Why Anti-anti-comedy Is As Unfunny As It Sounds

by Krishag Nadgauda

Although comedy is generally characterized as some blue collar artisanship, it always carries with itself an underlying, unsettling intellect. Look no further than comedian Norm Macdonald’s opening joke at the 1997 White House press correspondents’ dinner: “One thought crossed my mind. Uh, please God! Don’t let me bomb in front of the president!” The few seconds of silence tha t followed Macdonald’s one liner weren’t a mark of his comical inability. Rather, they were destined to become a part of several of YouTube’s underground humour compilations honouring his genius and exemplifying comedy’s ironical embrace of all but the audience of generic highbrow art.

The now revered bomb joke is categorized as anti-humour – intrinsically meaningless jokes meant to throw off an audience’s expectation of a predictable punchline – Macdonald’s expertise. The subsequent, rather unintuitive, categorization of anti-humour as comedy, then, is a testament to comedy’s generous inclusivity. The only remaining thread holding such rabid subgenres of comedy together is any comedic material’s objective to make people laugh. Abiding by this broad inclusivity policy of comedy makes it difficult to identify a breakout act in the genre since breaking out of comedy’s boundaries would inherently require opposing comedy’s objective. And yes, that opposition includes the subduing laughter instead of the mere failure of producing it, since well-intentioned bad comedy may entail the latter too. This, ultimately, leads to a broader query – Should a stand-up act that subdues laughter be categorized as comedy?

For obvious reasons, it seems maniacal to even entertain the idea of someone attempting to subdue laughter through comedy. But if the basis of the aforementioned query ever appears questionable, allow comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette to enlighten you as to how it is, in fact, grounded in reality. Netflix debutant Gadsby’s hit single special is similar to a sinusoidal wave, alternating between deliberate laughter and very deliberate silence. In just an hour and nine minutes, Gadsby successfully carves her own subgenre of ‘anti-anti-comedy’. Her jokes are meaningful, her narrative has depth and she periodically exposes her audience as punchline junkies seeking laughter even in unfunny premises.

Moments of uneasy silence are scattered throughout the act. They are purposefully manufactured into the performance at forgivable instances between sufficiently funny intervals. Ultimately, these moments culminate into a passionate rant that marks the act’s official and completely intentional breach of the comedic objective. 

In one of her bits, Gadsby recalls an encounter at a bus stop with a man who mistakes her for being male and accuses her of courting his girlfriend. The man apologizes to Gadsby and flees the scene once he realizes that Gadsby is a woman. After laying the premise, Gadsby, as a lesbian, entertains the man’s initial apprehension as a possibility. Bang! The Sydney Opera House is left in splits and Gadsby casually moves on with her performance. In the final act of the special, though, Gadsby digs out this previously well settled joke and dissects its structure, revealing that its punchline was completely fictional. In reality, the apologetic man had returned to the bus stop only to assault Gadsby after somehow deciphering Gadsby’s sexuality, which, according to him, justified his initial angst. As the audience desperately waits for an incoming punchline, Gadsby outright refuses to resolve the unfunny premise with a joke, saying, “If I’d been feminine, that would not have happened. I am incorrectly female. I am incorrect, and that is a punishable offense. And this tension, it’s yours. I am not helping you anymore.” That’s exactly when Gadsby begins to paint her gripe with comedy. For her, truth and comedy can hardly coexist, and she deeply resents this reality. 

  Gadsby’s thesis is grounded in her belief that artists respond to the zeitgeist instead of merely reflecting upon it; zeitgeist being an era broadly defined by its popular cultural trend. This idea is on full display in Gadsby’s two-part piece on famous painter and relatively lesser-known pedophile Pablo Picasso. She initially lauds Picasso’s contribution to art – Cubism – saying, “Picasso freed us from slavery, people. He really did. He freed us from the slavery of having to reproduce believable three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. Three-point perspective, that illusion that gives us the idea of a single stable world view, a single perspective? Picasso said, “No! Run free! You can have all perspectives.”” This, according to Gadsby, was Picasso’s artistic responsibility of responding to the zeitgeist of the mid-1900s.

Following the praise, Gadsby separates the artist from the art and tears him apart for his misogynistic and pedophilic lifestyle. Gadsby roars out her criticism, exclaiming, “Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for me. Not interested. “But cubism… We need it.” Marie-Thérèse Walter. She was 17 when they met. Underage. Legally underage. Picasso was 42, married, at the height of his career. Does it matter? Yeah. Yeah, it actually does. It does matter. But as Picasso said, no, it was perfect. I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” Not your token applause-worthy, witty remark; forget funny. But Gadsby was never going for that. Such passionate slander, according to Gadsby, is her artistic responsibility to respond to the 2018 zeitgeist – a period of accountability and visible feminism. 

With Gadsby’s sublime intent backing Nanette’s anti-anti-comedy, is it, then, really that much of a hard sell to inch the special into comedy’s territory? No. Nanette’s undeniable blend of highbrow purpose and supposed lowbrow genre is exactly why Netflix has categorized Nanette as a stand-up special. 

The argument proposing the lack of laughter or even laughter’s deliberate suffocation in Nanette as its comedic downfall just isn’t strong enough, especially, when even the aforementioned Norm Macdonald – the probable precursor to Nanette-esque material – refuses to support it. In a 2015 interview with broadcaster Larry King, Norm expresses, “There’s a craft to comedy that’s not an art, you know, because the craft is this – you have to make the audience make a specific noise, all together.” He then specifies, “It could be silence. It could be anger. It could be anything, but you have to have the same noise from every single person in the audience.” Then again, Norm is highly revered for the subtlety in his words. The caveat in Norm’s statement is that comedy is a service to the audience and not the comic. Thus, in reference to Gadsby’s internal conflict about the coexistence of truth and comedy, Norm feels that Gadsby’s deliverance of unresolved, unfiltered truth produces a cathartic effect for the comic, when, in fact, the catharsis must truly beguile the other side of the stage.

Nanette trespasses spaces beyond comedy, like commentary, because it deals truth instead of dealing with it. The magnitude of the difference in a stand-up set’s tone created by each of the two mentalities is best illustrated in Nanette’s comparison with Ricky Gervais’ Humanity. Both Gadsby and Gervais are of English descent, their aforementioned specials were released just three months apart and both address the 2018 zeitgeist by talking about universal truths concerning sexuality, disabilities, etc. Despite the teeming similarities between their two bios, Gervais, unlike Gadsby, assumes the latter mentality in his comedy. 

In a no-holds-barred examination of his seven year absence from stand-up comedy, Gervais first details his involvement in a mainstream controversy concerning a joke about transsexual-woman celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. The joke that earned him the title of a homophobe for the span of a couple of Twitter-years involved Gervais inadvertently calling Jenner a bad driver. Instead of approaching the controversial subject matter through an orthodox political lens, Gervais remains committed to his joke, expressing, “I start by saying she’s a real woman, a liberal, progressive attitude. Then if she’s a real woman, I hit them with the old-fashioned stereotype. She must be a bad driver, then. Right? The target of the joke is a celebrity killing someone in their car. Let’s not forget that, shall we? A celebrity killing someone in their car, running home and popping on a dress. That’s… the target of the joke, just so we’re clear. Okay? She was interviewed a week later at a press conference for a show of hers. Now cancelled. And… one of the press said, “What do you think of the Ricky Gervais joke?” She went, “Maybe I should host the Golden Globes.” And they tweeted that and @-ed me in, because they want a celebrity feud. It was clickbait. I rose to the bait. Obviously… I just sent back, “Let her host. Just don’t let her drive.’” 

Gervais’ joke is definitely a response to the 2018 zeitgeist, a well-documented outrage culture, and by addressing a public pickle he found himself in some time ago, he makes the joke personal too. The only remaining distinction between Gadsby and Gervais’ material is Gervais’ choice of lampooning his factual predicament and Gadsby’s choice of unburdening, even strangely exhaling hers.

Is Gadsby’s brand of anti-anti-comedy beneficial to the genre of comedy? Oddly, yes. For all the criticism thrown at the unfunny nature of Nanette, the special is frank about its sermon-esque style from the get-go. By definitively flirting with genres such as social commentary with lines like, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself,” Nanette emerges as comedy’s perfect anti-thesis. And although comedy is not remiss to commentary, Nanette successfully defines the limitation of the genre as its hyper-dependence on a comedian’s predefined objective – to be funny.

Works Cited –

“Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (2018) – Full Transcript – Scraps From The Loft.” Scraps from the loft. N. p., 2018. Web. 26 Oct. 2018.

King, Larry. “Norm Macdonald on Bill Cosby, Conquering Stage Fright, and Saying the L-Word to Letterman.” YouTube. 13 Nov. 2018.

“RICKY GERVAIS: HUMANITY (2018) – Full Transcript – Scraps From The Loft.” Scraps from the loft. N. p., 2018. Web. 26 Oct. 2018.

Ryzik, Melena. “The Comedy-Destroying, Soul-Affirming Art Of Hannah Gadsby.” Nytimes.com. N. p., 2018. Web. 26 Oct. 2018.

Tyner, Arlis. “Norm MacDonald at 1997 RTCD.” YouTube. 20 Jul. 2018.