The Unexpected Tension of Netflix’s Nanette

photograph of a microphone and a dark background
"Microphone" by Photo Cindy is public domain (via Flickr)

“I don’t feel comfortable in a small town. I get a bit tense. Mainly because I’m in this situation,” Hannah Gadsby, a gender non-conforming comedian, says, airing her hands over her navy T-shirt and open blue blazer with a black lapel. “And in a small town, that’s alright. From a distance. People are like, ‘Oh, good bloke.’ And then you get a bit closer and then it’s like, ‘Oh no, no, trickster woman, what are you doing?”

Released on Netflix June 19th, Nanette has reached international attention. Gadsby’s opening string of jokes that introduce her comedy show at the Sydney Opera House seem like a humorous introduction to her life and the small Australian island of Tasmania where she comes from; however, they actually foreshadow the whole show. From a distance, comedy seems safe. You know what you are getting out of the genre. If you get offended by a joke, you’re too sensitive or don’t have a good enough sense of humor.

Ironically, Gadsby, the comedian running the show, says that people tell her all of the time, “Don’t be so sensitive.” I’m sure that many of us have laughed at jokes with which we were uncomfortable just because everyone else did. Maybe we have even walked out after a comedy show a bit sick to our stomachs about some offhand humor. But Gadsby’s show is unlike any other because she liberates us from the groupthink and easy laughter, raising her expectations for the audience. In fact, it would be inappropriate to laugh during the serious portions of her show. She brings a question into the mix that you would never expect out of a comedy show: “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?” She challenges her audience to think critically, and her show navigates humor and heartbreak.

Gadsby jokes about people apologizing for calling her sir: “I love being mistaken for a man because just for a few moments, life gets a hell of a lot easier. I’m top shelf normal, king of the humans,” she shouts in a deep voice. “I’m a straight white man.” Just like her initial physical appearance to passing strangers, her comedy show invites the audience in with disarming self-deprecating humor before challenging the genre and making people consider the price of her jokes. Trickster woman.

An audience member complained after her show once that there was “not enough lesbian content,” which becomes a refrain that she repeats in a sarcastically bitter voice throughout Nanette. Gadsby jokes, “I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody ever introduces me as that chef comedian, do they?” In her profession and life, her sexuality becomes a marker for her person: a label to boil down her comedy. She does not identify as transgender nor believe that lesbian is an appropriate identifier for her, but other people are eager to categorize.

A comedian would not be introduced as that straight comedian. Comedians would not be described as male or white. The expectations for their content are not qualified. People with intersectional aspects of their identities become “not normals”—to use Gadsby’s words—while the people who trump them in race, sexuality, class, ability, and gender privilege become the baseline normal with the top of the privilege ladder being simply: a comedian.

Another refrain throughout the show is her announcement that she has to quit comedy. Reflecting on her career as a whole, she says, “When I first started the comedy over a decade ago, always, nothing but lesbian content.” She tells her humorous tale about coming out to her mother and a joke about a young man who was about to fight her at the bus stop because he thought that she was a man flirting with his girlfriend. The jokes work. The audience erupts in laughter.

Halfway through the show, Gadsby says, “Let me explain to you what a joke is.” She continues, “a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension. I do that. That’s my job.” Gadsby can control tension so well because—as a gender non-conforming woman—she has been familiar with it since childhood: “I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension.”

Contributing to why she wants to quit comedy, she explains, “In a comedy show, there is no room for the best part of the story. Which is the ending. In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punchlines.” Sharing the third part ending of her coming out story, she says, “The best part of that story is that mum and I have a wonderful relationship now.” She pauses, shrugging her shoulders and looking around. “Look what I’ve done to the room. No tension. You all just go, ‘Eh, good on you.’”

With a happy ending, the tension dissipates. Through comedy, Gadsby cannot share full stories, especially the ones that skyrocket the tension and fail to conclude in a punchline that eases our worries. Revisiting the story that she told about the young man at the bus stop, she says, “I couldn’t tell the part of the story when that man realized his mistake. And he came back. And he said, ‘Oh, no, I get it. You’re a lady f**got. I’m allowed to beat the sh*t out of yous,’ and he did. He beat the sh*t out of me, and nobody stopped him.” She did not report him to the police or go to the hospital, explaining, “[B]ecause I thought that is all I was worth.”

Leaving us hanging, Gadsby does not give us the antidote to tension. She does not offer us the relief of laughter that she has been providing audiences for over ten years, proclaiming, “And this tension is yours, I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension, is what not normals carry around inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.” Gadsby carries that third part of the story every time that she relives the tension of the first two parts that make up the joke, but this time she uses her platform to share the whole thing.

Gadsby shares that her mother once told her that she felt badly for raising her as if she were straight, telling Gadsby, “I made it worse because I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.” Well, in this revolutionary show, Gadsby quits playing into the same humor that has launched her career all of the way to the stage at the Sydney Opera House. Instead, she uses the genre to upend it. Trickster woman. And instead of an hour of changing herself, she spends it changing the world through genius, humor, heartbreak, and sensitivity.

Hailing from Irvine, California, Rachel Higson graduated from DePauw with an English Writing major and Art History minor. She loves skateboarding, snowboarding, and hiking. At DePauw, she ran on DePauw's cross country team, volunteered at Central Elementary, was a WGRE DJ, and tutored at the Writing Center.