Catch her while you can. Australian comic Hannah Gadsby is signing off from standup comedy, and it appears that she’s going out on a high. Critics and punters have lauded her latest show, Nanette, which won this year’s Barry Award, the Melbourne equivalent of Edinburgh’s Best Show.
But it was the reception from her audiences that has stayed with her. “I’ve never had this type of response before,” she says, speaking from Smithton, the Tasmania town of her childhood, and which she recently moved back to. “I’ve never known the like of the ratio of positive to negative. Emails, social media, notes given to ushers," she goes on. "People saying they’ve had actual conversations not about the comedy and not about the show, but the subjects I talked about, and what it meant in their own lives. That’s not what I set out to do, but I’m proud of that, to make a positive impact in a small way.”
One of the biggest themes of Nanette is individuality, which Gadsby says is not celebrated as much as is often claimed. The cool kids are "normal", she says, and she has had to accept that she will never be stereotypically “normal” herself. And so she embraced her leftfield side, interested to see where it might lead her. A number of unusual projects followed. There was her attempt to convert the cubby house in her backyard into a scale model of her favourite renaissance chapel (Gadsby is an art buff), with bonus skylights so that it doubled as a greenhouse. There was her melon jam production line, started with the sole purpose of being able to give people a jar of 'John Cougar Melon Jam'.
So if you like a little silliness, Nanette has it. But Gadsby, 39, is a comic of depth and intelligence, and has earned her profile as one of the Australia’s finest standups today. What gives Nanette an extra lift is the move from the personal to the political. Gadsby’s experiments in solitary projects didn’t just allow her to thrive in herself; she says they also gave her the strength to deal with a divisive and ugly conversation that has been going on in Australian politics.
Debates have been taking place in the Australian parliament and in the media about same-sex marriage and, for Gadsby, the thinly veiled homophobia that accompanies those debates has been a distressing reminder of the 1990s, when Tasmania resisted the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Gadsby has talked a lot onstage about her life as a queer woman, but in Nanette there’s as much outright anger as there is comedy.
“I’m not an angry person,” she says, “and it’s dangerous to be angry onstage as it can be toxic, and comics have a responsibility. But I am angry about this whole debate, that there’s the same framework as I saw 20-30 years ago. It hasn’t evolved at all. If anything it’s worse, the way people talk about difference, as the hostility can spread much faster. We’re educating a generation of kids to be intolerant.”
Gadsby speaks openly about the trauma she has suffered at the hands of other people’s intolerance, and it seems being a comedian hasn’t helped deal with that. “I thought it was empowering, because it gave me a voice, but it’s ceased to be a positive and empowering thing for me. As a comedian you suspend yourself in a permanent adolescence, and the way that manifests itself in my life is with mental illness, body image, gender and sexuality. I’ve failed to address the trauma I had. I need to stop now and think, and be more careful.”
So some time away from standup looks likely for Gadsby. When speaking about her comedy career, which began in 2006, she is already doing so in the past tense. But with a new art documentary in the pipeline and following her acclaimed role in the drama Please Like Me, perhaps more TV roles will emerge. For now, she comes to Edinburgh with a swansong to be proud of.