Photography by Charlie Ashfield

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The Great Gadsby

Comedy's enfant terrible Hannah Gadsby is relishing their anti-hero era

We’re on our way to the photographic studio when a Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show song blares from the backseat. It’s a 1972 earworm, offensive in its inanity: “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’”.

As the lyrics go, the band has done it all, “But the thrill we’ve never known / Is the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture / On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone”.

Hannah Gadsby mischievously tucks away their phone. Sharing the back seat is their wife Jenney Shamash, their needy new pup Nuna, and a gigantic bag containing tea, a teapot, and a tea cup that goes everywhere they do.

Gadsby may be bemused at their appointment on our cover, but then, things have been surreal in Gadsbyland for the past five years. Since their Netflix special Nanette went interstellar in 2018, the comedian has had two further specials — Douglas (2020) and Something Special (2023) — and two world tours that bookended the pandemic. They published a memoir — 10 Steps to Nanette — that was a decade in the writing, gave a TED Talk, graced the cover of Variety and became headline fodder for their views. 

 Finally, the Nanette phase has come to a close. Which begs the existential question: where to now?

“This interview has happened at the perfect time because I’ve barely spoken in two weeks,” Gadsby says, looking to Shamash for confirmation. As Gadsby’s producer and wife, Shamash gently nudges entertainingly derailed conversations back on track. “I usually approach interviews with, let’s just see what they get on the day. But I prepared for this. In a sense, I’m learning how to be a professional.”

The Rolling Stone AU/NZ interview takes place at the headquarters of Token, a leading comedy agency. As is the case in the car, the air con is set to arctic, to peak Gadsby comfort conditions.

That’s good. Last time I interviewed them, in 2018, it was in a crowded café with a conveyor belt of journalists. For an autistic person, this promo set-up was less than ideal. One woman stopped at the table to offer her praise, then touched the arm of Gadsby, who seemed to hunch over in the booth one millimetre more. 

“Success has helped my management of autism to the point where I’m really fine for the first time in my life.”

“Are you okay?” the woman asked. Strange question, but actually, such concern was commonplace from anyone who’d seen the visceral Nanette, which zeroed in on an assault Gadsby had experienced. Do understand, though, that whatever you see Gadsby deliver, they’ve spent a good few years processing it before spitting it out as a devastating set.

“Now I don’t have to do interviews in cafes — they come here,” Gadsby says, wryly gesturing at the boardroom table, laden with tea accoutrements. “People might think of that as diva behaviour, but ultimately it’s people who are sucked into the machine trying to create a bubble of safety for themselves. Success has helped my management of autism to the point where I’m really fine for the first time in my life. Money buys access.”

Gadsby’s career kicked off in 2006, long before they were diagnosed. That year, the Tasmanian comedian won the finals of Raw Comedy, at the age of twenty-eight, with a set that mocked their own body shape as soundly as their hometown of Smithton. For much of their career, they were the butt of their own jokes. Gadsby came of age when gay law reform was a heated topic in Tasmania, doing damage to marginalised people the way the same-sex marriage bill and the Voice Referendum would years later. All this fostered a dislike of gatekeepers that’s been a constant in their work.

Trench: Burberry Shirt: Informale Tie: Shag Ring: Burberry Glasses: Eye St

When Nanette became a global talking point, with haters declaring it ‘not comedy’, Gadsby was catapulted out of their reasonably safe bubble of Melbourne audiences and comedy festivals, and developed a high-profile, dysfunctional relationship with Netflix that persists to this day — almost unbelievably.

In 2021, Netflix faced backlash for transphobic comments made by Dave Chappelle in his special The Closer. CEO Ted Sarandos sent an internal memo, leaked to The Daily Beast, that protested: “We are working hard to ensure marginalised communities aren’t defined by a single story. So we have Sex Education, Orange is the New Black, Control Z, Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle all on Netflix…”. 

Gadsby took a box of matches to the bridge Sarandos probably thought he was building, addressing him in an Instagram post. In part: “[…] I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess… You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real-world consequences of the hate speech dog-whistling you refuse to acknowledge, Ted. Fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult…”

To this, Chappelle added that he’d be willing to meet with the transgender community on three conditions, one of which was “you must admit that Hannah Gadsby is not funny”.

The next year, Netflix released Ricky Gervais’ SuperNature, also accused of having transphobic and homophobic content. Gadsby dismissed him as not being “a nuanced thinker”. Since then, the three comedians’ Netflix specials have continued to awkwardly overlap. In 2024, we’ve seen new releases from Chappelle and Gervais (whose continued obsession with cancel culture is cannibalising itself), with Gadsby’s pertinently named new special out now: Hannah Gadsby’s Gender Agenda.

“I had to be intentional about what I did,” Gadsby says, of accepting Netflix’s invitation to come back. “I figured, if I don’t continue, then I’m just taking myself out of the conversation. So along with getting a deal for Something Special, we attached a special of gender-queer artists.”

Hannah Gadsby’s Gender Agenda has sets from DeAnne Smith, Chloe Petts, Jes Tom and Dahlia Belel. Gadsby has a presence between sets, to “dangle the bait”.

“The few of us with a platform — you know, Wanda Sykes, and Mae Martin — we’re trying to push back against this new wave of phobia. It’s a different landscape to what I grew up in, so I can’t give people actual advice on how to navigate this scene. The only way I can help is to give them a platform.”

March and April, it turns out, are big months. Gadsby is performing a new show, Woof!, at the 2024 Melbourne Comedy Festival from March 28th to April 20th following its run in Sydney.

Woof! is not a logical step from [previous live show] Banana Palace,” Gadsby says. “It’s many odd steps in many different directions. Let’s just say the theme is anxiety. I try to be relatable. You know?”

Gadsby also appeared in the final season of Netflix hit Sex Education, as radio station boss Celia. Previously, they’d acted in Underbelly, Please Like Me and The Librarians, but this was a more formidable prospect, particularly alongside Gillian Anderson — “not a bucket of hugs, at first”.

“I was terrified I was gonna ruin it,” Gadsby says. “I found myself playing to the room instead of to the script. Like, ‘I’m going to make the cameraman laugh’. So I had to dial that back.” 

“It was my creative decision not to engage in the fallout that I deliberately manufactured. I played them like a fiddle.”

Gadsby became a favourite with US talk show giants, and duly bit the hand that feeds at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Gala. They used the opportunity to lampoon hosts who — at the peak of the Me Too movement — were keen to give their good-guy takes on bad guys.

“It’s a strange world,” Gadsby says of celebrity. “As somebody who’s barely got a grasp on normal life, I’m way out of my depth. Who do you trust? I take things at face value, which is not how you approach Hollywood. But they are nice. Like, it’s not slimy. They just over-promise and under-deliver; that’s the business model.”

One reliable constant has been Shamash. Amid the chaos of 2021, the pair married in Gadsby’s front yard in regional Victoria. They’d met in New York on a trip to perform Nanette. As the story goes, Shamash was the first person Gadsby met when they got off the plane. The fact that Shamash had an advantage in having read Gadsby’s memoir was not confronting, apparently.

“That’s the dream,” Gadsby declares. “The idea of dating is horrific to me, because I’m really interested in other people, but I don’t like talking about myself. Now I have a book, so it was: read that and then let’s talk about you.”

The romance was immortalised in 2021’s live show Body of Work (aka Something Special on Netflix), a more feel-good show, right down to the colour palette. “Studies have shown that one of the most soothing ideas to a human eye is the receding skyline — the greens and blues of foreground, middle-ground and background skies,” Gadsby says, chuffed someone noticed.

Necklace: Pieces of Eight Gallery

Gadsby has long exercised a duty of care to their audience, but I’m interested in how an artist can set their boundaries once their personal story has served as a lifeline. Their part in the transaction is surely done, but how can that be communicated to people who are in crisis, and who might want more?

“It’s a really interesting question that I think about a lot. It’s not inappropriate behaviour, so I don’t want to make people feel that way. Nanette was quite traumatic so I still feel a sense of responsibility there. But also, I had to put some very strong boundaries down immediately. I struggle with interpersonal relationships. You’ve got to find the balance of processing the world that you’re living in, without trying to be something for other people.”


Gadsby is clumsy. There’s been a litany of broken bones in their lifetime to back this up. But when they ‘broke comedy’, as they put it in their TED Talk, it couldn’t have been more deliberate. And since then, they’ve taken a pickaxe to the art world.

“This is the first time I’ve spoken about it publicly,” they say, practically cracking their knuckles.

In June 2023, It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby, opened at the Brooklyn Museum, to shock and horror. Now, Gadsby has a solid history of art criticism — live shows such as The Exhibitionist; a lecture series for the National Gallery of Victoria; and Artscape and Hannah Gadsby’s Oz for the ABC. But when they were invited by the Brooklyn Museum to curate a Picasso exhibition in June 2023, it was as a “noted Picasso hater” as The Sydney Morning Herald put it in a scathing review.

Picasso has been living rent-free in Gadsby’s head since their teens, when they wondered why he was such “a cult”. He was practically the Taylor Swift of manufacturing his own fame, they note. Years later, when Annie Leibovitz shot Gadsby for the 2018 Vanity Fair Hall of Fame, they used Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein as inspiration.

 “I studied art history at university. That was fucking decades ago,” Gadsby says. “I went in as a comedian and that’s how I was going to play it. I had my own artwork in the exhibition. That’s funny to me.”

Gadsby thinks they were approached by the Brooklyn Museum because the institution is itself plagued by snobbery. “The accusation from the elite is that they pander to the popular. I was approached as a pot stirrer. I’ve gone in through the backdoor, and that’s what makes the art world angry.”

They determined not to centre Picasso, who Gadsby has long maligned as a misogynist and abuser, and so by the time the visitor reached the end, Picasso’s works were entirely replaced by works from feminist artists.

“I like to destabilise things. So there was proper historical information and then my contribution, which was dick jokes; like in the audio tour I was calling him PP. I emasculated Picasso — and not sophisticatedly. Because there’s an element of that in Picasso’s own work.”

Jacket: Nique Necklace: Pieces of Eight Gallery

Hostile reviews and think-pieces came in thick and fast, but Gadsby didn’t read them. Gadsby becomes fiercely animated, like a villain outlining the sheer genius of their masterplan.

“I wasn’t going to invest in that controversy, which would have been the PR smart thing, because all you have to do to be successful now is to harvest notoriety. But my artwork was finished. It was my creative decision not to engage in the fallout that I deliberately manufactured. Nobody seems to want to acknowledge that. I played them like a fiddle. And the purpose of that was basically I’m just saying, ‘You’re stupid’. It’s basic. It’s a schoolyard tactic. And you know what the art world did? They said, ‘You’re stupid’.” Gadsby flashes a triumphant look. “Yeah, I’m a comedian. What’s your fucking excuse?”

“I’ve gone in through the backdoor, and that’s what makes the art world angry.”


So where to now? Gadsby isn’t entirely sure —– nor sure of who their audience even is anymore — but they’ve been putting some safeguards in place. For the sake of their sanity, they’ve learned to see Brand Hannah — the version in the public eye — as a team project. They’re dialling back autobiographical material to try and find a way of living “reasonably unconsciously” and they’re trying to maintain a “cruising altitude”, rather than dizzying highs and lows, to eliminate bad decision making.

“I’m in a fairly enviable position, but it’s very easy to look back on the last five years and say, ‘Perhaps I didn’t make the most of my opportunity and perhaps I didn’t play the game well enough’,” Gadsby says. “And then I have to remind myself I never played the game. My career was built out of parallel play. With Nanette, it just so happened that the zeitgeist and my game that I was playing on my own connected.”

To get back to that state of play, in December 2023 Gadsby booked a modest eight nights at the Arts Centre Melbourne to toy around with new ideas and reconnect with audiences. Banana Palace was not so much testing a new set as an experiment. Gadsby was reading Barbra Streisand’s autobiography My Name Is Barbra, which quickly became a ‘special interest’ hyperfixation.

“So then I decided, with a week to go, that perhaps what I’ll do is write letters to Barbra and read them on stage. I thought it would be the most vulnerable thing in the world to explore being in a parasocial relationship with Barbra Streisand — parasocial meaning she doesn’t know. I thought, how interesting would it be if I performed my own parasocial relationship, in front of people who might possibly have a parasocial relationship with me.”

Jacket: Nique Necklace: Pieces of Eight Gallery

Gadsby also recently took Shamash to Smithton, on the northwest coast of Tasmania, where they grew up as the youngest of five. The town hasn’t yet erected a statue, but Gadsby was lifted to find the place transformed — particularly when they revisited their old school.

“I was ready to be triggered and scared, but then a girl I went to school with who works there now gave us a private tour. There were queer and transgender flags, and programs in place for queer kids,” Gadsby says. “It was really interesting. I feel like Tasmania is quite proud of me. I’m currently in some backlash waters, but that’s not coming from home base.”

Thinking back to the woman in the café who’d asked if they were okay, Gadsby says they’ve heard that question a lot in recent years — another wave after the Pablo-matic backlash.

 “Yes, I’m fine,” they say, “but I also don’t quite understand my scale in the world. You know, there’s a lot of people who hate me, and I do know that, but I forget the scale of it.”

It’s too tempting not to slip into the role of psych and ask: And how does that feel?

“Well, it keeps ya humble,” they say amiably. “I don’t want to be that person who’s just going, ‘Fuck the haters’, because I’m doing that stuff deliberately and that tension is where the interesting stuff is. I just have to really think about what sort of life I want to lead — and I don’t think I want to lead a very dynamic one, but I just seem to keep finding myself in very dynamic places, despite all my best intentions to quit and recede.”

Exclusive Rolling Stone AU/NZ Photoshoot

Photographer – Charlie Ashfield
Creative Director – Katie Taylor
Stylist – Benjamin Bates
Hair and Makeup Artist – Nadine Muller
Photography Assistant – Renee Coster
Behind the Scenes – Alex Carpi
Studios – Tamale Studios

This Hannah Gadsby interview features in the March 2024 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.

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