She won an Emmy for Nanette and now she's back after a life-changing autism diagnosis
It’s two years since Hannah Gadsby broke comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe with Nanette, a show that blurred the lines between performance art and traditional stand-up, unleashing a storm of praise and negative criticism. Now she’s back with Douglas, a new show created after her autism diagnosis, and a prediction of a similar reaction. So far she’s been right.
“I know I’m not immediately likeable to strangers, things about my physicality and my place in the world make people angry. I’ve known that all my life.”
It’s also what she says and the way she says it. A groundbreaking show that covered her own trauma, sexism and ways of being funny without being sexist or yelling, Nanette was a deconstruction and subversion of comedy. Much praised for panning the patriarchy, it also touched a raw nerve with those who said they didn’t like being lectured to or thought jokes about autism weren’t funny, and that Gadsby was too “man-like” and off-putting.
While Gadsby breaks the rules, she also lives by them, just a different set. She loves structures and knows how to use them, so it’s no surprise Nanette won prizes for its deconstruction of the genre. Taking a Fringe Comedy Award, it was also a hit at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and across Australia, the UK and the US. Filmed as a special for Netflix, it won her an Emmy as well as a global audience way beyond the festival and stand-up circuit and gave a voice to those on the margins.
“Nanette landed in the zeitgeist, just after Trump was elected, and since I don’t like crowds I was never going to join a ‘pussy march’, so I wrote a show. There was the gay marriage debate in Australia, the toxic debate around Brexit, Trump’s rhetoric, #MeToo caught fire, Louis CK finally acknowledged what was an open secret, so the tide was turning as I was performing Nanette and it’s like surfing, it caught the wave.”
The platform of Netflix also pushed it into the homes of people who have never watched stand-up. People like Gadsby’s mother.
“She’s like, ‘why would I go and watch a man yell at me?’ ” laughs Gadsby. “The world I live in, there are people who don’t care about comedy because the way it’s defined it’s not for them, but it can be. I’m excited that Nanette might have opened up the platform to new voices to try different things – not just set up punchlines – for different audiences who go ‘oh, it’s not just someone being… you know… gross’.” She laughs, then clarifies, “that’s not what I think comedy is, but there are people out there who do.”
Now she’s back on the road with Douglas and heading for Edinburgh and Glasgow this month and next as part of a world tour that will eventually take her back home to Tasmania. The show will also be released on Netflix next year.
This time Gadsby uses her autism to deliberately shape the show’s structure, giving those who don’t have it a sense of what it’s like, as well as a laugh. Gadsby has woven a complex web of a show that tells us at the start what’s in it, what the jokes will be – around the history of science and medicine, art history, with another helping of Hannah herself and a pop at the patriarchy.
It’s called Douglas, after one of her dogs, although it’s not about him, any more than Nanette was about a barista called Nanette.
“God no,” she says. “Doug’s my dog and I like him, but I named the show Douglas because he was really what led me to get diagnosed. I was having a particularly difficult time, had been misdiagnosed with hormone issues, put on something inappropriate, and was in a very bad place. And I felt him just staring at me and felt empathy from him. And I’m like ‘how can this dog get me like no one else on earth?’ At first that made me incredibly sad, but then it made me think and I went on to Google women with autism, because that seed had been planted many times by people throughout my life. After shows people would come and tell me I should look into it and I didn’t understand how that could possibly apply to me because of the perception of what autism is where I come from, you know Rain Man. Where I’m from it was, you don’t worry about it, just get on with it.
“But as soon as I did it was so clear, so many things in my life fell into place and I was able to understand so much of what has only ever confused me. It made more sense than when I came out as gay, to identify with being autistic. It really feels central to my identity.”
There’s another reason the show is called Douglas, a Scottish connection in fact, namely “a Scottish man-midwife, Dr James Douglas,” says Gadbsy, “I talk about him.”
She does, specifically his “pouch”, the “Pouch of Douglas” being the space between a female’s rectum and the posterior wall of the uterus which the 18th-century Edinburgh graduate physician and anatomist “discovered” and named, neatly illustrating Gadsby’s point and ridicule of how men name, categorise and shape our world.
Gadsby’s “overnight success” with Nanette in fact came on the back of ten years on the stand-up circuit. Born in Tasmania, the youngest of five, the 41-year-old graduated in art history and curatorship (from Australian National University in Canberra) then worked in bookshops, at an outdoor cinema, as a vegetable picker and tree planter before she found herself homeless and was hospitalised. A visit to her sister in Adelaide saw her enter and win the Australian Raw comedy competition for new comedians in 2006 and turn her life around. It brought her to the Edinburgh Fringe where she won second prize in the So You Think You’re Funny? competition and she began performing stand-up at festivals around Australia and stacking up numerous awards. Moving into radio and TV with the sitcom Please Like Me, which she co-wrote and in which she played a character called Hannah, she also made three documentaries inspired by comedy art lectures she created to go with collections at major galleries. And this year she ticked the Ted Talk box with “Three ideas. Three contradictions. Or not.”
Top that. Well, no, Gadsby says. “I make it clear that I’m under no illusions that I’m going to top Nanette,” she says. “I haven’t even tried. I still deconstruct comedy a little bit, and just sort of have a bit more fun.”
As well as fun she’s also responding to the criticism and hostility that Nanette provoked, from “comedy traditionalists who like their jokes told in front of a brick wall, whereas I come from the festival circuit. It’s such a different culture, so the backlash I’m getting from the comedy gatekeepers who are very angry with me, I find fascinating.”
Douglas, in form and construction, is a celebration of how her brain works and how autism impacts on her life. She wants to combat damaging stereotypes people have about autism, “that it’s about men who love science. I have autism and I’m not a man who loves science, so that’s cleared that up right away,” she laughs.
She’s also out to combat the shame and fear associated with having autism.
“People are afraid of what it means and don’t want to put a word around it, so I’m saying yes, it is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be that difficult.”
And it can be very funny, for everyone.
“Then there’s the emotional landscape of having autism. What may look like insensitivity and not caring and being rude is just about a different way of processing and prioritising information and being slow to pick up on clues. It’s not that people with autism don’t care, but the language we’ve settled on to show we care only suits a particular type of brain.”
She gives me an example you don’t have to have autism to get, but which gives you a flavour of what it’s like.
“You know when you meet someone and they go ‘I’m a hugger!’, but nobody ever goes into a room and says ‘I’m a not hugger’ – that’s not respected, but if there’s a hugger in the room you know about it. But all this is what underpins the show, not what’s actually in it,” she says, “there are jokes!”
Gadsby is also writing a memoir, Ten Steps to Nanette, which takes her from birth to the creation of the show, from childhood through the back story that went into the moment that was Nanette.
“And gee, I regret doing that,” she says. “Who thought that was a good idea? Writing a book is hard enough and then I went and chose this almost impossible thread through my own life.” The thread being having autism, which meant she had to go back and rewrite it after her diagnosis. As so often with Gadbsy, the way she is dictates the way things turn out, so the fact she has had a book deal for ten years but hadn’t completed it because she also has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) – “another diagnosis along the way” – which challenges executive skills, turned out to be a good thing.
“I’m the queen of not hitting a deadline, ten years is incredible. But I hadn’t sorted through my trauma and had the diagnosis, so I didn’t actually understand myself. Once Nanette was out and I had the diagnosis, I was like ‘oh, I’m gonna write a very different book’. So there was a recalibration of stuff I wrote when I didn’t understand I had autism. I was saying I’m really bad at stuff, let’s laugh at that – and that’s still there – but now it’s also saying ‘this is why I’m really bad at stuff’.”
Part of the reason it took Gadsby so long to get a diagnosis of her autism is exactly because, as she puts it, she’s “not a man who loves science”, ie there’s a gender bias at work.
“It’s very, very common for women to take a long time to be diagnosed, but there are a lot of women my age taking their boys in for consultations and recognising the signs in themselves, going ‘hang on...’ ”
There’s also a lot of misdiagnosis, Gadsby having been “diagnosed with all sorts of things and medicated for things I shouldn’t have been because there’s a dearth of understanding. Women throw a spanner in the works of what autism is and instead of expanding the idea of what it is, they just draw a line and keep us out.”
It wasn’t until she was 27 that Gadsby turned to comedy and began to find an outlet. Before that her autism had a negative effect on her life and how she was able to live it.
“I got to a point which could have been totally avoided had I understood this about myself,” she says.
“There were 15 years from about ten years old and onwards of feeling as though life was incredibly difficult for me to navigate, and that’s the reality for most people on the spectrum. We don’t live as long, we have very poor quality of life, a lot of us end up homeless – I was homeless for a while. The workplace is not suited to us because a lot of the jobs that appeal to our way of thinking are closed off to women or really hostile to them.”
Gadsby is aware she’s in a favourable position compared to many on the spectrum and aims to make the most of it.
“I’m sitting pretty in my life because of a whirlwind of exceptional circumstances and I have a platform so I’m gonna use it. Which is what makes people groan about me, ‘oh just tell a joke!’. Well this is actually an aspect of autism, and because I am on the spectrum, I’m like, there’s something wrong here and I won’t let it go.”
Like a dog with a bone? Douglas with a bone?
“Yeah, pretty much, that’s nice I’m gonna use that,” she says.
So Douglas is a celebration of autism and Gadsby wants to tell us about the upside of having a brain that works in a different way from the neurotypicals.
“Nanette was pretty much a celebration of the way I can make connections between things that people miss, and Douglas...” she says, “for example… I have been fascinated by what’s her name, the climate change…”
And then she’s cut off! A bot comes on the line to say: ‘The line has disconnected, goodbye,’ and then there’s silence. I’m left hanging, wondering about the climate change person and what Gadsby was going to say about connections she sees that I might miss.
Missing a connection of my own, I get how Gadsby feels.
Hannah Gadsby’s show Douglas is at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre on 30 October (tel: 0131-529 6000, www.capitaltheatres.com) and at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on 21 November