October 3, 2017 Why Hannah Gadsby quit stand-up after winning one of the biggest awards in comedy

This article is part of a series called English by Compass.

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You may know Hannah Gadsby from her autobiographical performance on Please Like Me or her Australian art history series, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz, but for more than ten years Hannah Gadsby has also been one of Australia’s most prominent stand-up comics.

As a comedian, Gadsby’s on-stage persona is that of a slightly subdued larrikin, an accident-prone observer who reluctantly engages with the contradictions and hidden conservatism at the heart of Australian culture, and her lightest jokes trade cheerfully on this sense of bewilderment: why are people so weird?

But there is little of this lightness in Gadsby’s most recent show, Nanette, for which she was recently named a joint-winner of the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Award. A fierce account of her experiences with internalised homophobia, homophobic violence and sexual abuse, Nanette is actually a show about why comedy can be dangerous and about why she has decided to quit.

For Gadsby, telling a joke at its most basic level is about creating a sense of tension in the audience and then defusing it with a punchline. As a comedian, finding material for jokes involves deliberately seeking out challenging situations, and then finding a way to make an audience feel comfortable with the difficult thing that happened.

This is one thing discussed in abstract, but Gadsby argues that for marginalised people this requires the neutralisation of real trauma. She feels she has based her career on the type of self-deprecating humour expected of marginalised people who are forced to resort to comedy to gain permission to speak about their lives and experiences.

Gadsby announced her retirement earlier this year, a decision that was triggered in part by the ugliness of the same sex marriage debate: having grown up in Tasmania prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997, she has already had the experience of having her rights as a citizen debated publicly.

She draws parallels between her observations about privilege in comedy and the way that the Same Sex Marriage Postal Survey requires the LGBTI community to find a way to make their experiences and opinions palatable for a potentially hostile or indifferent audience.

While Nanette is funny, Gadsby boldly dares her audience not to laugh; bristling with defiant anger, she reminds her audience to be kind and brave, and to take every opportunity to create a safer culture for marginalised people, whose lives are not a joke.

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This article is part of a series called English by Compass.

Read the series >

Carolyn Burns
has a PhD in English awarded by the University of Sydney