- Editorial:Transforming Form
I do think I need to quit comedy . . . Seriously. It's probably not the forum to make such an announcement, is it?—Hannah Gadsby, Nanette
At the heart of definitions of performance—from Richard Schechner's "twice-behaved behavior" to Elin Diamond's "doing/done"—is a sense of repetition with difference. However, the extent of this 'difference' can vary greatly, with performance used as a means to both uphold and challenge accepted norms. In June 2018, Netflix released Hannah Gadsby's comedy special Nanette. The special quickly went viral—my own social media feeds teemed with praise for the work, and the Australian comedian was featured in numerous media articles internationally. For many, Nanette marked a watershed moment for comedy. But there was also some debate online and in the media about how to categorize the special. Should it be considered stand-up, or was it a different form of storytelling? Like several other commentators, Nana aba Duncan, a guest host for CBC's Day 6, compared it to a TED Talk—but one "done by a very funny person." For me, such attempts to relabel Nanette miss the crux of the special. I believe it is important to read Nanette as stand-up comedy in order to trace how Gadsby simultaneously critiques and reconditions this form from within.
Jill Dolan argues that labelling feminist work as 'stand-up comedy' can depoliticize it, placing it "within a safe space of entertainment, a place where audiences come to laugh with, and sometimes at, the comedienne and her foibles" (50). Other performance scholars, such as Amber Day and Stephen Duncombe, take an opposite view, seeing humour as a means of potentially politicized community building. Duncombe believes that "jokes create a sort of interdependency. . . . Good humor confers an instant intimacy between the comic and the audience, both of whom share in the meaning-making" (132). Nanette challenges both of these claims. Gadsby shows how the assumed 'intimacy' behind Duncombe's belief can also lead to exclusions. One joke revolves around the fact that lesbians, like herself, don't find comedians funny, "but we've gotta laugh—because if we don't, proves the point!" At the same time, unlike Dolan, Gadsby sees the stand-up form as inherently political: What and who exactly are we "laughing with/at"? Gadsby admits that much of her career has—in line with Dolan's critique—relied on jokes that encourage the audience to laugh at her "and her foibles." But she has come to see this as an unhealthy tradition that makes assumptions about the comedian's power and agency. Now, she asks the audience, "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."
The above epigraph illustrates just one of the many times in the set that Gadsby claims she has to quit comedy, that it is no longer a form she can be a part of. As she notes, there is some irony in using the form of a stand-up special to make such a proclamation. But, in fact, the special functions as the ideal space to not only make this declaration, but also reveal the ways in which comedy—and art more generally—can be toxic, especially for marginalized comedians and audience members. Gadsby defines a joke as part of an "abusive relationship" as the comedian makes the audience "tense" and then releases the tension by getting them to "laugh." In Nanette, Gadsby refuses to be a part of this abuse—she even warns the audience that one bit is the "last joke" midway through the over hour-long set. By refusing to perform the expected routine and relieve the audience's tension and by refusing to become the joke, Gadsby both challenges viewers to reconsider the stand-up formula and offers an alternate way of using the form.
This Views and Reviews section has four very different pieces, but—like Nanette—each in some way grapples with accepted norms in performance forms and institutions. We begin with Thea Fitz-James's reflections on Quote Unquote Collective's Mouthpiece, an...