Hannah Gadsby on her award-winning comedy show Nanette

Hannah Gadsby's show Nanette was the talk of the Melbourne Comedy Festival and won the Barry Award. Picture: contributed
Hannah Gadsby's show Nanette was the talk of the Melbourne Comedy Festival and won the Barry Award. Picture: contributed
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HER latest show won a major comedy award, so why is the Australian threatening to quit stand-up? By Claire Smith

Hannah Gadsby thinks Nanette is the funniest and finest work she’s ever done. It had to be, because she had decided to be more honest and truthful than ever before. In the course of her new show Gadsby also drops a bomb – this may well be the last time she does stand-up.

I’m so serious. I’m so anxious. I’m a miserable lesbian. I worry about people. I wonder why people are laughing

“It’s a show where I decided to see how people would react to a story that I have made funny – but also reveal that it isn’t really a funny story,” says the Australian comedian of an hour at the Fringe in which she dismantles her self-deprecating, mild-mannered comic style and reveals the burning anger she still feels about homophobia and prejudice.

“That is what Nanette is – to show how much you have to adapt in order to make an audience laugh.”

The show developed out of her unexpectedly emotional reaction to the gay marriage debate in Australia. Hearing some of the language being used gave Gadsby flashbacks to her childhood in Tasmania, growing up gay in a strongly Christian part of the island state, where homosexuality remained illegal until 1997. “Everything I do evolves – so I started by looking at a story I told during my first show,” she explains. “It ended in violence – but I had stopped short of telling the real story. I thought, what happens if I tell the story properly? But when I started doing that I realised it wasn’t going to be very funny. So the way to get round that is to quit comedy.”

The notion of quitting started as a theatrical device, but the more she started thinking about it, the more tempted Gadsby was to do it. “I also started thinking about a male comedian I saw doing a show. He was being vile about lesbians, asking why they were so miserable and angry. I thought, ‘I’m not that kind of lesbian.’ And then I thought, ‘Why not?’ If you are a woman at the masculine end of the spectrum it’s hard. There are a lot of rules about being a woman – a lot more rules than there are about being a man.” And so Gadsby decided to challenge her own internalised homophobia. Like a superhero she rips apart her comic persona to reveal the hurt and the rage underneath.

Nanette was the talk of the Melbourne Comedy Festival and won the Barry Award – although Gadsby refused to accept it in the name of Barry Humphries, who has outraged liberal Australia with erratic declarations which are homophobic, transphobic and anti human rights. Shocking, different and unashamedly political, Nanette is also brilliantly funny. “There are parts of it which are brutally unfunny,” says Gadsby, “but only a small portion of it isn’t funny and I’m in control of it the whole time. The funny stuff in it is the finest I have ever done. It has to work and it does because I have got a certain level of mastery. I really know I can control a room and lead people to good chuckles.”

She believes telling the truth has helped her connect with the audience in a new way. Because Gadsby unpacks her box of tricks she doesn’t have to hold back.

“When I am on stage with this show I am as honest as I have ever been,” she says. “I think there is an enormous amount of trust a comedy audience puts in. I take my job quite seriously. I think you have a responsibility to make an audience feel good – to make them laugh – that is what you are there for. It’s an incredible art form and saying you have problems, in a room full of people who also have problems, is a really good thing to do. Telling stories is a really important part of being human.” Revisiting the experience of growing up gay in Tasmania was also an important thing for Gadsby for the sake of her own mental health. “I didn’t know that I had bought into it,” she says. “I believed from the bottom of my toes that I was less important than other people.”

One of the most moving sections of the show is about her mum – who she now has a great relationship with. “She went through it as well. I think with a lot of young gay people, when their parents react badly they forget their parents are going through something as well. Now my mum and me have landed on the same side and it’s fine.”

She feels at home now, in the wild north of Tasmania, where each home has a garden with a wild patch, inhabited by kangaroos, wallabies, possums and pademelons. Even the names are funny. “What kind of thing is a pademelon? Is it a fruit? No, there it is having a nap. I don’t think we do our PR very well in Australia. We are always talking about dangerous spiders.”

Does this mean she really doesn’t feel at home on the comedy circuit any more? “I just got tired of hearing guys in comedy talking about how dumb other people’s opinions are. This is my opinion of other people’s dumb opinion. We don’t even know what dark matter is – which is what the universe is mostly made of. We don’t know everything so why are we all so confident? When your inner world doesn’t match the outer world there is a gift in that. It is the gift of having to question your fundamental beliefs and being open to the notion you are wrong. The way one human being is able to question the experience of another I find alarming.”

She’s currently writing a book of funny stories and presenting a show on Australian television about art. But she might give up stand up, she really might. “I’m so serious. I’m so anxious. I’m a miserable lesbian. I worry about people. I wonder why people are laughing. I even did a show about Taylor Swift and then felt bad I was being bad about Taylor Swift. I talk about all these serious things and people are still laughing.”

• Hannah Gadsby: Nanette is at Assembly George Square Studios, until 27 August, 5:30pm. Hannah Gadsby will also perform at A Gala for Mental Health, with Carl Donnelly, Seymour Mace, Angela Barnes and Robert White, at the Pleasance Ace Dome, 10 August, 11pm. See page 11.