All stand-up is curated confession, a chance for the person behind the mic to spill their guts but still shape their own narrative — to both tell the audience a story but also let us know how we should be thinking about it. We appreciate great comedians for their humor, of course, but also for their mastery. Like mentalists or con artists, stand-ups know how to pull our strings, how to put us at ease or discomfit us.
No one has had more occasion in recent years to think about the structure of stand-up than Hannah Gadsby. The Australian comic made waves in 2018 when Netflix released Nanette, a special in which she publicly processed her trauma about instances of sexism, assault, and homophobia she’d experienced in her life, all while deconstructing and questioning the format of joke-telling as a way to tell stories about ourselves.
Nanette earned Gadsby both admirers and haters in droves, as any thoughtful and provocative piece of media will in this age of instant public reaction. She went from being a comedian mostly familiar in her native Australia to an international household name, known as a woman who either revolutionized or took an ax to the art form. So it’s only natural that she opens her follow-up special, Douglas, by discussing how this new set will inevitably live in the shadow of her last one.
“If you’re here because of Nanette… why?” she asks her Los Angeles audience early on in Douglas. “What the fuck are you expecting from this show? Because, I’m sorry, if it’s more trauma, I am fresh out. Had I known how wildly popular trauma was going to be in the context of comedy, I might have budgeted my shit a bit better.”
Though nothing since (Douglas included) has quite gone to the places Nanette took us, other innovative stand-ups have been messing with the format in interesting ways since 2018. Gary Gulman experimented with documentary as a means of circling the topic of his depression in The Great Depresh; Jenny Slate meta-critically dissected her own fears about public performance in Stage Fright; Julio Torres utilized tiny objects and a mini conveyer belt to discuss his identity in My Favorite Shapes; and Lil Rel Howery related the story of his uncle’s funeral in a high school gym in Live in Crenshaw. As the diversity of comedians whose work makes its way to the TV-watching public broadens and more stand-up specials get released each year, so too does the format stretch and evolve to accommodate a wider range of both stories and tellings.
Douglas is in many ways a more traditional special, what Gadsby jokingly calls “my difficult second album, that is also my tenth.” But like its predecessor, Douglas is interested in pulling back the lid to see the structure of stand-up; the comic spends the first 15 minutes offering an outline of what we should expect, including “a lecture,” “the joke section” and “a gentle and very good-natured needling of the patriarchy.” (It’s not gentle; more on that later.)
But what might appear at first glance as a list of spoilers is actually Gadsby’s roundabout way of offering insight into how her brain works. Because where Nanette was about the comic unpacking old baggage, Douglas is about a more recent revelation in Gadsby’s life: her diagnosis with autism. Douglas is Gadsby’s attempt to acclimate the audience to her own inner weather system, inviting us into her thought processes and teaching us her own language of personal associations. (She memorably describes a time in school when a lesson on prepositions devolved into a young Gadsby very seriously asking her teacher to explain how a penguin could be related to a box.)
If you’re already a Gadsby fan, odds are you’re very much here for her brand of puzzle-box comedy, the kind that laughs at its own deconstruction. As in Nanette, Gadsby takes aspects of herself that are left of perceived center — her queerness, her femaleness, and, in this case, her neurodiversity — and invites viewers to realign their perspectives. “I’m not here to collect your pity,” she says. “I’m here to disrupt your confidence.”
If this all sounds a little heady for a stand-up special, don’t worry — Douglas is also very funny. Named after Gadsby’s dog but also for a pouch located between the rectum and the uterus in the female reproductive system (don’t worry about it), Douglas covers everything from an awkward interaction at the dog park to Renaissance art to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A portion of the set in which she tears antivaxxers a new one — and points out that there are probably a sizable number of them in her audience, overlapping as it does with “rich, white, entitled women” — hits in a powerful way in this time when certain people are refusing to wear masks in public in the middle of a pandemic.
Gadsby also devotes plenty of time to eviscerating that cause of so much collective grief, and the font from which most of her haters spring: the patriarchy. Just like in the real world, toxic masculinity lingers in the wings of Douglas: men telling women to smile, the male gaze in art, men (quite literally) asserting their dominance over women’s uteruses. If your reaction to this topic is that you’re tired of hearing about it, Gadsby would shoot back that she’s tired of living with it.
Gadsby spent much of Nanette questioning her own career-long reliance on self-deprecating humor. In Douglas, she lets us in on the way her mind works not to mock or undermine herself, but to revel in the way she, as an autistic person, experiences the world. “There is beauty in the way I think,” she says near the end of the set.
It’s likely Douglas will earn Gadsby as many hate-tweeting detractors as her last special did, if only for the fact that a woman getting up onstage to talk unapologetically about herself still makes a portion of the population very uncomfortable. But if Nanette was a dirge, Douglas is ultimately a celebration. So, in the words of Gadsby, “If that’s not your thing, leave. I’ve given you plenty of warning. Just go. Off you pop, man-flakes.”