I stumbled across this stand-up comedy show scrolling through the digital wilderness at that point in the evening where anything will suffice to get you through to an acceptable bedtime hour. Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian who has been on the circuit for around 10 years or so, but in this show she explains that the circuit has only taken her around on a vicious cycle, and explains it is not enough for her to be just ‘funny’ anymore.
She starts off, however, in normal fashion (although she would pertain her fashion is ‘not so normal’). Very dry, thorough and to the point with her humour: she does her job in almost scientific terms, dissecting her jokes and timing their ‘two-points’ of tension and relief with the utmost precision (and she knows this as well). One joke in particular underpins the show as its fundamental core: the message that, as the show reaches its powerful and penetrating climax, made comedy take a step back and really assess what its purpose in the world should be.
Two women are at a bust-stop: herself and another, just chatting away (‘maybe having a little flirt, who knows?), before a man, who we very soon find out to be the other’s girlfriend, shouts out ‘oy you faggot!’. The man in question then clocks that she is not a man but, indeed, a woman, and retracts his statement to say that ‘I thought you were a man hitting on my girl, and in any case I don’t hit women’. Cue the ironic ‘what a guy’ from Hannah, the classic build-up of tension and swift removal to make everyone room at ease, the reason why most came to stand-up in the first place. However, as she goes on to explain, this ‘joke’ has been on too long a hiatus, and needed to be developed into a more conventional ‘beginning-middle-end’ story, delivering a fatal blow to the punchline.
The man realised that actually, she was a ‘faggot’, and proceeded to beat her to within an inch of her life, leaving her on the street in tatters. Yet she would not go to the hospital, or call the police, or ask for help, because as a marginalised individual in this world she has felt as if help did not belong to her, that she did not deserve it. This ending is not funny, it is not joke, but for ten years she had made it so, because it is what the business requires: humour, not honesty. And kudos to her for shattering the illusion, as we reach this point in time where even the rosiest of entertainments cannot hide from the cruelty of our society, where you see comedians like her all over using self-deprecation as a means to something better, but not the end.
Finally, I want to reflect upon her discussion of Picasso, the patriarchal strings that have pulled him up tight and paraded him around as a hero, and how it made me a feel. She was very visceral in her criticism of white, heterosexual males (of which I’m part of) and I must admit, it did stick in quite deep. She highlighted his philandering, abusive conquests, including that of an underage girl, and the deep misogyny rooted in him she labelled as a mental illness (and so it should be). But she highlighted (unintentionally to me of course but to the ‘group’ I belong to) the prejudice that is also deeply rooted even in my psyche. She mentioned Woody Allen in a list of truly evil men who are still celebrated for their work and the argument that you should ‘split the artist from his work’. Now Woody Allen’s comedy to me has always been truly tremendous, both his prose and his films. And (now I know, naively s) I have defended that ‘one and the other’ argument precisely because of that. But her message, that we live in a rigged system of men in my mould who are only now receiving dents of criticism, put me to shame, and rightly so. I still have a lot to learn, and performances like hers will soon open up those dents so that we can configure society in a completely new way.