Comedy is largely a confessional sport in which comedians (and comediennes) mine the depths of their experiences to create a link with the audience.
Like a boxer, a comedian (or comedienne) has a one-two punch–setup and punchline– and only the best can take a joke written on the page and bring it to life and make it hit hard. It’s called breaking the tension, which is why in order to be a good stand-up comedian you have to be a part storyteller, part actor and part truth-teller. The very best of the best can weave soul-bearing truths with social commentary, bob and duck, in and out, jab and hook, the focus of your attention and evasive at the same time.
That’s what makes stand up the most intimate art form there is. There are no backup dancers or drum solos to distract from tension building in every bit. The comic can’t recover from a missed note and play on because once the spell is broken it’s gone for good. It’s a precarious balance between self-love and self-immolation in front of complete strangers, and the rapture of seeing someone take a kernel of truth and expand it like a balloon to make the audience see the connection in our common humanity is work of art no less deserving of acclaim than bestowed on the masters of art and music. Last night, I got to witness one of those magnum opuses written and performed by Hannah Gadsby.
For the 99.9 percent of the world who have never heard of her, Gadsby’s biography alone is enough to make you watch. Really, how many Tasmanian born, Australian lesbian comedians have you seen cracking wise on the circuit lately? None? Me neither.
Netflix must have heard of her because they gave her a showcase filmed months ago in Sydney that premiered this week, and it hit as hard as Mike Tyson in his heyday. Gadsby’s act begins, harmlessly enough, with the sort of personal, self-deprecating humor stand-ups use to win over an audience mixed in with jokes about her sexuality like the story about the lesbian audience member who came up to her after a show disappointed because there wasn’t “enough lesbian content,” offering up a pregnant pause before replying, “I thought I was up there the entire time…”
But as the show ratchets up into second, third and fourth gear, her confessional takes on a life of its own as she announces she is retiring from comedy because the old one-two punch is no longer sufficient to tell her story and that self-deprecation is really just humiliation of a different sort for someone who spent years in shame about who she was. The thing is though, even though her stand-up morphed into a monologue mixed with art history and observations about gender roles, her audience was just as rapt; the tension ratcheted up to an 11 because they weren’t sure where she was going with the routine and if it was all a rouse to set up a bubble bursting gut buster, or if this was a woman setting herself on fire in front of her fans.
I’m not going to spoil the ending because you should watch it for yourself over the next holiday-truncated week. Here’s a snippet of her work from a different show, but it will give you a sense of why sometimes, getting noticed because you stick out is something we all ought to try at least once.