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What does it say about you if you laugh at a rape joke?

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What does it say about you if you laugh at a rape joke?

And what does it say about the person who told it to get a laugh?

You should head to Netflix ASAP and watch Nanette by Hannah Gadsby if any of the following apply to you:

I guess that covers all of us. Now go! You won’t regret it. The show won the major comedy awards in Adelaide, Melbourne and Edinburgh comedy festivals. The Guardian says Gadsby “wields her craft like a weapon”. The Atlantic describes the show as “radical, transformative” and The New York Times describes it as, “riveting” and “ingenious”. Gadsby is a comedian at the height of her powers, which is exactly why she’s decided to quit comedy.

That’s right, this is her biggest and last show, because in her own words, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who’s already in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. And I simply will not do that anymore.”

The massive cheer that follows shows how many people this resonates with. I was in the audience at this live recording in the Sydney Opera House and I’ve never felt so much love coming from an audience towards a performer.

Hannah tells the story of coming out as gay to her mother, who replied, “Oh Hannah. That is not something that I needed to know. What if I told you I was a murderer?” To which Hannah adds, “Murderer… now you would hope that’s a phase.”

The audience laughs, of course – because Gadsby is such a skilled comedian, she can make you laugh at anything. But imagine if a friend had told you that was her parents’ reaction? She would be crushed, and you would be outraged, right?

And this is when Gadsby reveals how she transforms trauma into comedy gold. She asks, “Do you know why I’m such a funny f**ker?

“I make you feel tense, and then I make you laugh and relieve the tension. I’ve been learning the art of tension defusion since I was a child. That’s because the tension, relieving it was a survival tactic.”

Later in the show when she vididly describes the suffering homophobia has caused her, she says, “This tension is yours, I am not helping you anymore. Because this, this tension is what not-normals carry inside them all of the time, because it is dangerous to be different.”

She describes how “punchlines need trauma” but that focusing on her trauma and constantly making light of it is impeding her ability to recover and lead a full life. “This tension is making me sick.”

After I finished watching her show I couldn’t stop thinking about the infamous ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’ scene in Borat, in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s character performs in a rough bar in Arizona, and the audience get extremely involved, singing along and dancing. One woman even puts her fingers like devil’s horns on her head while singing a line about Jews.

This scene so perfectly illustrates how people in a crowd can be swept up and say and do awful things. What Baron Cohen himself says is that all these people weren’t necessarily anti-Semites. They may have just found it easier and more enjoyable to go along with the crowd.

For the same reason Gadsby is sick of making light of her trauma for the enjoyment of others. To relieve people’s tension about issues like rape, homophobia, racism and gendered violence encourages complacency about these problems and compounds the status quo. Comedy is a genre that needs to be reshaped so that it helps rather than hinders social progress.

It doesn’t mean that these painful topics can’t be the subject of jokes, but all comedians have to ask themselves – what am I uniting people to think and feel?