What’s the difference between a joke and a story? Hannah Gadsby teaches the difference in her new stand-up special Nanette. She brings up a lot of stuff going on in current political discussions in a funny, painful, compelling performance. You will get more out of it by listening not just to the “content” she’s written and delivered—and believe it or not, she has a funny joke early on about the idea of “content” itself. You’ve also got to watch Gadsby’s non-verbal signals, the wry smiles and fleeting, then burning, eye contact as she builds to her point.
One theme running through the show is Gadsby’s stated intent to leave stand-up comedy. She unrolls the reasoning a bit at a time, moving toward her central thesis: she’s got to tell her story, and comedy doesn’t let her do that.
What better way to tell one’s story than with humor—specifically, with jokes? They make people laugh; they make people think.
Self-deprecating jokes are causing more hurt and Gadsby states her intent not to use them anymore:
“You do understand what self -deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”
That’s one of many lessons about listening tucked up in her performance. If you hear someone using self-deprecating humor, listen more closely. Listen with empathy. Why are they doing that?
But beyond the content of the joke, Gadsby says, it’s the joke itself that is the problem. A joke has a two-part structure: First, the tension. Then, the punch line that relieves tension.
That structure is missing the third part, the rest of the story. Sometimes the rest of the story is satisfying, like when she came out to her mother (producing much joke material) and later developed a great relationship with her (happy but not at all funny). And sometimes the rest of the story is really painful, such that a comedian must ignore and suppress it to get anything joke-worthy at all.
So listening for more than a joke is one thing to take away from Nanette. Listening for a joke is a way to squeeze pleasure for yourself as a listener. Some audience members seem to get even more pleasure out of judging the jokes and offering “feedback” and “opinions” to Gadsby after her shows.
But listening for a story uses your listening to help the other person share and connect. How exactly to show you, as a listener, want the story not the joke seems like it must be drawn from intuition and empathy. If your listening skills suggest that all you want or all you can handle is a joke, you’ll never get the full story.
Asking questions certainly seems like a good start. Gadsby talks a lot about the unsolicited feedback she receives, but nowhere in the performance does she recount anyone asking her a question. In a way, the whole performance constitutes an exclamation by someone who has never been asked an open question, but only placed without her consent into certain boxes and stereotypes.
I’m still processing everything I took away from Nanette, and now I get it why someone said they were going to watch the show several more times. It’s not a spoiler to share the denouement, a clip of Gadsby on a sofa with her teapot and teacup and two dogs. After the work that went into Nanette, she deserves a moment to recharge.
Here are some other reviews of Nanette that may be of interest:
Hannah Gadsby on the Real ‘Nanette’ and Whether She’s Really Quitting Comedy After Her Netflix Special