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Hannah Gadsby on Douglas and How She's Still Punching Up

Hannah Gadsby talks about 'Douglas,' 'Nanette,' and the state of the world

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby was more on-the-nose than she realized when she wrote Douglas, the follow-up to her game-changing comedy special Nanette. “Fair warning, my observations will be about Americans,” she joked, early in the show that she developed in 2019. “Making fun of Americans is still technically punching up, although that window is closing.”

The special hit Netflix in May of this year, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to drive people into lockdown and kick off a wave of conspiracy theories across America — and that gives Gadsby’s jokes about trauma, American overconfidence, and the recklessness of the antivaccination movement a particular sting.

Looking back on it, “I’d be less playful, you know?” she tells The Advocate. “It’s really sad for me to watch what’s happening in the U.S., because being able to joke about it meant that there was still faith that the good part of America, all the great stuff that America strives to be, was still there. It doesn’t feel that way anymore.”

Gadsby is no stranger to tapping into the pain and anger of a moment in history, especially after Nanette became a rallying cry for the #MeToo movement in 2018. Initially meant as a declaration that she was quitting comedy, her performance about misogyny, homophobia, and personal trauma became a viral, Emmy-winning hit for Netflix and changed the narrative about women and minorities in entertainment. She continues to push boundaries with Douglas, using the structure of the show to illustrate the experience of being an older woman recently diagnosed with autism.

Now that the pandemic has brought the entertainment industry to a halt, the idea of Gadsby performing Douglas in small, vital venues as she did last year seems a long way off, but so far, her personal situation is less precarious than most — she “landed with her bum in the butter,” as an Australian friend put it. “I just finished a world tour and managed to film a special, so I needed a rest and had a little financial security.”

As for the future of comedy in a post-COVID world, whenever that will be, she is quick to say that she doesn’t know what’s going to happen — and she would like more people to stop guessing and admit they don’t know either.

“If we have one thing going for us in the creative industry, it’s that we are creative. We need to get around living with this virus as members of an entire community first, and then we can be creative in the way that we apply our craft to the world,” she says.

Gadsby is even more cautious to make predictions about the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to a reckoning in the comedy world. Shortly before this interview, Andrew Alexander, CEO and co-owner of the Second City improv theater in Chicago, had stepped down from his position amid accusations of a racist environment within the group. “I don’t know the American comedy culture as well as Australian — it’s a very different place,” Gadsby says. “For me to comment on it would be unfair on all involved, because it would be guesswork. I’d be interested to hear about people’s experiences, who’ve lived that experience, and what they think.”

Generally speaking, however, “I think not being defensive when called out is a really good place to start,” she says. “It’s such a fraught moment, the comedy industry may never be the same again. But I think taking personal responsibility and letting people speak to their own experience is just important all around.”

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