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From Netflix to TED Talks, Hannah Gadsby breaks comedy to build connections

Hannah Gadsby, author of the Netflix show Nanette speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us in Vancouver on April 18, 2019. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED	RYAN LASH
Hannah Gadsby, author of the Netflix show Nanette speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us in Vancouver on April 18, 2019. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED RYAN LASH - Postmedia News Service

A later-in-life diagnosis of autism came as something of a relief for Hannah Gadsby, author of the now super-famous Netflix show Nanette.

It gave her an answer to some of the things she hadn’t been able to understand about herself previously, she told a rapt audience at the TED Talks conference in Vancouver.

“It was mostly good news because I thought that I couldn’t sort my life out like a normal person because I was depressed and anxious, said Gadsby. “But it turns out I was depressed and anxious because I couldn’t sort my life out like a normal person, because I was not a normal person.”

Gadsby delivered a deeply personal and poignantly honest talk, which told the backstory behind Nanette, how her diagnosis intersected with the death of her grandmother and led to the moment of clarity she needed to write the groundbreaking show.

Dressed somewhat formally in a sharp blue suit and crisp white shirt and striped tie, Gadsby charmingly disarmed the audience.

“At least I know what my struggle is,” she said. “and getting to the starting point of normal is not it.”

Her “misfit suddenly had a fit.”

In Nanette, Gadsby tells viscerally personal stories about growing up gay and in the closet in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal, about how she couldn’t bring herself to come out to her own grandmother in the months before her death.

Nanette doesn’t just sidestep obvious punchlines, it drives completely around them and Gadsby explained to the TED audience precisely why she wrote it as a way to “break comedy.”

“Many would argue that Nanette is not a comedy show, and I could agree,” she said, but she disagrees with those who conclude that she failed at comedy.

In her talk, she used the contradictions of Nanette’s comedy-not-comedy element as an explanation.

Gadsby said she knew she would be good at standup comedy, “despite being a pathologically shy, virtual mute,” before she’d even told a joke.

However, not long after figuring out why, “I decided to quit comedy.”

Then “quitting launched my comedy career,” Gadsby said, “to the point that after quitting comedy, I became the most talked about comedian on the planet.”

Of course that was because she hadn’t really quit comedy, just comedy as we know it. Instead, she deliberately broke stand up’s conventions to do something new.

In the grief of her grandmother’s death, Gadsby recognized how “profoundly isolated I was and always had been.”

Previously, she had used stories of the traumas she had lived, but “I realized I’d been playing them for laughs.”

“I’d been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding on to my trauma for the comfort of the audience,” Gadsby said.

“In comedy, you’re expected to pull the punches and turn them into tickles.”

Instead, she threw caution away with Nanette and didn’t pull any punches.

“I didn’t want to make them laugh, I wanted to take their breath away, shock them so they would listen to my story and hold my pain as individuals and not as a mindless, laughing mob.”

Gadsby was prepared to be pushed further out to “the margins of art and life” in doing so. Instead, something quite different happened.

“The world pulled me closer.”

“So, in an act of disconnection, I found connection,” Gadsby said.

Nanette might have begun in her mind, but Gadsby is confident that through the show, she has built an authentic connection with people in her audience.

“That is so much bigger than me, just like the purpose of being human is bigger than all of us,” she said.

“Make of that what you will, thank you, hello.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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