By Mark Blankenship, AKA’S Integrated Content and Community Director
Let’s call it now: This year, no one will surprise an audience more than Hannah Gadsby. Her solo show Nanette, which premiered on Netflix last month, has become a sensation by being completely unexpected.
At first, of course, Nanette seems comfortably familiar. Before a sold-crowd at the Sydney Opera House in her native Australia, Gadsby tells the self-effacing jokes that have sustained her career for a decade. Her sly smile is firmly in place, and she’s got a signature twinkle in her eye.
20 minutes later, she torches that persona. Stand-up comedy, she says, has betrayed her, because the structure of conventional jokes insists on hiding the truth. Renouncing the limitations of the “set-up/punchline” format, she instead speaks honestly about the personal experiences her routine has obscured.
This leads to a beautifully crafted, brutally frank discussion of homophobia, misogyny, self-loathing, and healing. Along the way, Gadsby also calls on her art history degree to link the restrictions of stand-up with the punishment Western culture frequently deals to those outside gender norms.
Unless they got tipped off, nobody in the audience could have anticipated this shift. The audacity makes Nanette unforgettable.
For those of us in the arts, it also raises essential questions: What does it take to make an experience unexpected? And when we don’t give an audience what they’re anticipating, how do we make sure we reach them anyway?
Judging from Nanette, honesty is the answer to both questions.
One reason the special works is that Gadsby’s clearly telling the truth. Her comments are so vulnerable that we have to believe them, and that vulnerability is what we get instead of easy laughs. It’s like Gadsby has peeled back the veneer of her profession to give us the tender gift of herself.
It must be acknowledged how risky that is. As Gadsby says in a recent Variety interview, “I’m in people’s private spaces and homes and breaking the contract essentially of what stand-up comedy should be.”
And some people want that contract honored. Gadsby tells Vulture that during early performances of Nanette, several audience members heckled her and stormed out.
Still, the overwhelming response to the special has been positive, even rapturous. A quick Twitter search reveals how moved people are by Gadsby’s fearless work, and multiple critics have suggested that stand-up comedy itself could change to reflect her approach. In creating something surprising, she’s made people realize what they’ve been hungering for.
That’s an exciting reminder of how the arts and arts marketing can be electrified by the unexpected. When we push away the typical, we make room for the revelatory. When we strive to surprise our audiences, we let them see us — remember us, embrace us — in a new way.