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COVER STORY: First-Name Basis

Hannah Gadsby introduces Houston to ‘Douglas.’

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Hannah Gadsby photographed by Chris Pizzello.

Comedian Hannah Gadsby forever changed the landscape of comedy in 2017 when she performed her award-winning hit stand-up show, Nanette. When Netflix premiered Nanette in June 2018, the world took notice as viewers laughed, cried, and even cringed at her raw vulnerability. After audiences clamored for an encore to Gadsby’s “swan-song” Netflix performance,” Gadsby reconsidered retirement and launched her new tour, the aptly titled Douglas. 

In an exclusive interview with OutSmart magazine, Gadsby, a lesbian, talks about the unexpected phenomenon that Nanette has become. 

“When Nanette was written into a show, I didn’t know it would broaden my audience and have the impact that it did. I intended to tell the little audience I had cultivated that ‘I can’t do this, guys. I’m not going anywhere, and this is why.’ I did not expect the show to be successful. I decided, therefore, not to work within the typical framework of stand-up comedy. That success created more room for me to take risks and explore my perspective,” Gadsby reveals.

Of course, to someone who has not seen Nanette, the idea of a lesbian comedian finding success may not seem unique. Comedians like Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O’Donnell certainly paved the way. However, with Nanette, Gadsby rejected the tropes that others had found success playing into. Nanette explored Gadsby’s refusal to acquiesce to the world’s view of a middle-aged, butch lesbian comedian and instead laid bare for audiences the trauma that it caused her. 

When the show became a career- and life-changing success for Gadsby, she was asked to perform it over and over—a task that took an emotional toll on the comedian. “Nanette took me places I didn’t intend to go. It was a difficult show for me to perform. With Douglas, I wanted to go around and meet the new audience I grew with Nanette and show them a different aspect of what I can do onstage. Douglas is a way for me to proceed further than Nanette,” says Gadsby. “Nanette was a wrecking ball, and Douglas is meant to tidy up the mess and explore the new space we’ve created.”

There is some truth to the idea that Gadsby is more of a performance artist than a comedian. She has certainly broken new ground, and the subject matter in Douglas does not shy away from topics that are not traditionally explored in comedy on a stage this large.

Life at an Intersection

Shortly before writing and subsequently performing Nanette, Gadsby was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Despite all of the vulnerability that was displayed in Nanette, Gadsby did not mention her autism in the show. 

“I reacted to my diagnosis by writing Nanette. That’s pretty much what it boils down to. I didn’t mention it in the show because I didn’t want people to view what I was sharing through another marginalized identity. By taking that approach, I thought I could show people how I think without them judging me through that prism. Given the success of Nanette, I felt I owed other people like me—people who think around the corners a little differently—an opportunity to give that subject a bit of fresh air,” says Gadsby.

Her thoughtful approach to comedy reveals a rare talent for exploring weighty material in a relatable and poignant manner that is also hilarious. She understands that she is not one identity, but rather an amalgamation of several experiences that culminate in one dynamic person.

“I didn’t think [my autism diagnosis] was a safe thing to add into the equation of Nanette. And also, a female’s experience of being on the spectrum is different than a male’s experience. And I am talking about sex and not gender. Biology is underrepresented when we talk about the science [of autism]. In a way, my diagnosis is the umbilical cord between Nanette and Douglas,” says Gadsby.

What’s in a Name?

Early on in the Netflix special, viewers see Gadsby giving a rather tepid explanation of where the title Nanette comes from. When we asked her about that name during our interview, Gadsby was quick to point out that the real story of the woman named Nanette was actually edited out of the special.

“The true story was that I encountered this barista who appeared to be this sweet old lady in a small-town café named Nanette. [But she actually turned out to be] the type of person who gives you this look that you know says they hate you for just being who you are. You have this visceral moment where you can just feel that. I thought that this old lady represented everything that was wrong with this world, and I needed to talk about it. That was the springboard for the title, and it got edited out of the Netflix special,” says Gadsby.

The inspiration for the title Douglas is considerably more endearing. “Douglas is the name of my dog. And since I had named my last show after a stranger, and that took me around the world to experience strange new places and people, I thought that naming this new show after my dog might take me home again.” 

What: Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas
When: June 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Info: spahouston.org

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.

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