According to Hannah Gadsby, a joke is “essentially a question with a surprise answer.”
At least, that’s the definition she offered in Nanette, the polarizing 2018 Netflix special that turned the Australian comedian into an overnight sensation in America.
Considering how much of that special’s runtime Gadsby spends deconstructing how jokes work, and the fact that Nanette ends with the comic pledging to quit comedy, the main questions left lingering in its wake were: What exactly did I just watch, and what could she possibly do for an encore?
With the arrival of the follow-up, Douglas, on Netflix, the surprise answer to both questions is “playing with expectations,” which is, of course, what jokes are all about.
Before getting into Douglas, let’s examine that first question. What did you see when you saw Nanette?
It depends on what you expected.
A lot of people in America had not heard of Hannah Gadsby before Netflix inauspiciously dropped Nanette—just another special from a famous-elsewhere comedian, the latest in a line of succession that includes Gad Elmaleh, Vir Das, and Jimmy Carr, among others. Early viewers must have been surprised to find a meticulously constructed, highly personal, postmodern, post-#MeToo examination of women’s place in men’s art and the world in general.
It was a special that explored what people expect from a lesbian, a comic, and a lesbian comic, and it was riveting. Glowing reviews from The New Yorker and other tastemaking publications followed, conferring must-watch status upon it. Nanette was “groundbreaking,” unlike “any other stand-up comedy special you’ve seen,” and something that “bends the bounds of standup to accommodate it.”
Although those hyperbolic descriptions are not inaccurate (at least not in this writer’s opinion), they certainly are hard to live up to in the eye of the skeptical beholder.
And nothing breeds skepticism like a tidal wave of praise.
Imagine watching The Blair Witch Project way early, after stumbling upon its pioneering online marketing campaign, which blurred the lines between reality and film. Now imagine watching the movie months later, after several critics breathlessly hailed it “the scariest movie ever” and “a groundbreaker in fright that reinvents scary for the new millennium.” It’s impossible to meet sky-high expectations like those, which is why The Blair Witch Project was as divisive as it was popular, and why Nanette was too.
Although in Nanette’s case, the hype was only one of the factors at play in its divisiveness.
Some people took issue with the fact that it was not just unfunny in parts but pointedly anti-funny. (This opinion ignores the roughly 75% of Nanette that is riddled with jokes.) Other people were incensed by the structure of Nanette. Rather than a collection of jokes, it was a “monologue,” “lecture,” or “glorified TED Talk.” One doubts, however, that those who deride Gadsby for not adhering to comedy-special protocol refer to Mike Birbiglia exclusively as a “storyteller,” rather than a comedian. And others still were upset because of Gadsby’s unflattering portrayal of men. (Although many of those people seemed to pretend the other two points were why they didn’t like the special.)
Toward the end of Douglas, Gadsby finally admits that there was some sleight of hand involved in the billing of her last special, a Trojan horse that allowed her to make the exact statement she wanted to make just after the #MeToo flashpoint.
“I know better than anyone that what I did with Nanette was not technically comedy,” she says. “But I’m also not a fucking idiot. I wanted that show to have an audience. And a broad audience. And if that meant I had to trick people by calling it comedy . . . that’s technically a joke.”
So that’s what you saw when you saw Nanette.
The more pressing issue for our purposes is how Gadsby follows up her magic trick.
Douglas is a proper sequel, recalling Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife, which followed up on the pregnancy narrative from the comic’s previous special, while briefly addressing how Wong’s life had changed directly because Baby Cobra blew up her career. A better comparison, however, might be that Douglas is the Curb Your Enthusiasm to the Seinfeld of Gadsby’s first special. It takes place in a world where Nanette indelibly exists, and proves what else its eccentric creator can do.
Last time out, Gadsby dissected the form by illuminating how jokes are supposed to function. For her next trick, she goes macro, applying this same meta transparency to how a comedy special itself works.
Early on, she telegraphs her entire playlist in advance.
“Other than trauma, I have no way of knowing what people are expecting from this show,” she says. “But what I’ve decided is possible is for me to just tell you. That’s how I’m going to meet your expectations. By adjusting them for you now. So they’re exactly what you’re gonna get.”
She then spends a full 15 minutes carefully outlining every step that lies ahead—including a bit of “observational humor,” a phrase that rolls off her tongue as a deft subtweet at the Jerry Seinfelds of 2020—and setting up a number of future callbacks like comedic mousetraps.
In billboarding one of the stories she plans to tell, Gadsby says the following: “Throughout that story, I will touch on—with consent—the major themes of the show, so watch out for those!”
There is a lot happening here. She is further revealing the structure of her show, deflating the idea that what she’s doing is actually quite as groundbreaking as her high-placed fans claim, and throwing in a sexual assault joke for good measure.
This is bravura comedy, even before the show has technically started. The hour or so that follows plays out exactly as advertised, and yet when some of those early prophesies are fulfilled, they are even more funny from knowing to expect them. I will not be revealing any of these details here, so as not to further shape your preconceptions, but it will suffice to say that Gadsby confidently examines some fresh subject matter that should prove as equally touchy as anything in her last special.
By cheekily explaining how she’s going to saw her lovely assistant in half as she’s doing it, Gadsby is not merely playing with our expectations, or even meeting them; she’s obliterating them. Ta-da!