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“Given the content of Nanette, it’s pressure I could handle,” Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby says on The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast in reference to the high expectations about how she would follow her landmark 2018 Netflix comedy special, an Emmy and Peabody award winner that paired punchlines with personal revelations to tell the story of “a broken woman who has rebuilt herself,” that Time said “kickstarted a global conversation” and The New York Times called “an international sensation, the most-talked-about, written-about, shared-about comedy act in years.”
Gadsby, 42, continues, “I was so exhausted after Nanette, and my life had changed so much, and it felt very unsteady, and I felt very unsafe. I figured the best thing for me to do was do what I know how to do” — namely, comedy. The result? Not even two years after Nanette, on May 26, Gadsby was back with another comedy special on Netflix, Douglas. She adds, “Even if people don’t like Douglas — and that remains to be seen — and even if Douglas is a failure, nobody can deny that I’m good at what I do.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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The youngest of five children born to a math teacher and a hairdresser turned cleaner in a small town on the Australian island state of Tasmania, where gay sex was a crime until 1997, Gadsby, who knew she was a lesbian from a young age, had a difficult childhood. On top of the strain of living “in the closet,” she endured numerous traumas — childhood sexual abuse, a physical assault at 17 and a rape by two men while in her 20s. “One of the tricks of trauma is it puts a stop on your ability to imagine your future,” she explains, adding, “When I finished [high] school, I had quite a number of years just drifting — I worked in a supermarket, on a farm and whatnot.” Eventually, she went off to college on the mainland to pursue a degree in art history and curatorship — although, she acknowledges, “It was really just to get out of Tasmania.”
After receiving her diploma in 2003, Gadsby experienced several years during which, she says, “I was technically homeless.” She elaborates, “I, for a very long time, lived above my brother’s fruit and vegetable shop. He’s pretty much solely responsible for me being able to follow my comedy career, because he gave me somewhere to live.” Comedy first entered the picture in 2005, when she was encouraged to perform stand-up as part of an Australian comedy competition. “I was a creature from outer space,” she says of the way she came across to the audience, which ate up her routine about disposing of a dead dog. “It felt nice. It felt really nice. It felt like I was participating in the world in a way that I’d never felt like I could before.” The next year, Gadsby returned and won that competition, which led to her first TV appearance, as well as an opportunity to perform at the famed Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where she placed second.
Over the ensuing years, Gadsby cobbled together a living performing nine different comedy shows and four comedic art lectures. “It took a few years to become solvent,” she says. And though she eventually did, even writing for and performing on Australian TV, she was increasingly frustrated. “My career was good,” she says, “but it wasn’t going anywhere. I was at the top of my game — I was creating really, really good, interesting stuff — and I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.'” She continues, “And then there was the political climate — the gay marriage debate here was particularly vicious.” On top of which, she notes, “I had been diagnosed with autism, and that sort of threw my world into a little bit of chaos, just in terms of, ‘Oh, gosh, how do I understand myself?'” In short, she says, it was “quite a melting pot of frustrations” that inspired her to sit down in 2015 and begin writing what would become Nanette.
In the hourlong special, which Gadsby would perform more than 250 times between its debut at the 2017 Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the performance that was filmed for Netflix, she is funny but also heartbreakingly honest about the things she has endured over the course of her life, and vows to quit comedy rather than go on making herself and people like her the butt of jokes. “It did take a lot out of me,” she says, but the response from the audience convinced her it was worth continuing. On June 19, 2018, the special began streaming all around the world on Netflix, and suddenly, unexpectedly, everything changed. She was an instant celebrity (something she says she’s “still digesting”), and she was also a lightning rod, with some hailing her as a comedic genius and others insisting that what she had made was not comedy at all, but rather a lecture, a TED Talk or a one-woman show.
Moving forward, as mentioned, she focused her attention on Douglas — and on embracing the best things that came with her higher profile. “You can’t underestimate the healing power of financial security,” she emphasizes. “Like, I’ve been homeless, and I now own a home, and it’s just brilliant. And that helps strength. I think with Nanette I was strong, but I was spoiling for a fight — like, I was still scrappy. And now I can take a breath. And if you want to keep strong, it’s important to be able to take a breath. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve been able to inhale.”
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