Hannah Gadsby’s mission to rescue comedy from cruelty ends with “Douglas,” an act so immensely cruel it rises nearly to the level of torture. Gadsby, of course, is famous only because her first major special, “Nanette,” rejected the art of stand-up comedy, arguing that “punch lines need trauma” and are inherently “destructive.” Having pleased the liberal arbiters of culture, Gadsby followed her “powerful” and “transformative” rejection of stand-up with a stand-up special. “Nanette,” as it turns out, couldn’t even transform its own author.
Are there punch lines? Well, she tries. Gadsby is convinced her jokes are both funny and transgressive, when they’re actually just transgressively unfunny. If you happen to have a few NPR tote bags in your Prius, Gadsby’s painfully dull swings at “‘Murica” and anti-vaxxers and Louis CK might have you laughing like it’s Ladies Night Out at a Kathy Griffin show and the eco-friendly chardonnay is disappearing faster than the rainforest. The humor is so trite and edgeless, I don’t even think its lacking appeal is a partisan issue—the audience for this is seriously limited, and I have a feeling most of it works in media.
It’s genuinely painful to watch Gadsby swipe at low-hanging fruit like she’s Christian Yelich hitting a Grand Slam. “Americans are like the straight white man of cultures,” she observes at one point, presumably cribbing the quip from the Tumblr account of a women’s studies student. To anti-vaxxers, Gadsby bravely demands, “Get a pet rock and delete your f-cking blog!,” then brushes imaginary dirt off her shoulder like she’s just knocked out Mike Tyson.
“Douglas” starts with a 15-minute preface in which Gadsby maps out the remainder of the show, which is less of an ingenious concept and more of a lazy way to bring the set full circle, which she does, and with a decent swipe at Louis CK.
Thankfully, though, Gadsby is self-aware. “I’m part of the problem now!” the comedian happily concedes right off the bat. “If you’re here because of ‘Nanette,’ why?” Gadsby asks, later describing her “core demographic” as “rich, white, entitled women.” She claims not to mind critics labeling “Nanette” a monologue or a Ted Talk or lecture. “What the f-ck are you expecting from this show? Because I’m sorry, if it’s more trauma, I’m fresh out. Had I known just how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my sh-t a bit better,” Gadsby jokes.
But she’s not quite self-aware enough to actually, meaningfully concede that “Douglas” is a refutation of the very thesis that made her famous. The most obvious evidence is that she claimed to be quitting stand-up in “Nanette,” which she obviously understands as a contradiction. But that’s less interesting than her rejection of the “punch lines are trauma” claim, which implicated just about every major comedian and intentionally—even proudly—challenged the very bedrock of stand-up. Gadsby does not really grapple with that glaring contradiction.
“Douglas” would never be confused with a lecture. It’s just stand-up comedy. And like most stand-up comedy, it even mines personal trauma for punch lines, the practice Gadsby herself famously condemned as “destructive” in “Nanette.” From her experiences with autism to an obviously “traumatic” anecdote about arguing and crying with a doctor, Gadsby draws punchlines out of her own trauma, despite claiming to be “fresh out” of it.
Take this joke at the end of her anti-vaxxer bit:
Why I snack on hate? You’ve worked it out? It’s how you build up immunity. It’s called micro-dosing. Yeah. Your hate is my vaccine. What are you gonna do? I’ve already got autism. I have what’s called high-functioning autism, which is a terrible name for what I have, because it gives the impression that I function highly. I do not.
Cue the laughter and destruction. Gadsby dives into her experience as a woman with autism, explaining the challenges it creates through a story about frustrating an impatient teacher. The punch lines aren’t great, but they’re certainly not destructive either. That was always the problem with her argument. Comedy can heal, it can foster empathy, it can expose political hypocrisy—but it often needs to draw on trauma to do it.
I actually enjoyed “Nanette.” I thought it was entirely wrong, but found Gadsby’s performance compelling. In “Douglas,” her concluding commentary on various works of art is smoother, more natural and funny. But Gadsby’s persona is gratingly smug, which takes exceptionally sharp writing to pull off. Telling Americans it’s “dumb in the face” to refer to petroleum as “gas” doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Gadsby herself renders the acclaim critics showered upon “Nanette” silly. The New York Times recently described “Douglas” as, “formally more complex and denser intellectually” than “Nanette.”
“Whereas ‘Nanette’ needed to stop the comedy to make its most serious points,” writes Jason Zinoman, “Gadsby works hard to blend the two here, and the result is an intricate, heady show whose cleverness gets in its own way.” That, of course, is why the central argument of “Nanette” failed. Maybe Gadsby knew that all along. Maybe she liked the sound of her argument more than she cared about its legitimacy.
In the end, it was all a rhetorical exercise, a flexing of intellectual muscles that fizzled when the time for real-world application unexpectedly knocked on Gadsby’s door. “Douglas” is a testament to “Nanette’s” failure. It’s a testament to how eagerly the arbiters of our culture will devour and elevate work that convincingly purports to be progressive—and a testament to how easy it is to convince them.
“Douglas” will help you understand why Gadsby made it big only after rejecting stand-up. Perhaps she fought against punch lines because good ones elude her.