Hannah Gadsby opens her comedy special in a most unusual way.
She walks in through the door of her home, throws her keys in a bowl and greets her two sizable curly haired dogs. She makes her way to the kitchen and makes a pot of tea.
But soon after she sits down to enjoy a relaxing cup of tea, we recognize a familiar scene in the world of stand-ups: a stage, a cheering audience and the lonely mic.
Comedians overshare or play up their experiences in order to make us laugh. They spill their guts, hoping that audiences will think they are clever. There have been a number of accomplished comedians like Ali Wong and Cameron Esposito who have won fans over with searingly honest specials about their lived experiences.
Gadsby, however, opens up her life in order to question the medium as a whole. Why must she, as a lesbian, make herself the fool to make us laugh? She points out that for a non-white, non-male, not-straight comedian like herself, self-deprecation isn’t a form of humility.
“It’s humiliation,” she says. “I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak.”
Raised in Tasmania, Gadsby grew up in a place where homosexuality was illegal until 1997. The hostile environment had a profoundly negative experience on her, and her confessional style of storytelling logically leads you through her pain without sacrificing her droll wit.
You can see how memories of her comical relationship with her mom makes her laugh when retelling their exchanges, but you can also see when Gadsby hits a sore subject. Her eyes water when talking about her grandmother, who she hasn’t been able to come out to yet. The experience is no longer just her internalized pain, but an anecdote she brings up in order to dismantle shame and homophobia in comedy.
She also addresses the extra pressure people in the queer community may put on her because she’s a lesbian comedian. Near the opening of her set, Gadsby asks “Where do the quiet gays go?” when talking about Pride parades. It’s not her scene, she says, and the proof is in her special’s calming lead-up. She’s much happier with her tea and two fluffy dogs, but that option isn’t afforded to her. The pressure to constantly talk about being lesbian in order to represent for representation’s sake affects her in a way that will never bother a white, straight man.
She wonders – for these reasons and more – if this means it’s time for her to quit comedy.
There is a stilled silence over the crowd in the last quarter of her set, interrupted only by brief bouts of laughter when she surprises us with another joke in the middle of her impassioned monologue. Her wit is not just for the public’s amusement. As she explains, it was a survival tactic. One that helped her deal with her pain, but also one that never quite let her explore and question her experiences.