Scroll To Top

Hannah Gadsby Takes On Autism, J.K. Rowling, Anti-Vaxxers in Douglas

Hannah Gadsby Takes On Autism, J.K. Rowling, Anti-Vaxxers in Douglas

Hannah Gadsby in "Douglas"

The out Australian comedian talks to The Advocate about her new Netflix special, Harry Potter, and life on the autism spectrum.

If you missed Hannah Gadsby's latest Netflix comedy special Douglas in the midst of the global pandemic and the political upheaval taking place in America, now is a good time to circle back. Premiering on May 26, the Australian comedian's follow-up to her Emmy-winning special Nanette ended up being a prescient take on many of our current problems, from anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and the arrogance of American culture to J.K. Rowling and her ongoing statements against the transgender community.

After rising to fame with Nanette's deeply personal takedown of misogyny and homophobia, Gadsby uses Douglas (named after her dog) to explore her experiences as a gay older woman recently diagnosed with autism. Not only does she tell entertaining stories about social interactions for someone on the spectrum -- her awkward conversation about female anatomy with a stranger at the dog park is especially funny -- but she uses the structure of the show to illustrate the experience, starting off a bit confusing and unlikable and getting funnier and more relatable by the end.

"This is a show about autism," she explains at the beginning, "and people with autism rarely make a good first impression. And most people tend to write us off because of that."

She also tackles the discourse about Nanette, responding to criticism that it was "a lecture" instead of comedy by launching into a full-fledged art history lesson complete with PowerPoint slides and a laser pointer. There's more "needling of the patriarchy," a cathartic rant against the anti-vax movement, and some good-natured ribbing of Americanized language. "I'm taking y'all, I love y'all," she declares. "Because y'all is the best, most inclusive second person plural pronoun in the English speaking world."

We recently caught up with Gadsby, on the phone from Australia, to talk about the evolution of the show, her thoughts on Rowling and Harry Potter, and how her comedy lands differently in the middle of a pandemic.

The Advocate: I first saw Douglas at an early performance in Los Angeles, and I've watched it on Netflix and really enjoyed seeing how it all came together. It was interesting how you started the show by outlining exactly what was going to happen. Since a lot of comedy seems to rely on catching the audience off guard, what's the technique of making a comedy show work after spoiling the surprise?

Hannah Gadsby: My theory was, one of the most enjoyable forms of humor is an inside joke, the sort of jokes you share with friends and you all understand it. I set out to create that feeling, by everyone in the room or everyone watching -- these are now going to be inside jokes. So the humor doesn't come from surprise, it comes from sharing something.

I don't think the "setting your expectations" intro was part of the show when I first saw it. How did that idea develop as you were on tour?

It came about from a few reviews I got, which were nice reviews, but people would say, "These are the jokes that will happen in the show," and I was like "Hey, that's my job." And then also as part of their reviewing capacity would say, "and this is what's wrong with it, or this is what's right with it." So OK, in order to do your job, you have to spoil my job. I was playing around in my head and just thought, What if I spoiled their job by telling everyone what they think they're going to tell them?

Sometimes reviewers, which I find kind of delightful, will say things like, "This is the thing I noticed." Yeah, you noticed that because I intended that to happen -- but they put it in there like they noticed it as if it was a mistake on my behalf. It was really a little bit of cheeky play around that idea.

When I first put it in there, it really worked immediately. It tightened up over time, the first time I did it was very loose of course, but it still worked. People were just fascinated by that and going "What are you doing? This is not normal." It was a really lovely creative process, and that's why I like to do live shows, to work a show up. I didn't create Douglas to be a Netflix special. I created Douglas in order to tour it live, and then I'd get to record it at the end of it. It's always a live performance first.

Was the format partly a response to the criticism of Nanette that you "tricked people" into listening to a "lecture," so this time there would be no surprises?

No, that wasn't really what it is. Nanette could not have been a show had it not been comedy. So I didn't feel particularly defensive. Of course I got some good jokes out of [that criticism], but Nanette could not have existed in any other format. It is not a lecture, because I used the space that stand-up creates and I used every single trick -- and that's all comedy is, a sequence of tricks. They're all from the stand-up comedy toolkit.

It's a very short-sighted and limited idea that Nanette is not comedy because it doesn't follow the rules. It deliberately breaks the rules, but in order to break the rules you have to know them and learn them and use them.

I did enjoy that the art lectures were kind of a throwback to the Renaissance Woman videos you did on YouTube a few years back. Would you ever want to continue that series?

Well, it's an enormous amount of work for very little payoff to do those [videos]. I've always been incorporating art history to my stand-up, around the edges of it, so it did feel very satisfying to be able to put it in the main guts of it. I'd be interested of course to explore more art, but I'm not interested in occupying the rarefied space of art history. I like bringing it into the so-called crasser spaces. Douglas is very much a low art form talking about high art, and I think that's a delightful face-off.

At one point you joke about Harry Potter and Hogwarts and how Hermione is "probably a TERF," which is of course a reference to Rowling's transphobic beliefs. Were the Harry Potter books important to you?

I wouldn't say important [to me], but I read them, and they're interesting and important because they're part of a conversation, like anything that goes out into the world and is a touchstone is important. Being able to understand Harry Potter references is a way to connect to the world. It's a very -- and I don't say this to sound negative, I can't think of a better word -- a really invasive text.

But I'm a big believer, and I believe this to a certain extent with Nanette, that when you put a piece of work out into the world, it's really important that you step back and let that work live in the minds of other people. If people get my intentions of Nanette wrong, it's OK, because once you put it out there it has to live in the minds of the audience. But if you keep going back and controlling, "No, this is what I meant," and being prescriptive, it's no longer a work of art; it then becomes like a dictation. I've been troubled by Rowling's active interference in how people perceive her work. I just find that an unnecessary thing for someone to do, particularly when the work is so successful, and it has this wonderful ability for people to imagine themselves into the characters and into the work, and that's really what it's there for.

She should understand that young trans people are really vulnerable humans. They don't have to be and they won't always be, but it is a really difficult time to be young and it's even more difficult to be young and trans in this moment in history. There are people who can and do speak to trans rights and the trans experience because they live it, and we should be listening to those voices, not someone who is scared for no reason.

I'm particularly upset with her for bringing up autism in that letter she wrote. Making a connection between trans and autism was really foul. Because again, they're two groups of people who can speak for themselves, and she's not allowing them to.

The stories you tell and the format of the show overall create this vivid picture of life with autism, and I notice they often include these textbook examples of sexism, like men telling you to smile or saying you're "hormonal." Can you talk a bit about how those experiences have overlapped for you?

What I tried to do with Douglas was take people on a journey. Almost the subject matter was secondary to the entire experience, by starting to be a know-it-all, and then a little bit abrasive, and then a little bit charming. And that's what I was trying to get across: a very specific experience of autism, and that is being an undiagnosed older woman. A fairly benign social interaction is actually really fraught and difficult for women on the spectrum, and made even more difficult when you don't know that you're on the spectrum. Having an understanding about it helps you to tackle these situations and protect yourself and keep your self-esteem a little bit intact.

Before I was diagnosed, I never meant to upset people but I always seemed to, and when it came to interactions with men it always came down to, I was a bitch, I should smile more, why was I so unhappy. When in fact, what my face was doing was masking the stress and confusion. Sometimes when I'm stressed I lose my ability to actually talk properly; the path between my brain and my language gets thrown off kilter. It's a neurobiological response to distress, but the world doesn't know that, and the world then says, "You're doing it wrong."

The section about the anti-vax movement is one of the more cathartic moments of the show. You said you were expecting a coordinated hate campaign from anti-vaxxers once the special hit Netflix. Is that what happened?

No, because the anti-vaxxers got busy [with the pandemic]. If there's anything in the show I'd do differently, it would be that. The tone of that was combative, and deliberately so, because of the moment I was creating it with. But had I known that we were in the middle of this moment, I perhaps would have been a little less blunt. With vaccinations and basically trust in public health, we've never been in a more important time for people to be able to trust public health officials, and public trust has never been lower.

The way to foster trust is not through being combative as I was. It's about trying to understand the other points of view. It is really difficult when people are anti-science [and] are masking their fear with ridiculous conspiracy theories. But I do believe there's a really important and urgent conversation that needs to be had around these issues, because this virus demands a more coordinated and empathetic universal approach.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Christine Linnell