Hannah Gadsby: 'You don’t do a show like Nanette without a tough shell'

The Australian standup feared she would spook audiences with her frank examination of trauma, but it made her a star. With new show Douglas on Netflix, she’s taking risks of a different kind

Soon after she opens her new standup comedy show, Douglas, the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby challenges the audience by asking: “If you’re here because of Nanette, why? What the fuck are you expecting of this show? I’m sorry, but, if it’s more trauma, I’m fresh out.”

Douglas, now available on Netflix, is Gadsby’s follow up to her global standup phenomenon, Nanette. Nanette was a scream of visceral soul-baring, with Gadsby venting her rage and pain about being a woman, being gay, about homophobia (recounting how she’d been beaten up in the street), institutionalised misogyny, and more, all the while deconstructing comedy itself. By the time Nanette aired on Netflix in 2018, Gadsby, now 42, had been performing standup for more than a decade, as well as acting and writing, but her blistering honesty, and refusal to let audiences off the hook, hit a universal nerve. Nanette was hailed as a #MeToo-era comedy game-changer, garnering awards including the (shared) best comedy prize at the 2017 Edinburgh fringe, introducing Gadsby to America and a wider international audience, and winning fans such as Roxane Gay, Monica Lewinsky and Emma Thompson.

“I honestly didn’t think that Nanette would be successful. It was the one thing my trolls and I have in common,” says Gadsby wryly, when she speaks to me over the phone from her Australian home. Gadsby “quit comedy” onstage as part of the Nanette set, but clearly this wasn’t meant literally? “Yeah, Nanette was not the end it claimed to be. It was a point of exasperation,” she says. “I was expecting Nanette to put me in a position where I would have to scale back what I did with my comedy. I thought it would alienate my audience. And that was the surprise of Nanette – what I thought would push me into a corner did the opposite… I thought, I don’t have to jump, I can do what I want.”

Our phone call suffers from occasional time lags, which sometimes means I ask Gadsby a new question while she’s still answering the previous one. Gadsby is good-humoured about this, and friendly and engaged. In conversation, she’s still recognisable from her quick-witted stage persona, just with the voltage turned down. Was it a pressure to come back with Douglas after Nanette’s huge success? “I didn’t feel desperate to overcome that because that’s an impossible fight. I just set up camp in the shadow of Nanette.” Later, she says dryly: “I’m focusing on the inevitable fall. What I figure is that – what goes up must come down. I want to be able to negotiate that as gracefully as possible.” One thing that struck Gadsby was that the level of attention she got for Nanette could be “addictive”. “And the only way you get that level of attention is you do something that has an impact. I managed to do that once but I don’t expect that every time. Unless I try to stay shocking and that’s not what I want to do. I made a choice – that not everything I do will make that kind of impact – and that’s good.”

Watch a trailer for Gadby’s new show, Douglas.

The main focus of Douglas is Gadsby’s high-functioning autism. Other themes range from chauvinism and male ownership of culture (the show is named after one of Gadsby’s dogs, but also refers to the “pouch of Douglas”, a part of the female anatomy, named by a male scientist), America (“Making fun of Americans is still technically punching up, but that window is closing”), anti-vaxxers, her now-signature art history musings (Gadsby has a degree in art history and curatorship), all the way through to golf, dog parks, Taylor Swift and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Douglas is markedly more playful than Nanette: “I did all the heavy lifting with Nanette, so I thought it would defeat the purpose – you know, dwelling,” says Gadsby. “It felt like a time to be more playful, show a breadth of form. I wanted to show that there’s life after trauma, and more than one way to skin a cat.”

In Douglas, she describes getting her autism diagnosis as a “relief”. “Yes,” she says. “I was working things out for myself on a false premise. And it made me see things a lot clearer. Why I got things wrong. Why I felt like an alien dropped in from outer space. It’s just good to know that I am an alien.” She laughs. “It’s very helpful.”

Gadsby says she could have dealt with autism in a traumatic way in Douglas. “There are stories I could tell that are heartbreaking, and very painful to me, and I could have shared those. I chose not to do that. That’s not to say I was scared of doing it. I just didn’t want that to be underpinning it. Too often, I think autism is expected to be a freak show. I wanted to create points of accessibility. There will be a point when I can flesh out the ways in which it is a difficult existence, but I didn’t think this was the time.”

Gadsby was diagnosed with autism before Nanette but decided against featuring it in that show. “It would just have become a way to dismiss what I was saying.” Gadsby also needed time to process her diagnosis, not least because the public perception of autism remains a minefield of stigma and generalisations. “I think there’s just such a narrow definition of what autism is,” she says. “People want to compartmentalise difference, but it’s not that easy. It’s called a spectrum for a reason.”

Gadsby: ‘I love learning and stories but I’m not great at reading. I never graduated from picture books.’
Gadsby: ‘I love learning and stories but I’m not great at reading. I never graduated from picture books.’ Photograph: pr

Gadsby grew up as the youngest of five children in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997 (in Nanette, she spoke about how this led to her internalising homophobia). As a small child, she felt isolated, which she now realises was due to her autism. “You know when you have a radio and it’s two or three notches out of being on the right station? But there was a lot of consistency in my childhood. We lived in a fairly sheltered world, which is a good thing for someone with autism. If I’d been bought up in a rich family who were able to take me to Disneyland, then that would have been traumatic.” She laughs. “Even as an adult, Disneyland is hell. It’s what migraines are made of.”

Gadsby suffered a breakdown in her late teenage years, and was homeless for a while, moving from job to job, working in bookshops, as a projectionist at an outdoor cinema, planting trees, picking vegetables. Eventually, she managed to apply to university, and enjoyed studying for her degree: “I love learning and I love stories but I’m not great at reading. Art history made the world accessible to me. Basically, I never graduated from picture books.”

Gadsby found her voice in comedy, though, as much as Nanette was praised, it was also widely criticised, which she deals with in Douglas. Some claimed it “wasn’t standup comedy”; it was performance art, a lecture, a one-woman show, group therapy, or “just wasn’t funny”. Some men seemed personally affronted. “Well, yeah, you know people who call other people snowflakes are projecting,” says Gadsby. She says in Douglas: “Your hate is my vaccine.” Does that indicate she’s fairly immune to the trolling? “Yeah, it’s the micro-dosing thing,” says Gadsby. “Every time one of these blokes comes in and says something that they believe is devastating, what confounds me is that they think they’re original. That it’s going to be the first time I’ve heard this. You know? I’ve lived a life. I’ve heard it all before.”

Ultimately, Gadsby expected to be attacked: “You don’t do a show like Nanette without a tough shell. I’m fairly robust when it comes to stuff like that.” If anything, she was complimented: “I’m a student of art history. It seems like part and parcel of any shift in form necessarily comes with a resistance. It’s kind of cool to be part of that in comedy. I expect other people to take what I’ve done and bend it out of shape and create something new. And for me that’s exciting.”

Nanette could be viewed as key to Gadsby’s personal and professional evolution in that she dumped self-deprecation from her set, saying on stage: “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.” However, Gadsby doesn’t think that Nanette was “fearless”, pointing out how she briefly refers on stage to being abused as a child, and raped as a young woman, but doesn’t take it further. “As brave as Nanette was, it wasn’t that brave,” says Gadsby. “I didn’t say, this person I knew raped me. I couldn’t say that. So I wasn’t completely fearless. I made a decision. I chose a trauma that features a stranger performing violence on me. That makes it safe. I don’t know how to wrangle the story on stage where I say someone betrayed me on a profound level. I don’t think I did the bravest thing I possibly could have.”

Gadsby wasn’t ready to discuss these subjects on stage, which obviously is fine. “When it comes to those things, I have to also look after my own trauma,” she says. “You have to be in control of the trauma around that before it becomes public property, I believe. And I’m glad I did, because the level of attention I got with Nanette was truly frightening. It felt unsafe.” Gadsby has made references to “trauma-porn” before. I wonder if that’s a danger for any performer – audiences demanding more and more, darker and darker? “I think it’s because people want a big narrative around things to understand it. If they don’t understand it, then it didn’t happen. And the danger of that is there’s no straight line through trauma.”

Gadsby prefers to keep her personal life private (“With things like relationships, I’m not just talking for myself any more”). A couple of years ago, Gadsby was rumoured to be dating Jill Soloway, the US showrunner, director and writer, responsible for the Emmy-winning Transparent, who identifies as non-binary and non-gender-conforming, though by 2019, Gadsby said they weren’t together. Gadsby tells me that, before the autism diagnosis, she couldn’t maintain relationships. “I was just terrible at relationships but I didn’t know why until I was diagnosed,” she says. “It’s made me better able to trust my own boundaries. Before I was diagnosed, I had to trust other people with personal instruction. Because I didn’t understand it. Relating to someone emotionally is not something I’m great at. So I would trust them and it became difficult because you can’t always trust other people to take care of your boundaries.”

Gadsby is at pains not to overemphasise the positives about autism. “I still have to negotiate the world, and the world has been built to prioritise neurotypical people,” she says. “It’s still there. I’ll never not have autism. What it’s meant is when I close the door, and I’m on my own, it’s a better place.” Right now, during lockdown, she’s relaxing at home, mainly by gardening, or playing with her dogs. “I don’t sit and think. I do and think. I’m always rearranging things. Or building things. I do a bit of woodwork. I garden. I’m very active.” Is she able to switch off fairly easily? “I live in my head. So, when I’m at home, I’m just throwing thought-orgies.”

Gadsby on stage with her previous show, Nanette, which brought global attention.
Gadsby on stage with her previous show, Nanette, which brought global attention. Photograph: Ben King/Netflix

Gadsby remains concerned that too many talented women in comedy don’t get the recognition they deserve. And, while she’s glad that #MeToo saw the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby convicted, she doesn’t feel that’s the end of it: “What needs to change is the toxic culture that enables that behaviour. These men could not have done those things without the power structures and the yes-men and the silent people around them. These are kind of cultish scenarios where good people turn a blind eye, and almost convince themselves that they didn’t see it. That’s a cultural thing.”

Gadsby refers to Louis CK in Douglas (“He is like the anti-vaxx of comedy, isn’t he?”) . After finally admitting to repeated grave sexual misconduct, Louis CK was further criticised for attempting a comeback. “He’s just digging his own grave,” says Gadsby. “His whole career was built on how he liked to talk about really dangerous things. And that was what was interesting about it. That took an enormous amount of skill. And with that, the audience had to trust him. Nobody trusts him any more.”

We’re almost out of time. While live comedy is as affected by the coronavirus pandemic as everything else. Gadsby now has Douglas and Nanette out, and her memoir, Ten Steps to Nanette, is to be published next year. She tells me that, creatively, she’s still driven, she still wants to take risks, she’s still drawn to subjects because she wants to understand them: “Generally my thoughts are occupied with things that grab my curiosity. And that’s a real privilege of success. Nanette changed my life,” says Gadsby. “If anyone knows me, more likely than not, it’s because of Nanette. I had a fairly small sphere of influence before Nanette, and now I have a large one. That has to be acknowledged. You have to acknowledge that that’s how people define you. You also have to let those people accept how you define yourself.”

Douglas is out now on Netflix

  • This article was amended on 2 June 2020 to correct the publication date of Hannah Gadsby’s memoir


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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