I recently watched Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s special on Netlix called “Nanette.” She explains in her monologue that she named the show before she knew what it was going to be. There is no further explanation given.
The show is a huge departure from most stand-up starting at around the 20 minute mark where she begins deconstructing comedy. She is angry and direct about why comedy is hurtful to someone like her. She says that comedy defuses tension, but as a lesbian woman raised in conservative Tasmania, she was the tension that was being defused. Her mere existence, her not being “normal,” caused tension, and to alleviate it, she had to make fun of herself and her experience.
“I’ve been mastering the art of tension since childhood. I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension. I’m tired of tension. Tension is making me sick.”
She had to tell her story in a way that would make others laugh, not require them to empathize.
“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. 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 anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it.”
She talks about her own confusion over her identity. She says she’s not transgender, but nor is she “gender normal.” Lesbian doesn’t cover it either. She shares a story about talking to a woman whose boyfriend mistakes Hannah for a man and immediately threatens to fight “him” until he realizes that Hannah is a woman, so he backs down in embarrassment that he might have fought a woman. The audience laughs.
“I don’t identify as transgender. But I’m clearly gender not-normal. I don’t think even lesbian is the right identity for me. I really don’t. I might as well come out now. I identify as tired. I’m just tired.”
Later in the show she explains that comedy only includes two parts: the setup and the punchline. The setup creates tension. We think we know what comes next. Then, the punchline alleviates that tension; it surprises us and makes us laugh. The problem is that it erases the third part: our actual lives, the rest of the story, our lived experience. And that story that she has told as a joke has a much darker ending that she doesn’t tell as a comedian. Instead she stops when everyone gets the laugh they paid to get. They don’t have to know what actually happened to her when the man realized she was a lesbian.
“He beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him. I didn’t report him to the police. And I didn’t take myself to hospital. And I should have. But I didn’t, because that’s all I thought I was worth. That’s what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.”
She talks about a conversation she had as an adult with her mother, a woman who was the butt of some of her jokes for her homophobia and the odd things she said in dealing with her lesbian daughter. And these stories about her mother were funny! They were the foundation of a tight comedy act.
“What my mom eventually said to me was pretty much at the core of why I’m questioning comedy. She said to me, ‘The thing I regret is that I raised you as if you were straight. I didn’t know any different. I’m so sorry. I knew well before you did, that your life was going to be so hard. I knew that, and I wanted, more than anything in the world, for that not to be the case. And now I know that I made it worse. I made it worse because I wanted you to change, because I knew that the world wouldn’t.’
“I looked at my mom in that moment and thought, how did that happen? How did my mom get to be the hero of my story? She evolved. I didn’t. I think part of my problem is that comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence.”
She talked about the problem of having been raised in Tasmania in a culture that was deeply homophobic and religious, and that it’s not possible to root that shame out of yourself as an adult, but much harder when you make a living by stopping at the punch line.
“Seventy percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous, subhuman, pedophiles. 70 percent! And by the time I identified as being gay, it was too late, I was already homophobic. And you do not get to just flip a switch on that.”
It was hard hearing that and realizing that the gay children in our own congregations and ward families are filled with this same shame. When a ward member posted on Facebook about the Boy Scouts’ decision to admit gay men as troop leaders, I realized from what he said that he assumed that gay men are pedophiles. I was shocked that anyone would still think that and pointed out that it’s not correct which resulted in a back and forth. It wasn’t uncivil, but I’m fairly certain his position didn’t change.
I couldn’t help but think of a young man named Santi that I baptized at the end of my mission. After his baptism, he came out to my companion and me, sort of, by saying he “used to be a homosexual.” My companion and I didn’t think that was something that fluid and changeable, but we also didn’t really know what to do about it, if anything. As missionaries, we had no firm instructions about homosexuality at the time that we were aware of. We just figured sex was sex, and the law of chastity was the same for everyone. We didn’t feel particularly judgmental about it. Most gay people were not open about being gay, including the elders in my mission who later came out. These were people I loved, friends, people I would still do anything for decades later, but they were unable to be who they are and to believe that they would be accepted. And that got us off the hook from having to really think much about it.
Santi expressed regret about a sexual sin he had committed that he clarified wasn’t actual sex, so we recommended he talk with the local branch president who was very supportive and kind to him. I regret that I also recommended he read The Miracle of Forgiveness because I didn’t actually remember the extreme view it takes of homosexuality. When I had read it, I glossed over what didn’t affect me. I wasn’t a victim of rape or incest, and I wasn’t a homosexual, so those parts didn’t fill me with shame or self-harm. I had the privilege of being able to avoid noticing that those sections were there or imagining how they would feel to a person in that situation. But I am encouraged to know that he never read it anyway as we didn’t have a Spanish language copy.
At that time, homosexuality was Nanette–it was the thing we had named before we knew what it was. And as a church, we still don’t know what it is or how it fits in to our theology, but we continue to feel confident in calling it Nanette and treating it like Nanette, like a name we picked at random, without experience or knowledge.
“This is bigger than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic. It’s juvenile. It’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with. “
Conservatives can lament political correctness as a huge inconvenience to them, being seen as a bigot feels unfair when you are trying to be a good person (at least toward those you deem worthy of your effort), but the greater difficulty is for those whose lives are on the margins, who don’t fit the mold we try to put them in from birth, the baby girls in pink headbands as Hannah puts it, the woman called “sir” by a customer service representative, the gay person who prefers to quietly drink tea rather than dancing in the streets in a flashy parade.
“This tension is yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time. It is dangerous to be different.”
Gadsby ends on a note filled with wisdom and a form of optimism about the path forward.
“I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just need my story heard.”
While comedy is a product people buy, a break from their work-a-day lives, a reprieve from one’s cares, comedians are grinding away the gritty parts of their lives to shave away the discomfort of their stories so that we can feel the release of laughter. And a lot of comedians are gay. Many comedians have had difficult lives. And as she says, maybe that’s wrong that comedians do that with their stories. Maybe we should have to hear the rest of the story.