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The 'Nanette' Phenomenon


Have you seen "Nanette"? That is the question I kept hearing in the hallways, reading all over social media. And then when I saw "Nanette," I couldn't stop asking that question myself. "Nanette" is Hannah Gadsby's stand-up comedy special on Netflix now, except it's not totally comedy. And I can't explain what I mean by that without giving it all away. So suffice it to say that this Australian comedian tackles some really intense subjects with unflinching candor. One of those subjects is comedy itself.


HANNAH GADSBY: That's my job. I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh, and you're like, oh, thanks for that.


GADSBY: I was feeling a bit tense.


GADSBY: I made you tense. This is an abusive relationship.


CHANG: And because I need now very badly to talk to someone else who's also seen "Nanette," I'm joined by NPR's pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes. Hey, Linda.


CHANG: So how did you first hear about "Nanette"?

HOLMES: So I heard about "Nanette" the same way that I think a lot of other people did, which is on social media and on Twitter. It was all word of mouth. I had never heard of her before. And within a couple of days of the special dropping, it just was everywhere.

CHANG: And did you go through like the same thing I did, like first time laughing really hard? And then, what? I'm crying. Oh, and then I'm laughing again. I mean, I was all over the place in one hour.

HOLMES: Yeah, it is a little bit of an all-over-the-place experience. And I think that's very much intentional. She really treats her own experiences as a source of humor. And then she really moves into a section that's more about examining that process a little bit more and then it gets more serious.

CHANG: OK, so there are a few things that we can say. Hannah Gadsby is lesbian. And she's long used being a lesbian as fodder for her jokes. But in "Nanette" she kind of turns it on its head. She talks about what punchlines can do to the story a person keeps telling about herself.

HOLMES: Right. And a lot of what she's doing is trying to get at how we tell stories about creation and creative people. She talks about Vincent Van Gogh and Picasso and the mythology around mental illness being tied up with creativity. So she's trying to say, how do we tell stories about what it means to be creative? And in comedy, what does it mean to want to make a joke about something about yourself to diffuse tension around it? What does that do to you?

CHANG: Right. And the thing is I've always found that comedians reach for self-deprecating humor. It is like the go-to place. But what Hannah Gadsby points out is there's something kind of disturbing about that.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I think if you watch the way that she tells some of the early jokes about, for example, growing up in Tasmania where she says that when she was young the message was, really we don't want you here if you're gay or lesbian, she is struggling with, that's funny, right? Is it really funny to be in a place where you don't feel welcome or wanted?

CHANG: Why do you think this performance has captured so much attention?

HOLMES: Well, I think part of it is that Hannah Gadsby was new to a lot of American audiences. That always kind of piques people's interest. And another thing I think is that the structure is so unusual. And when you see something that's so compelling and personal but also different, it makes you want to go talk to people about it and say, I just saw this, and I have to talk to people about it because it's so unusual.

CHANG: Do you think Gadsby will change the way a lot of people think of stand-up comedy, perform stand-up comedy? Do you think it's been that powerful?

HOLMES: Well, there's been a growth in stand-up performances that are more integrated with a theater idea or a one-person show idea. People like Mike Birbiglia have done that, Hasan Minhaj as well. But I do think this is the farthest I've seen anybody push limitations of what stand-up is. So it might very well be. And I think once one person experiments and is really successful, it emboldens other people, and it emboldens outlets like Netflix.

CHANG: Yeah. NPR's Linda Holmes, thank you so much again.

HOLMES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.