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Hannah Gadsby begins her new Netflix special, Douglas, with a proclamation seldom heard in stand-up sets. It isn’t as radical as her vow to “quit comedy” in Nanette, the Australian comic’s Emmy- and Peabody-winning 2018 meta-comedy special that deconstructed joke structures to explain how humor can prop up power imbalances. Nonetheless, it jars when Gadsby rattles off a kind of table of contents for the next 70 or so minutes. On the agenda are observational humor, some “needling of the patriarchy,” a dog-park story, a discussion of her relatively recent autism diagnosis and “one Louis C.K. joke.”
In other words, Gadsby is still Gadsby, breaking down the conventions of comedy to remake it into something that she (still) wants to be a part of. But with the cultural phenomenon of Nanette casting such a long shadow, Douglas finds the hyper-self-conscious comedian in defensive mode. Midway through, Gadsby explicitly addresses the critics who dismissed the earlier special as “not comedy,” but the entirety of Douglas seems intended to prove that the seriousness in Nanette wasn’t some cover-up of a lack of great jokes. This new special is Gadsby’s version of a crowd-pleaser, and it’s consistently, even boastfully, hilarious.
AIR DATE May 26, 2020
Thankfully, the comic’s subjects haven’t changed much. Named after Gadsby’s dog, Douglas is full of grievances both petty and legitimate, from her dislike of the word “sweater” (“Yeah, this is the top I wear to soak up the wet of my body”) to her bristling at men’s dismissals of women’s anger. A through line about how men have had the privilege of naming things based on their priorities starts out as Feminism 101 and grows increasingly funnier, with more preposterous examples. And to Gadsby’s credit, she shuts down at least one instance of eager “clapter,” claiming she’s just “hate-baiting” her detractors.
But the best parts of Douglas concern art history and the obvious horniness of many Renaissance painters in bits that recall both the engrossing erudition of Nanette and the nerdy ebullience of the sadly defunct website The Toast. Get ready for some very strange, very damp visits from the Virgin Mary.
Since Nanette, Gadsby has given a handful of interviews about her autism diagnosis just four years ago. For viewers craving a greater understanding of the female experience of being on the spectrum (and the general overlooking of girls and women with autism), the comic doesn’t quite deliver, though she does couch the topic in an amusing story about “going from the teacher’s pet to being the teacher’s nemesis” in a single class. (This time, Gadsby embraces the “clapter” for a brief detour ranting against anti-vaxxers.)
The comedian wraps up the segment with an impassioned endorsement of neurodiversity — nothing you haven’t heard before if you pay even the smallest bit of attention to online discussions of autism, but, given the entertainment industry’s lagging interest in disabilities of all kinds, still a novelty for pop culture.
If Nanette demonstrated Gadsby’s mastery of tone and command of the audience, Douglas is an even richer showcase for the comic’s technical prowess. Gadsby robs herself of the element of surprise by exhaustively listing at the beginning of the special everything she’ll talk about, then manages to startle us anyway with her crackerjack comic timing and cascade of clever callbacks.
There’s probably no matching Nanette in its intensity or revelations — “If it’s more trauma [you expect], I’m fresh out,” Gadsby half-jokes. But she’s clearly determined to satisfy with this lighter, broader hour, partly by managing expectations, partly by outlining in great detail her many dissatisfactions with the Ninja Turtles. In lieu of the self-deprecation she publicly eschewed in Nanette is a more overt swagger about her comedic talents. It’s wholly justified.
Writer: Hannah Gadsby
Director: Madeleine Parry
Premiere: Tuesday, May 26 (Netflix)
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