Hannah Gadsby on their new Netflix special: ‘Being a queer person on stage is a subversive political act’
Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has spoken to PinkNews about spreading queer joy, tackling transphobia, and what didn’t make it into their latest Netflix stand-up comedy special.
In 2018, Gadsby, who uses they/them pronouns, became a household name after the release of their ground-breaking comedy special Nanette. Five years later, with a Peabody award and a primetime Emmy under their belt, they’ve returned with their third Netflix special, Hannah Gadsby: Something Special.
Produced and directed by Gadsby’s long-time partner Jenney Shamash – affectionately nicknamed Jenno – the show was filmed at Sydney Opera House during their year-long Body of Work world tour. In it, they discuss getting married and living with autism, while also sharing some hilarious family stories.
To fully understand the long journey to making the show, however, we have to travel back to 2018, when the release of Nanette catapulted the comedian into the public eye.
Gadsby, who had just been diagnosed with autism, was merely weeks into dating the show’s producer, Shamash, and was preparing to quit comedy altogether.
Few could have predicted the success of Nanette, though, which became a cultural phenomenon and made Gadsby an overnight star. But then came a “very unnatural” five years, in which a global pandemic, two world tours, another political Netflix show, Douglas, several awards, a marriage to Jenno and one very public row with Netflix gave them all the material they needed to craft the new special.
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“I made a very conscious decision early on to make a show that would de-escalate feelings of anxiety, both in myself and my audience,” Gadsby tells PinkNews about turning a tour into a Netflix show.
Something Special traces the story of Gadsby’s proposal to Jenno, but, naturally, there are wild anecdotes about their relationship history: tricking a bigoted baker into making a wedding cake, stories from a chaotic lockdown and flawless impressions of eccentric parents.
Given Gadsby has a reputation for sharp political commentary, you’d be forgiven for thinking this special might take aim at the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation sweeping across the UK and the US, as well as at comedians such as Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle who continue to profit from jokes made at the expense of the trans community.
Instead, the comedian made a rather radical decision to focus on queer joy.
“From the beginning, my intention was to create a feel-good show, to give the audience a hug,” Gadsby explains. “My hope is that they leave the room feeling better than when they [entered]”.
Gadsby is the first to admit they’re not “a natural rom-com type”. Even so, making the special a love letter to Jenno – the couple married in January 2021 – felt like the most natural thing in the world.
“She’s always there,” says Gadsby. “There’s a lot of trust between us. [This] show, if anything, is a collaboration.” And despite the sometimes-scandalous nature of the stories, Gadsby assures us: “Nothing goes on stage that doesn’t go past Jenno’s desk. There’s never been a moment where she’s been like, ‘I’d rather you not say that’. I think I’m probably more timid than she is.”
True to form, Jenno is sitting behind the camera during our interview, and interjects to confirm that their favourite moment in the special is Gadsby’s impression of their mother.
Gadsby’s rise to international stardom over the past few years has also been hugely coloured by their autism diagnosis, something they first opened up about in Nanette.
“There’s a lot of outside chaos that I’m trying to put together,” they say. “The diagnosis helped enormously because I now know that I’m probably not seeing the entire picture all the time, so there’s humour to be mined there.
“I’m also more able to find the humour in my stumble through life and the autism of it all because I understand it more. There was a time when I was embarrassed and frustrated and trying to understand what was wrong with me. It turns out [it’s] nothing, I just have autism.”
Although Gadsby’s mindset around autism has changed since the diagnosis, one thing that hasn’t is their approach to putting a set together, which begins in small rooms and involves “throwing some material at the wall” every time.
“This show is definitely the one that my audience told me they wanted, using the material that people responded to more wholeheartedly than anything else,” they say, joking they would blame Jenno if the whole thing goes horribly wrong.
“I really love this show so hope other people love it. That’s the only thing you can do. You hope that it’s the right time for this show but you can’t control the world that this lands in.”
A lack of control over anti-LGBTQ sentiment is certainly something Gadsby has had to tackle head on of late.
At the end of 2021, they wrote a blistering response to Netflix’s chief executive, Ted Sarandos, after he reportedly name-checked them in an internal memo defending anti-trans comments made by Chappelle in his own stand-up special.
“There are repercussions for platforming hostile comedians that have a ripple-down effect,” Gadsby says. “It gives a currency, you would be hard-pressed to go into a comedy club and not hear anti-trans material because it’s been shown to be incredibly profitable. That’s just how it works.”
Gadsby’s expletive-laden Instagram post made quite an impact. Not only did they secure their own new Netflix special, but they landed a second multi-comic show in the process. Produced and hosted by Gadsby, and filmed during the Body of Work world tour, it will showcase a number of up-and-coming global genderqueer comedians handpicked by the comedian themself.
“[I want to] help them get to the next level and give them a broader audience and also celebrate gender diversity on stage,” says Gadsby when asked about tackling the issue of transphobia in comedy. “That’s a really exciting thing that I was able to do”.
It’s notable, and inspiring, too, how Gadsby maintains an unerringly optimistic outlook on the ways queer people, such as Gen Z comic Leo Reich, whom they recently watched perform, have “always found a stage for themselves”.
While Gadsby is frank in acknowledging that it’s more difficult for queer performers in the current political climate, ultimately, they don’t feel afraid that they’ll “disappear through this current wave of oppression”. And while the live tour explored issues such as transphobia and anti-abortion laws in the US, Gadsby ultimately wants the show to resonate with as many people as possible across the world.
“Ultimately, I have a global audience,” they say. “I wanted to make a show that was accessible without narrowing the material down to [issues facing] particularly the United States. Simply being a queer person on stage sharing their life, that’s a subversive political act at this moment.”
Something Special is streaming now on Netflix.
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