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Hannah Gadsby’s Vulnerability Is Her Most Powerful Asset

After achieving global superstardom with Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby's new show Douglas features her unique brand of hilarity and vulnerability.

By Jamila Rizvi

The Latest

After achieving global superstardom with Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby's new show Douglas features her unique brand of hilarity and vulnerability.

By Jamila Rizvi

How does one follow-up a mic-drop so powerful that it echoed around the world? By being Hannah Gadsby, that’s how.

The Tasmanian-born comedian’s previous show Nanette was intended to be her farewell to comedy. But after a Netflix special, major awards, international acclaim, an Emmy’s appearance and winning rave reviews from the world’s most notable celebrities? Gadsby would have been ‘an idiot’, as she told talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, to pull up stumps now.

At the world premiere of Douglas in Melbourne’s 2000-seat plus Hamer Hall last week, Gadsby proved that her unique brand of insightful hilarity will never be past its used by date. Having achieved global superstardom and now residing in the United States, the comedian insisted on launching her follow-up tour on home turf. The audience’s appreciation for this demonstrable act of loyalty was palpable.

The cheers when Gadsby walks on stage are like her the act has closed, not just begun. As the warm reception settles, our star pronounces in her trademark self-effacing tone that “My life has changed a lot. A lot of people touch me now”.

Unable to avoid the change in her circumstance and living standards, Gadsby doesn’t shy away from sharing titbits of life in Los Angeles. “Don’t go on a diet, get a tailor” she says of being fitted for the Emmy Awards. Gadsby deftly acknowledges the impact of Nanette, while accepting the inevitability of comparisons being made. The pressure on this follow-up show must have been overwhelming.

 

“The audience is never passive, and the artist is not a God, is Gadsby’s overarching lesson.”

 

Yet, Gadsby is unphased by the weight of expectation. She moves effortlessly from story-telling to human observation, sexual innuendo, to gender politics and a thorough dissection of privilege, with ease. Observing her performance is like watching a weaver at work.

What seem like throwaway comments or quips, return again, before being made-over once more in more potent comedic form. Gadsby isn’t about cheap call-back or payoff but a lacing a more complete tapestry together.

The comedian’s art history background comes to the fore once again, with a hilarious dance break style insertion, covering all the Ninja-turtle named painters. Reflecting on the criticism of Nanette as a lecture rather than traditional stand-up comedy, Gadbsy proceeds to deliver exactly that: a masterclass in art. Take that haters.

The audience is never passive, and the artist is not a God, is Gadsby’s overarching lesson. You don’t get to dance to Michael Jackson’s Bad without first confronting the truth of sexual abuse allegations levelled against him. No person’s work is beyond reproach and nor should artistic brilliance inoculate an individual from the basic requirements of human decency.

The silencing tricks of white men in history that serve to rob women and minorities of their power, form a primary target. Gadsby picks apart language and culture with a level of nuanced insight, revealing the invisible minimising messages in our everyday interactions. Nothing and no one, is safe. Including every single member of the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gang (and their famous namesakes).

In unpacking her own experience of a world governed by men’s rules, Gadsby reveals she is autistic. Like many before her, the diagnosis came as both a shock and a relief. Autism, Gadsby explains “is like being the only sober person in a room of drunks… and not knowing that everyone else is drunk”. To be able to name your particular way of understanding, which previously felt at odds with that of others, is like a deep exhale of breath.

There’s vulnerability in Gadsby’s decision to bring this large audience into her confidence, and that vulnerability builds further trust between the two. As a viewer, you are both deliciously uncomfortable and yet entirely at ease in her comedic, politically charged hands. Gadsby wants you to enjoy yourself, she wants you to know her – but she also demands that you leave the room thinking. Her shows don’t end with the curtain.

Hannah Gadsby is a performer who knows her craft and grown comfortable in her newfound power. She isn’t afraid of wielding her global platform for the better, and I for one am living for the next one. Bravo and welcome home.

Hannah Gadsby’s Melbourne Comedy Festival season is SOLD OUT. Tickets to DOUGLAS at the Palais Theatre on December 7 are available at hannahgadsby.com.au