“If you came here because of Nanette, then what the fuck do you expect out of tonight?” A flurry of self-aware laughter ripples through the Royal Festival Hall. Hannah Gadsby lowers her microphone, takes a wide, confident step across the stage in her sleek black suit and casts a wry smile to her audience.
We’re all laughing because it’s a very good question. Seriously, what do we expect from Douglas? Of course we’re all here because of Nanette; her fierce deconstruction of stand-up; her furious fuck-you to the patriarchy, her reclamation of her agency and her story after years of making herself the punchline. Gadsby debuted Nanette at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2017, where it took out the festival’s top prize. She then spent the next year performing the show internationally – but it wasn’t until it was filmed at the Sydney Opera House and released on Netflix in June 2018 that she was rocket-launched into worldwide recognition.
But here’s the thing: Nanette was also dubbed Gadsby’s farewell to comedy. This is a comedian(?) who, in her “final” show after ten years of stand-up, kicked the shit out of a form that had been, she’d realised, tearing her apart for years. She announced that she was through with diffusing tension by making light of her trauma. She was through with apologising for herself; something she’d learned to do growing up as a closeted lesbian in hyper-conservative rural Tasmania at a time when the state was debating whether to legalise homosexuality. It was time, in her words, to “turn off the laughter tap” and let us (force us, even) to acknowledge her pain, and the pain endured by those who don’t conform into society’s rigid structures. “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she said in Nanette. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation.”
And so the question remains: what do we expect from Douglas? Thankfully, she doesn’t let us ruminate on the question for too long. Quite the opposite, in fact. She begins by breaking one of the most basic rules of stand-up: she gives away the structure of her entire show.
First, she’s going to tell us an anecdote about “the curious incident of the dog park in the day time”. It will consist of fairly standard observational humour, except it won’t be very good because she’s “vague as fuck”. Then, she’ll engage in some “light needling of the patriarchy (which will quickly evolve into “jousting”). She’ll bait her haters for a bit (of which there are many), she’ll discuss a misdiagnosis, she’ll take aim at anti-vaxxers, she’ll indulge in a bout of “silliness”, and she’ll reveal that she has autism. And she’ll unfurl this final revelation so deftly that we’ll still be surprised when it happens.
You might be thinking: Surely it must get tedious, listening to a comedian signpost their entire show? But this is Hannah “laughter tap” Gadsby – and in her hands, it’s a real joy watching her tinker with form, like a master clockmaker dismantling then remaking an antique watch.
When I think back to seeing Nanette on its first run in Melbourne (and a bunch of her stand-up shows before that), it hits me that during Douglas that she seems calmer, more comfortable. She slings a pun a minute; she calls back constantly to her pre-show precis, raising her eyebrows as she waits for laughter that comes in patters of realisation. She puts more physicality into the delivery of her jokes, too, extending her arms either side and blowing out her cheeks, puffer fish-style, when unexpected anger takes over. The objects of this feminist rage oscillate from the surreal to the everyday: there’s the absolute entitlement of Where’s Wally, who expects us to waste precious hours finding him even though he’s perfectly fine where he is – and there’s the male doctor who treated her with contempt when she explained why she didn’t want to go on the Pill. The needling turns to jousting. And always, there’s the topic of labels, of names, of diagnoses. Her haters criticised her for doing lectures, not stand-up. Her dog’s name was never meant to be Douglas, but someone filled in a form incorrectly and she thought she best not make a fuss. And why does the Pill have such a vague name? Because “men don’t want to mix their pleasure with our business,” of course.
And then comes the revelation, as promised, that Gadsby is autistic. She’s adamant that we should have realised this by now: there have been plenty of “red flags”, in descriptions of her behaviour throughout the show (her meticulousness of making “unnecessary distinctions” to classify things, her avoidance of eye contact and sudden loud noises) – not to mention the fact that she told us at the beginning. But there’s something so powerful about hearing it again, and again, because Gadsby frames her autism as something she is proud of. Far from a set of deficiencies, autism is what allows her to experience the world differently, then express that perspective through her work. “Autism isn’t a prison, it’s a prism, that’s why they call it a spectrum!” she says.
At the beginning of Douglas, Gadsby quips that she’s “fresh out of trauma” – and that if she knew how lucrative her trauma would be, she would’ve rationed it out to “at least a trilogy”. But I reckon Douglas is, quietly, Nanette’s even more rebellious and revolutionary sister. If Nanette was Gadsby smashing down the gates of a prison, then Douglas is her building a new structure entirely on her own terms. Nowadays, says Gadsby, she can sit at home with her best friend (her dog, Douglas) and her second best friend (her other dog, who she doesn’t name, presumably out of respect for the dog’s privacy) and rearrange her furniture. Here, she feels that she’s living her best life. As a person who relishes order and predictability, she can create a show where she describes exactly what is going to happen before it happens. It’s not just a clever coup; it’s representative of Gadsby’s unapologetic neurodiversity.
And, she can finish her show with the most hilarious laser-pointer lecture on the High Renaissance you could possibly imagine, complete with an on-point Louis CK joke., As predicted, you’ll forget that this is exactly what she said she’d do.
Sitting in a (much, much smaller) venue in Melbourne watching Nanette for the first time, Gadsby stood, rigidly with angry tears her eyes, and said that “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself”. Douglas is triumphant proof of this. She wasn’t lying when she announced that Nanette was her farewell to comedy. It just took the world a little longer to realise what she was really doing. Hopefully, she’s just getting started.
Douglas is on at Southbank Centre until Sunday 3rd November. More info and tickets here.