole gimmick of Nanette is that the switch from comedy to trauma is a rug-pull. But by giving the audience the complete outline of the show, she's giving them something specific to look forward to rather than simply waiting around for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

It's About Autism

If you've read her book Ten Steps To Nanette: A Memoire Situation, then you'll know that early conceptions of that show included the reveal of her then-recent diagnosis with autism (and if you haven't read it, I recommend it, it's quite equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching). But she cut the autism-related content because the show already had a lot going on. Ergo, Douglas is the show where autism takes center stage. So how do you write a comedy show about autism? Especially when you know that the reveal of this detail is going to be something that the audience has to process a little. It's going to be a weird moment. And, in fact, the moment of the show that is the "big reveal" is deliberately framed as an awkward moment that happens right in the middle. But of course, the audience already knows it's coming because Gadsby discusses the reveal when she's doing her overview. Thus, the weird moment of actual revelation happens in the middle of an already weird bit, and this puts a little bit of distance between the information and the audience. This, candidly makes it easier to contextualize. In fact, at the end of the overview she explains that the show is entirely about autism, and that the first half is a series of red flags that are pointing towards her eventual diagnosis. This gives the audience context for the stories that make up the first half of the show, and then when the "big reveal" moment comes, the audience has had time to process the information and an intentionally awkward reveal of not-new information actually gets quite a cheer.

She's Leaning Hard Into Feminism

Just to be clear, this is not a "problem", but it's something that will divide audiences. The natural inclination would be to soften it, but Gadsby goes the other way. She doubles down, and her outline section includes the fact that she will be "needling the patriarchy". Again, this notion of setting expectations is apropos. In a sense, she's almost apologizing in advance for the fact that she does not intend to be gentle, and doing so gives her license to go extra hard. It also allows her to tell jokes around bits that aren't funny in and of themselves. There's an part in the overview about "bait" where she says she will make a statement and will make no attempt to make it into a joke. She instructs the audience not to take the bait. When she arrives at that moment in the show-proper, as soon as the audience starts to react she shouts at them for taking the bait, which actually does make the moment funny. The meta-commentary becomes the joke, which works for Gadsby because...

Her Comedy is Kind of Weird To Begin With

Gadsby's comedy is challenging. Sometimes it's the subject matter, sometimes it's the approach she takes, but she does her own thing and expects the audience to keep up. The prelude section with its setting of expectations is a way to meet the audience halfway without compromising her unique style. Compare this to something like a Tig Notaro show, where huge swaths of the audience who aren't familiar with Notaro's brand of anti-comedy can't really make sense of what they're seeing for a while. They get on board by the end, but the beginning will be punctuated by awkward laughs. Now, Gadsby's not doing anti-comedy, but she's definitely doing off-beat meta-humor, and this framing device really plays to her strengths that way. In turns the entire show into one giant call-back, and this is a fact that Gadsby explains during the overview. The show becomes a meta-commentary on itself, which is kind of mind-blowing when you think about it. In fact, the meta-commentary is often funnier than the actual comedy. I won't spoil it, but if you've seen the special, there is one joke that stands out because a lot of attention is drawn to it. It is set up as a really fantastic joke. You know which one I mean. Here's the thing... it not actually all that funny. Don't get me wrong, it's not unfunny. It's fine. It's a perfectly serviceable joke, but that's not why it stands out. It's the meta-commentary around it that makes the moment of the joke into something spectacular.

And that's part of what makes Douglas such a brilliant show. Gadsby is doing some unusual humor with the swagger of someone who's been doing it for a while and is really good at it. And she absolutely sticks the landing.

That's what I think, anyway,

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