You may have heard the name Hannah Gadsby this summer (or you may have not) connected with her ground-breaking comedy special Nanette on Netflix. Her set included some run of the mill lesbian jokes, gay jokes, comical observations about straight culture, and the obligatory coming out story. However, the last part of her special took a turn no one expected and that is why people have been talking. During the last part of her show she deals with the fears of womanhood, the violence that comes with gender non-conforming behavior, parental rejection, misunderstanding, and the #metoo movement in a very direct and confrontational manner.
For the longest time I considered the greatest comedy specials to be a tie between Richard Pryor’s Here and Now and Whoopi Goldberg’s Direct From Broadway. These shows all have the same thing in common, that commonality being that the comedian is very often the butt of the jokes. They denigrate themselves and sometimes other people, but the vast majority of the jokes are about how ridiculous, pathetic, confused, and unfortunate they are. They create narratives about their misfortunes or misunderstandings in life and then they develop jovial punchlines to release the tension built up through their masterful storytelling.
Near the end of her set Gadsby asks an interesting question: “Do you understand what it means when a person who is already living in the margins puts themselves down?”
Her conclusion? “It’s not humility…it’s humiliation.”
And this is the basic problem with traditional comedy as it pertains to marginalized people.
Very often WE end up being our OWN punchlines. We don’t punch up or down we punch inwards. And for many of us who are already fragile, and just hanging on to the humanity the cis-gendered heterosexual world would so readily strip us of, that one more assault, no matter how minor could send us over the edge. Of course, there is a lot about queer life that is funny and rightly deserves to be laughed at but there is also a whole hell of a lot of queer life that is traumatic and sad and needs to be treated with care and kindness.
The more we focus on making our stories funny the less we can focus on making our stories real and relatable. The less real our stories are the less our straight counterparts learn about our genuine experiences. The less they learn about the lives of real queer people in their communities the less inclined they’ll be to empathize with our suffering.
Gadsby speaks to the fact that most punchlines need trauma in order to work. Punchlines need trauma because jokes are built on tension. Comedians build up a tense, awkward, or dramatic story and then dispel that tension with a pithy ending or conclusion. The punchlines thus have to feed on individualized and personal trauma. But for queer people, who have been raised and fed on more than their fair share of trauma, what further harm does this do? Our trauma is systemic and intimate. It comes from a society that does not value us and from families who often shun and demonize us.
Finding the punchline in that trauma can be truly devastating and hinder any healing we may be engaged in at any moment. What are we healing from? Shame, internalize homophobia, self-hatred, the devastating effects of an exclusionary Christian message. We seal our true selves off even after we come out of the preverbal closet because we have be socialized and taught that we do not deserve to take up the same amount of space as cis-gendered heterosexual people. Queer comedians play off these feelings and its part of how their acts progress and are seen. Hannah Gadsby turns that tradition on its head to say that she will no long hide from herself or a society that doesn’t recognize her right to exist. She is stepping into her rightful place as a human worthy of having her story told and heard with attention to detail and compassion. She will take up space by telling her whole story and you will find not one bit of remorse in her message.
Jokes are jokes unless they are tools that further our oppression by requiring us to devalue ourselves in order to maintain the oppressive social order that is responsible for the hurt and pain we have to constantly and consistently overcome. I recommend everyone watch this “Stand up” and see how liberating living authentically can be. We should be taking up space and living our truths regardless of whether or not we have a pithy comfortable punchline available to ease the tension of the straight community. We deserve that much, and we have more than earned it.