Four years ago, progressives were riding high. Obama was president, healthcare was fixed forever, and the reset-button Ruskies were our best pals. But even in that golden age, there was a growing sense that comedy was … well … problematic.
The 2014 Netroots Nation conference lectured attendees on the systematic oppression of the Humor Industrial Complex while insisting they were far funnier than those evil conservatives. “When the right says we have no sense of humor,” panelist Katie Halper said, “it’s a great way for racist/sexist/homophobic men to make themselves seem funny.”
Now that Trump sits in the Oval Office and Republicans dominate Congress and most statehouses, progressives have thrown in the mic, stool, and the brick-wall backdrop. The most striking example is Hannah Gadsby’s recent stand-up comedy special. Titled “Nanette,” and released last month on Netflix, it’s being heralded across the media for … not being funny.
The New York Times acclaims the set as “comedy arguing against comedy.”
According to The Atlantic, “The most radical thing Hannah Gadsby does in ‘Nanette’ is simple: She stops being funny.”
Cosmopolitan raves, “I cried just thinking about Hannah Gadsby’s new stand-up set ‘Nanette.'” Those definitely aren’t tears of joy. Perhaps Gadsby is dropping stand-up comedy for stand-up tragedy, as Slate‘s Andrew Kahn approvingly dubbed it.
Halfway through her set, the Australian comic officially announces that she’s retiring. “It’s probably not the forum to make such an announcement,” Gadsby adds, “in the middle of a comedy show.”
Kahn knows just who to blame for Gadsby’s retirement. You guessed it: Donald Trump.
Something is changing, but it’s broader than the comedy industry. Nanette challenges an idea of comedy, humor as truth-telling, that passed as common sense until pretty recently. Over the past two years, that idea has come in for a bruising—if not on the stage, certainly in the public square, where buffoonish politicians, racist trolls, and abusive comedians have stoked a debate about the perils of irony. This show ought to be seen as a product of that debate: When you take the anti-irony train all the way to the end of the line, one place you can end up is Nanette.
The special opens with average jokes you’d find at the local open-mic night. Nothing especially funny, but the lines bear the standard set-up/punchline structure. Her comedic premise is the tired identity riff that’s dominated novice comedians’ sets since the early ’90s. You know, the Latino/Asian/Disabled/Gay/Obese comic who bases every joke on being Latino/Asian/Disabled/Gay/Obese.
Gadsby is a lesbian, so most of her jokes reference that fact. I’m one of those odd comedy fans who’s less interested in lesbianism than laughter but to each their own. Yet even the trappings of comedy are abandoned once she announces her retirement.
She complains about her industry. She harangues cis white males. She blasts her fans for wanting even more “lesbian-based content.” And, despite having a hit Netflix special, she complains about her marginalization.
Much of her past work focused on self-deprecating jokes, but that’s now a no-no. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who already exists in the margins?” she says. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore.”
That’s not humility or humiliation, it’s comedy. People quickly identify with comedians who make themselves the butt of the joke. A few punchlines in, the audience realizes how much they have in common with the fellow human on stage trying to figure out life and often failing. Soon, the audience is laughing with the comedian and at themselves.
But, back to the perils of irony. Growing increasingly angry as her set rolls on, Gadsby repeatedly insists, “I need to tell my story!”
No. You don’t.
The audience isn’t your therapist, it’s a bunch of stressed-out customers paying you to help them forget their own harrowing stories for an hour or so.
Gadsby’s stories certainly are harrowing. She’s suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, and all sorts of bigoted behavior over the course of her life. Much of “Nanette’s” last half-hour covers the gory details of each. This is great material for a tell-all talk show, but comedy it’s not.
Nevertheless, reviewers insist people watch the show, like a nanny telling you to eat your vegetables.
Disengaging with Nanette because you don’t feel like it’s specifically talking to you does a disservice to your efforts at being inclusive. You don’t need to love Nanette – you don’t even need to like it – but if you’re willing to start the special, you owe to yourself and those around you to at least see the difficult conversation through and hear Gadsby’s arguments as to why comedy can often do more harm than good for the people on the stage.
“While it might make uncomfortable viewing for some *cough straight, white, cis men cough*, these are truths many people really need to hear.” Paisley Gilmour adds. “It’s time men pulled their bloody socks up.”
Gadsby is just the latest progressive giving up jokes. Comedians’ most celebrated moments these days are laughter-free. Jimmy Kimmel was praised for weeping through a monologue about healthcare policy. Kathy Griffin fainted during her stand-up set about blowback from her faux Trump beheading. “Saturday Night Live” highlighted a somber musical elegy to Hillary Clinton.
In a 2017 wrap-up, the New York Times enthused that “the most memorable moments of the year in comedy were not funny.”
This age of political buffoonery, media panic, and perpetual outrage is a comedy goldmine — right when many comedians are losing their sense of humor. As the left grows ever more dour, their political prospects will continue to fade. As will the laughter from an audience who could use a break from the anger and despair.