You likely have already heard of the buzz swirling around the new Netflix comedy special, “Nanette,” by Hannah Gadbsy. The special has caught fire due to Hannah’s deft skill at addressing the painful themes of gender-based violence, social constructs behind gender-based oppression and her raw telling of her own repeated assaults, all within the platform of a comedy special.
The first comedy special I remember creating a similar frenzy of excitement and confusion was Tig Notaro’s stand-up special at The Largo, the day after she was diagnosed with severe breast cancer. Both comedians wrestle aloud with their difficulty pursuing their craft while struggling to process their own personal painful life experiences. Both use the raw themes of their life within the set, but both also note the difficulty to really effectively sublimate the material all the way. Use of pain for the purpose of artistry is often a valuable way of re-storying.
However, both artists come up against their limitations in doing so. Tig encounters this in real time with a palpably confused audience and Hannah names her own refusal to continue using her pain in this way, ultimately leading to statements that she may have to leave comedy entirely. If Tig’s special was about using humor to cope with extreme grief, Hannah’s special is about abandoning humor and taking action to prevent it.
“Nanette,” rings as particularly critical listening as it offers both visibility for hard-hit populations including the LGBTQ+ population as well as those who have experienced assault or other gender-based violence. These are not themes commonly explored in the standup world, in fact, they are populations often exploited in it. Hannah struggles with how to use this platform to bring light to them, while in full transparent awareness that humor and comedy will not do them the justice they deserve and so she abandons that goal openly. It is a portrayal of an artist on the brink of relinquishing her craft because her tools fail to convey the portrait she is moved to create.
As a therapist, my role is continually helping to foster the art of storying and then re-storying the experiences of my clients. What I found so parallel in this performance, was the space we often find ourselves in with silence. The space where tension is created because words fail or because silence and helplessness within massive overwhelming tension are the story. We as clinicians have to become comfortable with tension and to explore where that is unsettling for us. In “Nanette,” the audience is asked to do the same thing and to take it further. Where might tension lead to silence that we need to face, and how do we uphold the social constructs that are behind that silence, or fight against them? “Nanette,” is a window for empathy and a battle cry for social justice.