Where Does Comedy Go After Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’?

Ben King/Netflix/Uproxx

Among the many questions we ask of our entertainment, perhaps the most common, and annoying, one is this: “Can we separate the art from the artist?” It is especially prominent in the conversations that follow a massive revelation, like the sexual assault allegations levied against Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., and the resulting #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Can we watch Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love, or laugh at Hilarious and Live at the Beacon Theater, without remembering what we now know about these two men? Should we even try?

“We all have an instinct to instantly try to figure out how to redeem all these people and still be able to enjoy all this work, and it’s a very selfish instinct,” Judd Apatow told The New York Times in November. “All our energy should be with the victims. What happened to them? How did people handle this? What could we do going forward to support them in a productive way?”

No single person or article can adequately address these questions. We cannot determine whether we can separate artists like Weinstein and C.K. (or Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and countless others) from their art in a single go. Yet some are beginning to grapple with these questions in productive and meaningful ways, especially in comedy. On Tuesday, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a critically acclaimed show in which the “new voice in comedy… also attacks comedy,” debuted on Netflix. And, frankly, comedy will never be the same — even though Nanette is technically Gadsby’s last hurrah.

“I do think I have to quit comedy,” she declares. “I know it’s probably not the forum to make such an announcement, is it? In the middle of a comedy show.” The subject has dominated many of the interviews she’s given to promote the hour. “I’m quite prepared to step off,” she explained, noting her departure initially began as a stage device before becoming something more. “But wait,” you’re probably thinking. “If she’s quitting, then how is comedy going to change?”

Obviously, the context Nanette finds itself inhabiting is a major factor. Gadsby is a brilliant comedian and storyteller, capable of interweaving both forms into a well-constructed special that was well on its way to global relevance before the NYT and The New Yorker published their Weinstein and C.K. exposés. But the ensuing #MeToo and Time’s Up conversations have raised the platform significantly. Or as NYT comedy critic Jason Zinoman writes, “It was only a matter of time before a stand-up comedian channeled the righteous rage of the current feminist moment.”

Channel it she does, for Gadsby takes her intentionally self-deprecating jokes about her life in Tasmania, the anti-LGBTQ “bible belt” of Australia, and transforms them into a series of unrelentingly stories about trauma and rage. “This is why I must quit comedy,” she says, “because the only way I can tell my truth and put tension in the room is with anger.” The powerful horrors she lived notwithstanding, Gadsby’s anger also focuses on the powerful men who maintain powerful positions despite their misdeeds.

“That’s what I keep hearing. ‘You’ve got to learn to separate the man from the art. The art is important, not the artist.’ Okay, let’s give it a go,” she exclaims before launching into Pablo Picasso, the Cubist painter whose celebrated womanizing included an underage girl. “How about you take Picasso’s name off his little paintings there, and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? Fucking nothing! Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso!”

It’s a somewhat crude observation, purposefully designed by Gadsby for humorous effect. When asked about it by The New Yorker, however, she gave a similar, albeit more personal and nuanced take. “Art is important. I don’t believe artists are important as individuals.” She then offered up Cosby, whose comedy initially inspired her, as an example. “He’s funny. I like his rhythm. I like what he talked about. But I found it very easy to let go of him. I don’t feel easy listening to his comedy anymore, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence me.”

So how can Gadsby poke fun at those who would defend such men by declaring “the art is important, not the artist,” then say precisely that? The thing is, those she criticizes are placing these men’s art on pedestals in order to defend their reputations against claims to the contrary — much like Dave Chappelle has done repeatedly for C.K. when lashing out at his accusers. Gadsby means to disregard these support systems altogether and, by challenging the popular narrative that angry comedy is a man’s game (see: George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, etc.), presents a far more appropriate target.

“Do you know what should be the target of our jokes at the moment?” she asks. “Our obsession with reputation. We’re obsessed with it. We think reputation is more important than anything else, including humanity. And do you know who takes the mantle of this myopic adulation of reputation? Celebrities, and comedians are not immune. They’re all cut from the same cloth. Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. These men are not exceptions, they are the rule.” (She added C.K. after the taping.)

Gadsby insists she is not a “man-hater,” as detractors may want to claim, but admits she fears them. The horrors she suffered in Tasmania were all committed by men, and the artists she names have committed horrible abuses while controlling the popular narratives our culture tells itself. “And the moral of our story is, ‘We don’t give a shit, we don’t give a fuck, about women or children. We only care about a man’s reputation,’” she quips. For example, consider what Live Nation’s comedy head, Geof Wills told The Hollywood Reporter. C.K. will mount a successful comeback “without question,” but Roseanne Barr? “I don’t know whether [people would] actually show up,” Wills said of a possible tour. “She’s a racist. It’s horrific.”

Judging by what Barr tweeted, perhaps Wills is right. Then again, that he proclaimed her career’s death moments after assuring THR’s readers C.K. — who admitted the truth of the sexual misconduct allegations against him, which ruined the careers several young women — is odd. Or at least it seems that way until you consider Gadsby’s comments on our fascination with reputation at the expense of living, breathing human beings. Hence why, as she argues by way of Cosby, we should reevaluate precisely which stories and storytellers we should value.

“I have been questioning this whole comedy thing. I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore,” she explains earlier in the show. “I think it’s healthy for an adult human to take stock, pause and reassess. When I first started doing the comedy over a decade ago, my favorite comedian was Bill Cosby. It’s very healthy to reassess, isn’t it?” It is. Reassessing the art and artists we prize, and whether we can separate the two, is a healthy endeavor. Especially in comedy, where the failure to do so has already punished women like Abby Schachner, Andrea Constand, Chloe Dykstra and many more.