Her self-mocking nebbish is a familiar persona, but there comes a moment when she drops and deconstructs it, and that turning point makes you re-evaluate everything you saw before. “Do you know what self-deprecation means coming from somebody who exists on the margins?” she asks. “It is not humility; it is humiliation.”
Then she goes on the attack, cheerfully smashing pieties like the one about comedy being the best medicine. “I reckon penicillin might give it a nudge,” she says. “Your baby is sick? Just give it a tickle.”
Breaking down comedy with mathematical precision, she explains that good stories have three parts (beginning, middle and end) while jokes require two (setup and punch line), which means that to end on a laugh, comics often need to cut off the most important and constructive element, where hindsight, perspective and catharsis exist.
“A joke is a question, artificially inseminated with tension,” she says, before explaining the mechanics of her job. “I make you all tense and then I cure it with a laugh. And you say: ‘Thanks for that, I was feeling a bit tense.’” Then in one of many tonal shifts, she raises her voice, irritated at the audience’s hypothetic gratitude: “But I made you tense!”
Then she points to the audience and back at her and quips, darkly: “This is an abusive relationship.”
Skepticism about comedy, which dates at least to Plato, is older than the romanticized view that prevails today, undergirding both the comics who champion it as well as critics who suggests the best jokes punch upward and are rooted in truth. Ms. Gadsby is at her most radical pushing back on this idea, explaining that funny comedy isn’t always honest, and in fact rewards deception.
She said that in her homophobic town, she lived with shame that she turned into comedy, but that she paid a price. She never entirely grew out of her own self-hatred. When she retells her story without the jokes, it’s bracing. By stopping at the punch line, she says, she froze “an incredibly formative experience at its trauma point and sealed it off with jokes.”
In explaining how she turned her story of coming out of the closet into a bit, she upends the cliché of the comic who finds salvation by turning pain into laughter.
This is a show where, more than once, the performer makes the crowd laugh and laugh and, suddenly, turn deadly silent. She also nimbly leaps from personal stories to big-picture analysis, including a damning digression about Picasso, whom she calls a misogynist, citing both his own statements and an affair with a 17-year-old. After drawing attention to the silliness of discussing art history in a stand-up show, she gets serious again, saying comics have been more likely to make dismissive jokes about Monica Lewinsky or “throwaway gags” about Mr. Weinstein. It’s on this subject that her jokes stop and her tone becomes grave, saying we care more about the reputations of artists like Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby than their accusers.
Does that mean that “Nanette” is no longer comedy? I don’t think so.
Comedy is much broader than Ms. Gadsby suggests. It can double down on prejudices or challenge them. Rape jokes have shamed victims and one bit by Hannibal Buress helped kick off the backlash against Mr. Cosby. Despite Ms. Gadsby’s formulaic definitions of comedy, a whole tradition, which includes Andy Kaufman and Tig Notaro and various proponents of cringe comedy, experiments with the tension-release dynamic of the setup and punch line.
“People really only feel safe when men do the angry comedy,” Ms. Gadsby says. “I do it and I’m just an angry lesbian ruining all the fun and banter.”
She’s right that angry stand-up has long been the province of men, and that there’s a double standard at work, but comedy isn’t frozen in time. We’re at a moment when I suspect audiences are not as interested in hearing from angry male comics, and yet the work of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks laid the groundwork that allows us to see Ms. Gadsby’s roaring polemic wrapped in jokes as firmly part of a stand-up tradition.
The best defense against Ms. Gadsby’s assault on comedy is her own show — an irony she is clearly aware of, and even perhaps nods to in a tangent about the ridiculousness of gendered parenting. Instead of dressing babies in pink or blue, she proposes they all wear blue, pointing out that the color evokes a cool temperature while also being the shade of the hottest part of a flame. “Blue has the flexibility to accommodate contradiction,” she says.
So does great art, which is why the paradox at the heart of this remarkable show — it’s a comedy arguing against comedy — actually elevates it. How funny is that?