Tag Archives: Stand up comedy

Notes after Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette

I’ve not yet watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix because I watched it live in London earlier this year, after trying desperately and failing to see it in Edinburgh last summer. I’m bad at watching things twice, though this would repay it I know. This is a good interview with her in the Guardian. So much that’s rich in it. I’m glad she’s still speaking and adding context to the show for many selfish reasons including;

1. Whenever I talked about my research on resistance and comedy, people would often launch into monologues about Stewart Lee’s innovation with form and I would sometimes say “There are also other comics innovating with form, in a way which plays with the comic-audience relationship differently” and they would look at me blankly, unsure how to cope with the idea that “Held up as an example of innovation due to having lots of cultural capital” and “Innovating” might be separate things.

2. In this interview she says that comedy is a form which is more accessible to people with less socio-economic capital because there are fewer gatekeepers. A strand of class criticism runs through her work and she makes the tension of social mobility visible in her movement between comedy and art criticism. See, look what can be done with comedy as an art form and give it Arts Council funding. (Actually, lots of practitioners from poorer backgrounds I know who straddle stand up comedy and other potentially subsidised forms are savvy enough to source both public and commercial funding and audiences for their work. The boundaries between forms like stand up and poetry and theatre are increasingly porous).

3. That’s why at a crucial point in Nanette I wanted to say “But, stand-up is able to do way more than you say it can, as your show itself proves, so you don’t have to give it up”- but she seems to have concluded that now. This applies times a hundred after the success of her show on Netflix. Stand-up is a brilliant form for people from marginalised backgrounds to challenge stereotypes without necessarily ONLY self-deprecating or minimising their experiences.

4. She’s talking openly here about being diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Condition (or Autism Spectrum Disorder, as the Guardian possibly insists). In the show, HG talks about the importance of stories as a tether and of shame being overcome-able culturally. (Her ASC is not part of her show, which focuses on her experiences of terrible homophobia). It’s still part of ASC diagnostic criteria that you might struggle with humour. Autistic people are still too often punchlines to jokes, rather than authors or subjects of stories which address the complexities of their lives. The fact that an autistic comedian is being so hugely successful with a deeply sensitive, emotional and hilarious show is part of a story which can act as a tether for autistic children and adults (and their families) who are often only hearing about deficits and “can’t”s via the reductive medical model.

5. Her show itself performs anger and tension and refuses to defuse it for the audience so that everybody can go away feeling better. Whilst that’s part of her performance that feels particularly revolutionary to audiences used to everything being wrapped up in a tidy bow of laughter, the interviews and commentary on Nanette demonstrate that she’s also mobilising another affect/emotion that can be revolutionary in stand-up- love. Or if that sounds too soppy – deep acceptance. Her trust of the audience in making herself vulnerable and expressing her previously hidden feelings, including anger, shows an acceptance of herself, but also of them. That can, in turn, help them to self-acceptance around their own traumas. Conjuring love in the room is not seen as particularly revolutionary- but in these times it certainly is. Experts at it include Sarah Millican and Barbara Nice- though love often hovers, unfashionably and unnamed in stand-up settings everywhere.

6. I was doing gigs at The Stand in Newcastle throughout 2012 and 2013. Open mike spots, unpaid tens and fifteens, some paid tens and fifteens. I’d been doing quite well as a stand up poet for a few years and had stepped back from the stand up circuit with relief. I’d never done very well there. Some paid support slots and usually a feeling of deep discomfort with how stand up put me in a box and led to me to be a much less interesting, thoughtful version of me as a performer. I could see that performers who were able to talk about men and women as different species and be relatable did well. I wasn’t relatable- but I wasn’t weird enough, or knowing enough then about my weirdness, to play up to it. This was somehow resolved when I did stand up poetry because I could be all of me at once and declaring you’re a poet already says you are coming at some sort of left angle to the world. Anyway, I decided not to do any self deprecating material at all in these Stand gigs. Meanwhile I saw Bridget Christie, Hannah Gadsby and Rachel Mars do shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 in which they all at some point took clothes off (onesies for Bridget and Rachel, standing in a swimming cossie for Hannah). They were telling me that stand up comedy could be self-controlled exposure but I couldn’t quite hear it. Just heard lots of angry young men doing material about rape and how awful women were and didn’t have the craft or binary thinking to deal with it. That’s when I decided to do a show nobody would care about because nobody was listening to me anyway- and my show about not wanting children became my first Radio 4 show and featured on an impending film documentary about women who don’t have kids. So in a very mini-way, I have also struggled to break out of the limitations of stand up as a form- and found a way to do that within stand up. It can expand to fit because it’s not only a commercial form that happens with big shiny lights around it and blokes with jokes, but is part of the folkloric, human need to have one person channel thoughts and jokes and stories in a way which makes them and an audience thrum with something which isn’t just thoughts or feelings, or being told, or listening, but the thrilling, transformational chaos that happens in the third space between.


Interview with Hannah Gadsby


Three Tiers for Stand up Comedy

The person of certainty will respond to any criticisms about the narrowness of the current stand up comedy field with pursed lips, folded arms and the statement intended to refute any wishy washy relativism; “At the end of the day, funny is funny” they’ll pronounce. I agree that there’s a fundamental democracy of stand up comedy. If somebody consistently makes audiences laugh a lot, then they will do well. However…I think this doesn’t take into account the three levels where stand up comedians typically begin their careers- and “Funny is funny” only applies to the top tier;



Top Tier; Start off with a fully formed comedy voice. They may begin with an innate or learned self-confidence which makes them resilient to early failures and knock backs. Higher proportion of public school folk start in this tier. A higher proportion of this group than any other had good relationships with parents or primary carers and carry that sense of trust with them over to audiences. Thus a virtuous circle of comedy learning is able to take place. Or, this ability to make an audience relationship is hard-won due to strenuous attempts to overcome difficulties at relating to other people and a strong need to do so. Crucially, this work has been done before they start doing stand up.They are comedy-literate when they start, having consumed and discussed a large amount of comedy, though not necessarily stand up. They may have already been writing or creative in other arenas. Many will be in their later twenties/thirties. They’re able to learn quickly and hone their sets using audience feedback. Also helps to have life circumstances which give a sense of urgency around the need to progress quickly and commit- and the means for them to do so. Have a stable and clear persona and a good awareness of what it is and how to use it. Will be able to do well at competitions straight away and seamlessly progress through longer sets, Edinburgh shows and telly exposure. No matter what other obstacles they face, this group will appear to prove that “Funny’s Funny”. They’re the top five per cent. Will be described as “Naturals”. Examples; John Bishop, Sarah Millican, Russell Howard, Jack Whitehall.


Bottom Tier; This group are more like deluded X Factor contestants. There is always something missing in their relationship with an audience. A jarring. They’re comedy illiterate but incapable of recognising it. No matter what other natural advantages they have, they will never make it. For them, funny’s never funny. They may hang around the open mic circuit for years. Some of them become promoters. The bottom fifteen per cent.


Middle Tier; Most of us start stand up somewhere in this middle tier. We vary across a spectrum of neediness and our ability to communicate with others and can use stand up comedy to improve at this (Though sometimes it hinders us). We’re anywhere from comedy geeks to utterly unaware of comedy outside our own experience of laughing with people, but it may take a lot of practice before being able to translate this into our own comedy “Voice”. For the first few years we may still be working out who we are, how we sound, even how we dress, due to age, life experience or social circumstances, so our persona may be in constant flux. We may have had parents or carers who didn’t accept us, or ones who thought we could do no wrong, but we will need a lot of stage time to work out where our own and our audiences boundaries are and how to trust each other. We may find that families, jobs, poverty and geographical distance hamper our ability to get stage time and therefore we may stop and start doing gigs. Those of us in this tier benefit most from development opportunities offered to comedians- workshops, clubs like “The Stand” that offer clear progression, competitions (when we’re ready), internet forums and peer feedback. We’re also particularly vulnerable to audiences or other comics criticizing or not accepting aspects of our persona or material. Too offensive, too bland, too girlie, too blokey, too hack, too off the wall… Those in the middle tier need the safe spaces created by well run comedy nights who recognise that stage time (and sometimes being crap and/or offensive) are part of the process. Those in this middle tier suffer most from reductive arguments about what comedy “should” be, also from comparisons with the paths of those in the Top Tier and from fears that, after all, we may be in the Bottom Tier. Given a good following wind and the advantages offered by social and cultural factors surounding stand up comedy at any given moment, we can make anything from excellent high profile careers in comedy, to happy hobbyists. Without that good following wind and advantageous social and cultural factors surrounding stand up comedy at that moment, a higher proportion of working class people, women, unlucky people and minority groups will fall by the wayside. I would argue that for about eighty per cent of the people who start out doing stand up, funny isn’t just funny…