Much of America’s media has become obsessed with social justice issues since President Trump’s election, and many comedians have naturally followed suit. Perhaps the brightest star in the interdisciplinary field of political-activist comedians, or what I call comedic activists, is Hannah Gadsby.
Gadsby’s Netflix special, “Nanette,” generated a lot of press on the right and left. “Nanette” was hailed as a “post-comedy manifesto” for a coming utopian age where jokes would be obsolete (Jesse David Fox, Verge); praised as “a radical, transformative work of comedy” and “one of the most extraordinary comedy specials in recent memory” (Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic). It was also critiqued as favoring “political correctness over humor” (Juliana Knot, The Federalist), and condemned as “boring, trite, dangerous art” (Peter Moskowitz, The Outline).
Each side oddly agreed on one thing: “Nanette” didn’t include many jokes and wasn’t primarily concerned with being funny. So I, and many others who enjoy laughing while watching comedy, wasn’t interested in watching it.
But while feeling particularly woke one morning, I did watch “Nanette” and to my surprise liked it—some of it, at least. I laughed a handful of times thanks to her skill at building and diffusing tension.
The show is bookended by a sexual assault Gadsby experienced when she was 17. It’s first told as a joke then told as a complete, tragic story near the end, cleverly demonstrating how the expectations of comedy have restricted Gadsby’s voice and what she wants to say.
Netflix calls “Nanette” a comedy special, but the closest Gadsby comes to calling her show comedy is to mention it’s taking place on a “comedy stage” while implying she isn’t on that stage to make her audience laugh anymore. Gadsby announces she’s quitting comedy, repeatedly says “Nanette” is about telling her story, and at one point explicitly labels the performance “theater.”
“Nanette” may not be funny, but it is well-performed, well-structured theater. In an interview on “The Tonight Show,” Gadsby told Jimmy Fallon “if I quit, I’m an idiot” because her star has risen considerably since the Netflix special. As activism, it also succeeded, putting a spotlight on the issues Gadsby cares about.
Yet even the most glowing reviews conceded “Nanette” isn’t especially funny. Despite that, Fox at Verge remains sanguine that Gadsby has discovered a more evolved form of comedy not beholden to making audiences laugh and “buyers will adjust.”
Gadsby proved there’s a healthy market for moralizing polemical monologues branded as “comedy,” but I see problems if liberal comedians accept activism with a pinch of comedy as a new norm. These are problems not for myself, a lifetime fan of comedy who selfishly believes being funny should remain among comedians’ first principles, but for these comedic activists themselves and the social change they want to achieve.
In a Quillette article, “The Preachers of the Great Awokening,” Ben and Bo Winegard described the structure and behavior of social justice culture as a “quasi-religion.” Like the Spanish Inquisition, the Awokening’s authorities—mostly celebrities, journalists, and academics—secure more status from condemning heretics than uplifting sinners.
Ben and Bo Winegard showed how this behavior serves an important survival function in a highly selective environment with a limited amount of status to go around. After “Nanette,” Gadsby has been promoted from preacher of the Awokening to at least a bishop.
Funnily, being less funny was the best decision Gadsby ever made in her comedy career. A long segment in “Nanette” denouncing Picasso’s place in fine art’s canon may not get many laughs, but its foundation in critical and intersectional theories clearly signals her familiarity with current doctrine. However, by setting aside comedy to do a monologue on art history’s ethical shortcomings, Gadsby weakened the reach and effect of her rhetoric beyond the faithful. From the same Quillette article:
Using arcane language and adhering to constantly changing norms about acceptable epithets are not particularly effective for attracting people from the broader population to one’s cause. In fact, they almost certainly alienate many average, and otherwise sympathetic, Americans, who understandably disdain indecipherable prose and elite superciliousness. Therefore, this signaling function of the Woke faith is actually antithetical to the stated goals of Wokeness (i.e., creating a more just social world—which requires a broad coalition of different classes of people).
Humor could be a powerful binding agent in such a coalition. Research shows laughter strengthens social bonds (Manninen et al., The Journal of Neuroscience). There are many mental and physical benefits in laughter, even fake laughter (Law, Broadbent & Sollers; Complementary Therapies in Medicine).
Yet unlike exercise, laughter’s so easy babies can do it. We laugh before we learn to talk, before we learn to walk, and there’s even evidence laughter predates our species (Davila-Ross, Jesus, Osborne & Bard; PLoS One). Most of us like to laugh and intuitively like the people or things that make us laugh.
Because laughter is an easy and enjoyable reaction, it usually provides ideas told in a funny way more accessibility and acceptability. The most talented comedians can make us laugh at ideas we find repellant or at beliefs we hold dear.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s left-leaning TV show “Who Is America?” aired around the same time as “Nanette.” Athough Cohen wasn’t hailed as the harbinger of a new age of socially responsible non-comedy like Gadsby, a segment in the third episode of “Who Is America?” had more direct effects on American politics than any comedian I can name.
The segment included Jason Spencer, a conservative Georgia lawmaker, as he participates in a fake counter-terrorist training course led by Cohen, who poses as an Israeli security expert. Among a series of embarrassing scenes, the most ridiculous moment is when Cohen convinces Spencer to drop his pants and charge his bare bum at armed terrorists.
After Cohen’s elaborate practical joke aired, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal denounced Spencer, whose resignation followed weeks later. Georgia Republicans didn’t turn on their own elected official because The Washington Post reported on Spencer targeting Muslims with legislation or threatening an African-American attorney who sought to remove Confederate memorials, but they did when a master comedian made him into a national laughingstock.
Liberal comedians forcing politicians to resign is thinking too utopian even for the Awokening, but “Who Is America?” does serve as a proof of concept. Cohen’s comedic-activism successfully appealed to a politically diverse audience because it succeeded equally as both comedy and political activism.
I only hope Gadsby, Trevor Noah, Kimmel, and other comedic activists who use their platform to lecture America on its social ills study Cohen’s lesson: good comedy can make people with opposing views laugh, which softens that opposition to understanding or even adopting the comedian’s views. So if these comedic activists intend to convert others to their cause, they might try taking themselves a little less seriously.