Calling Hannah Gadsby a comedian doesn’t do her justice, as her on-stage work is often serious, impactful and even raging.
She deals with real-life issues of homophobia, abuse and rape — all of which the Australian comic has faced, and discussed frankly in her Netflix stand-up showcase, “Nanette.”
Gadsby also pokes holes in white privilege, straight-male mythology — don’t get her started on misogynists like Pablo Picasso and Louie C.K. — and those positioned in power.
In her upcoming showcase, “Douglas,” named for her dog, Gadsby grapples with her past and steps into the present. Among her revelations, she addresses coming out as a woman on the autism spectrum.
Here, she discusses things queer and comedic before her June 23 appearance at Merriam Theater.
PGN: You said, “Being queer means that everything you do is queer,” but you joked that “Nanette” had less lesbian content than your usual routines. Does Douglas remedy that situation?
HG: You’re right, the point I make is that I am a lesbian, and I really am there. That’s content — A-plus-quality lesbian content — from an actual factual lesbian. To be honest, I don’t think that “Douglas” remedies it in ways that I am specifically talking about being a lesbian. But now that I think about it, it’s a show named after my dog. Have you ever heard of anything so lesbian in your whole life?
PGN: I was going to save the dog question for later, but I think that my greyhound gets my jokes. Do you think that Douglas gets your jokes?
HG: Douglas is definitely a funny dog. I do think that sometimes he knows that he’s being funny. He’s definitely an empathetic dog. He reads a room. I taught him that. When he was a puppy, he was this boisterous little guy, and when he entered, I’d have to be like, “Read the room, Douglas.” I think I said it so often and so persistently that now, when he enters a room, he sits down and surveys it all. Dogs are another heartbeat that cares, but without their investment into another human being.
PGN: So a lot of people took your “I’m quitting comedy” line from “Nanette” to heart. I thought it was a theatrical device — like David Bowie giving up “Ziggy Stardust” while planning “Diamond Dogs.”
HG: I’m so glad you say that. It’s so nice to not always be taken so literally.
PGN: It sounded like you weren’t going to play by the traditional rules of comedy. You also said that, going forward, you wanted to speak without self-deprecation. How is that going?
HG: I’m just sitting at my hotel window and watching a Pride parade go by — great big rainbow flag, almost as if it’s just going by for me. Very busy. Hello, everybody. OK, the way I’m looking at it now, I think it’s healthy to be self-deprecating as a human. I don’t actually subscribe to the idea that all-out confidence is a healthy mode for humanity. That’s a recipe for absolute inhumanity, if I’m honest. As part of a minority, when I address something of my identity that is marginalized — say, being queer or autistic, yes, I refuse to be self-deprecating about that.
PGN: Everything else is fair game?
HG: As far as being white, yeah, I’m going to go to town on that. It’s an interesting thing to challenge yourself to be aware of your privilege and take privilege down a few notches. Also, it’s not just about me now that I have this much larger platform. If I was to be self-deprecating about something which society already penalizes, and in some cases criminalizes, then it’s not helping anyone. People who identify with me go, “Yes, I am less than.” People who do not identify with me, I’m just confirming their bias. As a person, I’ll still be self-deprecating. It’s a dance. It might be clumsy.
PGN: Speaking of a larger forum, what is the responsibility of knowing that everything you say is given weight? Is it harder to make jokes?
HG: Nah. I take the responsibility really, really seriously. When you have that platform, life actually gets easier. Having to work harder to hold that responsibility is not a problem. I’d much rather work harder and do better than what it felt like before, which felt as if I was pushing shit up a hill in actual life to get my humanity. People who didn’t get my experience before say, “Oh, I see you. I care that you experienced pain.” Empathy from people who don’t identify with me is a gift. If the price of that gift is that it is harder to say whatever the hell I want, then so be it.
PGN: How would you say that coming out as a lesbian is different from coming out as autistic? We hear more about people coming out as gay. Is autism still cloaked in mystery and harder to discuss?
HG: Yes, and I also I think my experience has to be understood through the prism of when I came out. I was a young, naïve person when I came out as gay, and it was a different time — one that was quite hostile. So that is part of what made that coming-out difficult. Autism? I found that it was different because I had to educate people at the same time — not that you don’t have to do that when you’re gay. Hell, you have to educate people that you are human. There is, though, a lack of knowledge of what autism is and means. People, I find, are policing what autism is, which is a dangerous thing. We don’t understand enough about our own brains to be an expert.
PGN: [Laughs] Maybe a neurosurgeon.
HG: Yes. Autism is an incredibly helpful framework for people who understand. There is a large crossover between the experience of autism and the experience of trauma; you just have to know that. Being hostile, minimizing these experiences, is a dangerous thing to do. There’s also a very sexist lens being placed over autism. People want to know that you suffer in a way that they think you should be suffering with autism. People don’t want to know that the suffering that people suffer on the autism spectrum has to do with the world around them — the world that is built and not the brain they were born with.
PGN: That must be frustrating.
HG: That’s a lot of shame. I’m picking at my own experience in life where I am distressed by the world and have been taught to blame myself for being weak. Wherein the reality is that people on the autism spectrum are, by and large, incredibly resilient. They are natural-born problem-solvers because the world is a problem for them. We are penalized for a rigid idea of what markers children should have to meet when they’re developing — this idea that you have to develop so much by a certain time, and if you haven’t, then you will never develop. That’s not quite how it works. It was painful to not be diagnosed earlier, but I believe I am using that as a strength to explain why it is important that people shift their understanding as to what autism is.
PGN: Do you think people treat autism as a curable situation — a problem — rather than a human difference?
HG: Yes, I do think that is what it fundamentally is. That comes from the culture, broadly speaking, that there is an ideal. You can apply that to body types, skin color — that there is an ideal way to be comes with the inherent idea that there is something less to be found. I like to say that I wasn’t diagnosed with autism but rather I was confirmed, because I am struggling with the pathology of it and that I can’t always cope in environments where people easily cope. And I’m working really hard to change my first instincts from “less than” and “diminished” to building a world less hostile to live in.