The most important answer to Hannah Gadsby’s groundbreaking “Nanette” came quietly from Ellen DeGeneres. Hers was a characteristically gentle rebuttal.
In December, six months after Gadsby’s acclaimed stand-up set hit Netflix, DeGeneres dropped “Relatable” on the same platform, her first special in 15 years. Superficially, “Nanette” and “Relatable” have a lot in common: they’re both high-profile streaming specials that ruminate thoughtfully on the respective comedienne’s experiences with anti-gay discrimination. But “Relatable,” filmed amid a summer marked by chatter over “Nanette,” is a persuasive, if unintentional rebuttal to Gadsby.
I think Salon accurately described the central effort of “Nanette,” in which Gadsby announces she’s quitting stand-up mid-set, as an argument we should “dismantle our addiction to using comedy as an escape from the pain we’d rather not to face.” DeGeneres seems to agree with that interpretation. In a New York Times profile promoting “Relatable,” DeGeneres said she “loved” “Nanette” but “described Gadsby’s celebrated special as less stand-up than solo show” and expressed disagreement with her critique of the genre. “I think comedy is the best medicine,” she explained.
I should say I agree with DeGeneres. “Nanette’s” progressive politics and subversion of stand-up conventions made it compelling. What made it irritating was Gadsby’s decision to throw in the towel on comedy for fear it exacerbates wounds we need to heal.
Indeed, DeGeneres’s entire career is a triumph over the forces that trouble Gadsby, and her special implicitly makes that argument. “Relatable” is apolitical, lukewarm, and disjointed at times, but smart and biting at others. Overall, it’s as effortlessly enjoyable as Ellen herself. But its thesis stands in clear contrast with “Nanette.”
The special is one long set-up for a more political point DeGeneres delivers in its waning moments. It was a dream about transmogrifying into a caged finch, the comedian reveals, that finally inspired her to come out in the late ‘90s, with everything to lose.
“Before I had that dream, I had no idea I was in a cage. I had a great life, I had a successful sitcom, I had fame, I had money, I had everything that I thought was important. But I was hiding a part of myself,” she reflects.
Circling back to jokes about her butler’s failure to put a towel next to the bathtub and Jennifer Aniston’s dry eye, “Relatable” ends on a poignant, if cliched observation about the human condition: “It’s not until you face that fear head-on that you realize your power, and that’s when you grow, and that’s what we all want. We want to grow, we want to feel good about ourselves, we want to feel proud of who we are. We’re all the same. So, whether your bath mat scoot is 50 scoots to get to the towel or three scoots to get to the towel, whether you’re gay or have dry eye, we are all the same, and we are all relatable.”
Those callbacks constitute an effective punchline. Also implied is the notion that DeGeneres’s comedic quest to highlight our relatability sustained (or rebuilt) her career. Intentionally or not, this is in conversation with Gadsby, who concluded in “Nanette”: “Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own.”
Earlier in the set, Gadbsy argues “punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension, and tension feeds trauma.” She adds, “This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with. Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.”
These conclusions spring from Gadsby’s personal experience, in which mining her trauma for comedy “suspended [her] in a perpetual state of adolescence.”
But DeGeneres’s career—and the success of pop culture phenomena like “Will & Grace,” which traffic in the “self-deprecating” humor Gadsby deplores—provide living evidence for comedy as a constructive force. That’s what “Relatable” ultimately posits— done right, comedy is a vehicle to work through divisions because laughs often come from shared experiences.
Gadsby’s point may have been more personal than a broad prescription for her peers, although it wasn’t exactly taken that way. But as the industry continues to chew on “Nanette,” “Relatable” provides a remarkably persuasive counterpoint in the form of a well-executed set from one of comedy’s most formidable, and most palatable, stars.