What does a comedian do next after they break the comedy wheel? Hannah Gadsby is giving us a chance to find out.
The Australian performer broke ground with the Netflix special “Nanette,” which starts as stand-up show and turns into something much more profound by the time an hour has passed. It’s performance art. It’s an indictment of how society marginalizes people already at its edges in the name of laughs. It’s an onstage deconstruction of one woman’s trauma and how it relates to the trauma of women around the world.
Oh, and it’s tears-in-your-eyes funny.
“Nanette” caused a cultural stir and rocketed Gadsby, a 41-year-old lesbian from conservative Tasmania, to fame in the U.S. (Some comedy fans were already lucky enough to know her from a supporting role on Josh Thomas’ excellent Aussie sitcom, “Please Like Me.”) She’s spent some time back in Australia with her dogs to rest, and next year Gadsby will return to Netflix with a follow-up special, “Douglas,” which she says will be a different kind of show altogether. It will, for example, examine the comedian’s autism diagnosis.
Gadsby’s Austin fans will get a chance to see for themselves May 30 and June 1, when she performs “Douglas” at the Paramount Theatre. We spoke with Gadsby by phone ahead of the show. Here are some highlights of the conversation.
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On creating “Douglas”
Gadsby says it took her six weeks to write the material for “Douglas.”
“I did a couple weeks of standing up in front of an audience and bashing out my thoughts,” she says. She first performed the new show in Adelaide and Melbourne, but every night she would “tinker a bit.”
Gadsby says “Nanette” cast a big shadow, so if you were curious how one follows up a bona fide comedy hit, the answer is that you don’t try to top it.
“This can’t be of relation to ‘Nanette,’” she says. “This has to be its own thing.”
“Douglas” does talk about Nanette, Gadsby says; her life is “post-’Nanette,’” so it was unavoidable.
On gay trauma
In “Nanette,” Gadsby lays bare some of her most harrowing experiences as a lesbian from a homophobic community in Australia. Though the show told Gadsby’s own story, it touched on a theme that occurs often in queer art, from TV shows like “Please Like Me” to Oscar-winning films like “Moonlight” to books like Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt” (the basis for 2015 film “Carol”) ― namely, queer life is hard and full of a particular pain.
Gadsby says that the response from audiences toward her vulnerability about unpleasant realities of queer life has been profound. She thinks she tapped into something cathartic for the LGBTQ community (“particularly of my generation”): Gadsby says people often go right from the closet to coming out, where “it’s all happy and pride and celebratory,” without any time to process the weight of that experience.
“I tapped into the missing link of that process,” Gadsby says. “(The trauma) does linger. It does affect your day-to-day.”
The response has been a two-way road, she says: “It’s been a doubly healing thing for me, to know that my experience is not isolated.”
When it comes to queer art that’s helped her negotiate the trauma, Gadsby has looked to history.
“That’s where I find my framework, my heroes,” she says, mentioning surrealist artist Claude Cahun as one example. “I’ve gotten in the habit of looking back into history for the ones we preserve and the ones we didn’t think were important. We can’t learn from history if we just keep preserving the same thoughts and voices.”
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In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Gadsby said performing “Nanette” over and over again could be an “exhausting chore,” one that meant leaving her pain onstage night after night. How does she practice self-care in the wake of such an undertaking? On a small scale: spending time alone at home with her dogs, keeping a low profile; no spa time, but plenty of walks, early bedtimes, naps and baths. She also likes to go visit art galleries when she’s on tour.
On the funniest piece of art in the world
Oh, and art. Gadsby knows a lot about art, which fans of “Nanette” know. She studied art history and hosted three art documentaries, inspired by comedy lectures she created for collections at major galleries. “Art history taught me I have no place in history,” she jokes in one memorable part of “Nanette” that decries the skewed gaze art has given women throughout history. She hates Pablo Picasso, too, hilariously so.
It’s hard to come up with the definitive funniest piece of art in the world, but Gadsby says there’s always lots to laugh at with tiny babies who look like old men in old paintings.
“The worse the piece of art is, the funnier it is, even if it’s bad,” she says.