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Hannah Gadsby: Douglas: a skilled act of escapology

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette show caught audiences by surprise on its international release in 2018. The masterful deployment of unreliable narration and subsequent subversion of traditional comedic storytelling elicited a wide range of reactions. Nanette is affable and faithful to the medium’s core fundamentals, without filters, exaggeration or distortion. Kyriacos Nicolaou Cyprus Mail
Hannah Gadsby Comedy Special 2020

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette show caught audiences by surprise on its international release in 2018. The masterful deployment of unreliable narration and subsequent subversion of traditional comedic storytelling elicited a wide range of reactions. Nanette is affable and faithful to the medium’s core fundamentals, without filters, exaggeration or distortion.

While in Nanette Gadsby divided herself into more than one character, in her latest work for Netflix, Douglas, Gadsby prefaces the show with an introductory segment, outlining exactly what will follow, section by section, down to a randomly placed joke about Louis CK.

Several times throughout the show, Gadsby nudges the audience towards their repeated realisations that they’ve now entered one of the aforementioned segments. When she delves into more traditional observational comedy, she starts with the well-known phrase “have you ever noticed?” and lets it to trail off, pausing long enough for the audience to laugh at their own appreciation of what’s happening.

Gadsby goes as far as telling the audience that she will bait them into strong emotions with bits that may offend. “Don’t invest!”, she pleads beforehand. Later on, when she breaches topics that may inflame parts of the audience, she tags her jokes with little reminders quickly inserted between jokes, expertly managing crowd reactions. “Bear with me”, she says in the middle of a joke. “Don’t invest”, she repeats, before conceding that some reaction is merited by saying “invest a little”. Her ability to tag jokes with the appropriate word or phrase is one of Gadsby’s most underrated attributes as a comedian.

She does not linger on the success of Nanette and rejects any notions of predicting her newfound success in America. She did not expect the show to resonate with so many people in so many ways. “It was a very particular show, of a very particular flavour,” she says. It’s an accurate description.

Nanette is one of the most unique comedy shows I’ve seen in the past decade. Its climax is not something most viewers would expect. I had been wondering how Gadsby would follow it up. “If you’re here because of Nanette… why?”, Gadsby asks, before saying that she is “fresh out of trauma”. When an artist has to prefix their show with a statement saying that if they knew how much the audience is interested in traumatic experiences then they “might have budgeted it better”, perhaps the audience should pause for a moment and reflect on their own voyeuristic attitudes towards art.

Indeed, Gadsby moves on from Nanette in a very assured manner. Her confidence and assuredness on stage have grown since 2018, her delivery is precise, composed, and accomplished. She has switched the format of the overall show while remaining both true to herself, her beliefs, her interests, as well as the basic tenets of comedy.

Douglas marks a skilled act of escapology. Both the restrictive expectations stemming from curious well-wishers, as well as any fall in quality eagerly anticipated by dissenters, have been left in tatters as Gadsby moves forward with her entire belief system intact and an audience well and truly satiated.

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