Hannah Gadsby knows haters gonna hate, and she’s gleefully giving them more fodder for the fire. Luckily, that tactic works out well for the rest of us, who think Gadsby’s eclectic blend of thought-provoking, patriarchy-challenging, art history lesson comedy is the best thing since sliced bread. Her first Netflix special, 2018’s “Nanette,” made the Aussie comedian an international sensation seemingly overnight, while also busting down the carefully constructed walls of what “comedy” is allowed to do, say, and be. The combination of the two factors was too much for some, and it prompted much hullabaloo about nothing from mid-level comedians insisting “Nanette” wasn’t “real” comedy, whatever that means.
Gadsby addresses these concerns and more in “Douglas,” her second Netflix special, a worthy successor that fulfills the funny promise of “Nanette” and leaves the trauma in the past. Much like she did in “Nanette,” Gadsby takes a moment to set expectations for what the audience is about to see. Anyone hoping for more trauma humor is out of luck, Gadsby warns, because she’s “fresh the fuck out.” While this means “Douglas” may not be as explosively impactful as “Nanette” was (a very tall order), it’s still chock full of the unexpected delights and cogent analysis that make Gadsby such a rare and singular entertainer.
While “Douglas” offers what Gadbsy calls “a gentle and very good-natured needling of the patriarchy,” her more trivial fare is some of the show’s best jokes. She takes a well-deserved piss out Americans during a particularly funny section about linguistic differences between English-speaking countries. Perhaps this is a well-worn comedic subject, but it’s hard to quibble with Gadsby’s sillier takes on the merits of “biscuit” over “cookie,” or “jumper” versus “sweater.” (Biscuit being mostly superior for its use in a favorite Gadsby epithet, “dick biscuit.”)
Addressing critics who called “Nanette” a lecture, Gadsby gladly whips out a projector remote and begins clicking through various classical art slides. “That wasn’t a lecture. This is a lecture,” she opines, before launching into an illuminating and humorous deluge of paintings of what she calls “women dancing naked in groups of three in a forest.” Later on, she does the same with women hanging out against trees. And she has way too much fun pointing out the very odd butt-crack placement of a linen sheath. Who knew Titian could be funny? Gadsby did. So it’s a little highbrow for some people, but it’s still comedy. Damn funny comedy at that.
Ali Goldstein/ NETFLIX © 2020
Gadsby may not care about certain half-baked critiques, but she clearly made some subtle adjustments for one in particular. When attempting to speak accessibly about misogyny and patriarchy, it’s all too tempting to lean into broad generalizations about men and women. While it’s hard to fault an entertainer for needing to keep things streamlined, (what’s a punchline without a little punch?), some of the vitriol towards men in “Nanette” veered suspiciously toward gender essentialism. Gadsby may joke that her prime demographic is entitled white women, but as a masculine-presenting queer woman, she certainly has her LGBTQ devotees.
It’s obviously this demographic she has in mind when she jokes that Hermione Grainger from “Harry Potter” is “probably a TERF — fuck her.” Gadbsy is clearly sending a message to critics who viewed her as some sort of old school feminist with harmful views towards trans people. With this joke she’s clearly saying: Not only so I know what a TERF is, but I say fuck ’em all. It’s not one of the best jokes in the show — not by a long shot — but it goes a long way toward establishing Gadsby’s gender politics. That’s something she probably didn’t have to think about before “Nanette” made her a worldwide household name.
While “Douglas” sidesteps any more serious trauma stories, Gadsby does use her soapbox to come out about her autism diagnosis. The special takes its title from a hilarious story about Gadsby unloading a host of information about the female reproductive anatomy on an unsuspecting — but not undeserving — overly friendly man at the dog park. She pivots from gently ribbing herself for failing to properly read this social interaction to proudly claiming her way of seeing the world as the beautiful and unique gift that it is.
Once again, Gadbsy has humanized and dignified a universal human experience that is too often misunderstood, misrepresented, or made invisible. In “Nanatte,” she did the same for trauma survivors, butch women, queer people, and people of average body size. That she does this all with a cheeky grin on her face, and by putting one on yours, is a truly rare gift. The haters are right — it’s nothing like traditional comedy. It’s art.
“Hannah Gadsby: Douglas” is streaming now on Netflix.