Punchlines that Carry a Punch: Nanette reviewed

Hannah Gadsby / Illustration by Holly Tippler for Stored

Hannah Gadsby / Illustration by Holly Tippler for Stored

Emotional, heartbreaking, hilarious and provoking. A comedy show that activated every emotion Stored reviewer Holly Tippler has, and left her mulling over it for months.


Nanette was Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s exit from stand up, her final show showcasing her incredibly clever sense of humour while simultaneously shining a light on the uncomfortable, the abusive, and the awful sides of both the comedic world and her own life.

It is this position of tension which Gadsby focusses on throughout Nanette. She walks the line between creating unease with difficult to hear personal anecdotes and relieving the audience with witty comments and excellent timing. For the bulk of the show there was laughter and the tales she told were accompanied by this humorous relief.

Hannah unpicks the hierarchies which underpin our society and in doing so unpicks comedy itself. She speaks about the tension she has felt throughout her entire life and reveals that in coming out to her Tasmanian family and community, a place in which homosexuality was illegal until 1997, she not only felt the tension - she was the tension.

Throughout her long comedic career, Gadsby used this discomfort to fuel her self-deprecating humour. Something she no longer wants to do.

“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," she says in Nanette.

“I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself - or to anybody who identifies with me. And if that means that my comedy career is over then so be it.”

Hannah Gadsby performing  Nanette  / Netflix

Hannah Gadsby performing Nanette / Netflix

In Nanette we were made to realise that her stories were not just jokes for a crowd, fictional and funny, but a real part of her life. She allowed us to feel uncomfortable and didn’t let us off the hook with a quick relief of laughter.

Because as she says, “Laughter is not our medicine.”

“Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood, by individuals with minds of their own; because, like it or not, your story is my story, and my story is your story. I just don’t have the strength to take care of my story alone anymore…what we need is connection.”

Gadsby is angry but she doesn’t want to create anger, she’s sympathetic but she doesn’t want sympathy. She does however, want awareness and acknowledgment and change.

In Nanette we were made to realise that her stories were not just jokes for a crowd, fictional and funny, but a real part of her life. She allowed us to feel uncomfortable and didn’t let us off the hook with a quick relief of laughter.
— Holly Tippler

Her retirement from the industry is her strength, breaking away from the tension and allowing her stories to be heard in their entirety, not as a punchline for an audience.

Gadsby encapsulates this with the powerful line, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

This is her message. A message which possibly delivers the strongest punch yet; because while she is retiring from comedy - her exit show has quite possibly just changed the genre forever.

Nanette has drawn critical acclaim from the biggest titles not just in Australia, but around the world. From The New Yorker, to the New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, the Washington Post; everyone has weighed in.

Like the art she discusses in her show, Gadsby’s art is an important cultural commentary. But this time, it is giving voice to the marginalised - not silencing them.

Take The New Yorker writer Moira Donegan’s praise of Gadsby’s reinvention of the callback. A callback is a comedy technique where a joke is retold later in the set to amplify its effect; to bring the audience in on a joke.

Gadsby’s inverted callback relates to an anecdote about herself hitting on a woman, only for the woman’s boyfriend to get angry - then back off when he realises Gadsby is herself a woman. Except when she recounts this story later in the show, she recounts how the man comes back - and violently assaults her. And no one steps in to stop the attack.

Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby

“Watching Gadsby, it was impossible not to think of the many women who’ve come forward in recent months with stories of abuse that were years or even decades old,” wrote Donegan.

“You could consider the #MeToo moment itself as a kind of callback, a collective return to stories that women have been telling one way—to others, to themselves—with a new, emboldened understanding that those past tellings had been inadequate.

“Like Gadsby, many women have excluded or elided the difficult parts of their stories for the sake of a punch line, the sake of not upsetting the status quo, or the sake of the comfort of their listeners.”

In The Guardian, Jane Howard highlights how Nanette not only breaks open comedy, but all spaces.

“When Gadsby punches out to break open a new space for herself, she manages to break open a new space for us all. Seeing women be angry and controlled, sad and yet in power, is still all too rare. And that is why Nanette works on screen: the simplicity. Just a woman for an hour – her voice and her power – creating a space to dare to dream of a different future for ourselves, and also for comedy.”

And it wasn’t just the words Gadsby spoke, but the way she performed them, which drove home these messages. She started the show shy and polite, delivering each joke with a demure smirk.

As Nanette drew to a close, she transformed into a figure as powerful as the words she delivered. She left us with the unease of tension. She let us sit in the aftermath of her stories about abuse and discrimination and hatred so that we were forced to hear it.

This show has stayed with me since I saw it last year and after watching the Netflix special, filmed at the Sydney Opera House and released in June, it brought back all of the emotions. It is powerful, funny and devastating and it needs to be seen and felt by the world.

As Gadsby says, “This tension? It’s yours. I am not helping you anymore.”