In the words of Hannah Gadsby herself, her first comedy special, Nanette, ‘was a particular show of a very particular flavour.’ What on earth are people expecting from her follow up? So, she opens her show by telling you exactly what is going to happen (‘that’s how I’m going to meet your expectations, by adjusting them now’). And I’m going to follow suit and tell you exactly what this review says. First, it summarises the topics of the show; then we will address its inevitable comparison to Nanette; this will be followed by celebrating the ‘tiny needling’ of the patriarchy, and then we’ll ‘change gears dramatically’ and get to the bottom of trauma and comedy, and why Gadsby is so good at what she does.
If Nanette was about queerness and femininity, Douglas is a show about autism and adversity. Unafraid to lay the bait for those not holding her political and social standpoint, we’re led with a breadcrumb trail of puns, digs and gags to beginning to understand what it’s like to live as a disabled woman in this world. Gadsby will arrive at this through telling us an anecdote about a dog park, explaining why Donatello doesn’t belong in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles team, and a story about a penguin that may or may not have been in a box.
Everyone’s first question is going to be: how does this compare to Nanette? Fair enough, since Gadsby’s first comedy special took Netflix by storm quite unexpectedly and shook the foundations of how we assume comedy should be done. Gadsby herself was well aware that expectations for her comeback were going to be somewhat set. As she says in the show, ‘if I knew how successful trauma was going to be, I would’ve budgeted my shit a bit better.’ But what was so successful about Nanette? The honesty of trauma, yes; the representation of a queer woman speaking out; the somewhat niche art history edge that had us history nerds reeling. But Gadsby’s real knack is that she understands what people see as light and dark, and balances it — that’s not a one-time trick.
Those who didn’t get on with Gadsby’s first special are unlikely to find Douglas any more attractive for the simple reason that Gadsby is, still, taking no prisoners. The ‘good-natured needling of the patriarchy,’ which she warns audience members to just leave if they aren’t in the market for, absolutely becomes the ‘jousting stick’ she alludes to. And it’s rather glorious. Amongst the obvious sarcasm, Gadsby pulls out her art history background once again by analysing the glaringly obvious, though historically overlooked, ridiculousness of classical art with crafty laser pointer in hand.
‘This is a show that rewards people who persevere,’ Gadsby tells us. It is for people who see themselves in it, but also those ‘who can go beyond their discomfort just to see what’s on the other side of the spectrum.’ Nanette broke the boundaries of what we expect from comedy because she made us look past where the joke ends. Here she continues: misdiagnosis, the reminder from a complete stranger that it takes more muscles to frown than smile; ‘what were women doing while all the boys were naming all the important things?’ While Gadsby speaks from first-hand experiences, she highlights the fact that the mere systematised norm of patriarchy and ableism, from health care to education to socialising, can be as big a problem as what people feel comfortable calling trauma.
So how can a show that touches on all this darkness make your belly hurt from laughing? It’s because acknowledging the bad things and saying the jokes next to each other admit that both can coexist. Humour and trauma, jokes and fear; one doesn’t cancel out the other, but they both have the ability to move us to tears. Those of us lucky enough to have seen the show in person will know how infectious and overwhelming the perfectly timed laughter is (the beauty of live performance is made special by that one audience member with the strangest laugh imaginable) but Gadsby’s humour translates just fine onto a screen. Douglas ends up just as fierce and raw as Nanette, and all the more charming for being named after her dog.
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas is available to stream on Netflix now
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.