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How Hannah Gadsby's 'Nanette' Made Me Rethink Comedy and Disability

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I recently watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, “Nanette.” I purposely omitted “stand-up comedy” from the description of “Nanette” because the special is far more than just stand-up comedy.  Indeed, the special reads as stand-up comedy (and very good stand-up comedy) until about minute 45, as Gadsby moves away from the humor-lining texture of her stories (like coming out) to the pain behind them. After delivering 45 minutes of impeccably timed jokes, she begins explicitly questioning comedy.

“Part of my problem is that comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence,” Gadsby said in the show. “What I had done with that comedy show about coming out is I froze an incredibly informative experience at its trauma point and I sealed it off with jokes… Punch lines need trauma because punch lines need tension and tension feeds trauma.”

I write and host a podcast that tries to find the humor in the interaction between disability and society. For better or for worse, there is no shortage of ammunition.

My podcast is not an act. I try to be funny whenever I’m talking, studio microphone in my face or not. But there is a clear connection between Gadsby’s brilliant articulation of her comedic conflict and my show.

I’m not saying I’m a sad clown by any means. My humor is not purely a deflection mechanism for awkwardness, although many times it is. But I don’t think that’s incredibly remarkable or different for many people.

I chose satire for my podcast, but then Gadsby hit me with this one: “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak.”

Self-deprecation has been a favorite tool of mine for years. I use it to objectify my cerebral palsy in hopes of humanizing myself, to shed my disability and escape the margins. Some of my favorites over the years have been dressing up as a pepper shaker for Halloween, vehemently insisting that I walk better when I’ve been drinking and accusing friends of inviting me places because I get them better parking, although I’m not sure how far off that is (there I go again).

The podcast is less about that and more about making fun of ableism. Still, Gadsby points out that in telling jokes about homophobia, ableism, racism, transphobia, sexism etc., we leave out the trauma of our stories.

When I joked about not being able to eat soup on an episode, I didn’t talk about my intense insecurities
of eating on a first date. When I off-handedly remarked that I caught cerebral palsy on spring break in Cancun, I didn’t talk about the times I felt diseased. And when I called out reporter Robert Costa for namelessly objectifying me in a national magazine, I spared my listeners my embarrassment as colleagues sheepishly forwarded me the article and their condolences.

Gadsby’s words have given me a means to more tangibly think about my podcast and its potential unintended consequences. I’ve already seen the latter on social media. One of our most popular posts is a video about a restaurant with a staff that appears to be mostly made up of people with Down syndrome. I asked in my reposting, “is this inspiration porn?”

There were a few quite poignant answers, weighing the rampant unemployment among people with disabilities and the restaurant’s possible exploitation of workers for marketing purposes. But there were also the approximately 60 people who simply reposted the video, swallowing it whole, ignoring the context I put forth and possibly perpetuating the problem I sought to discuss in the first place.

I chose to do a satirical podcast because that’s how I thought I could get people to engage in disability issues. If I thought recording myself reading disability studies books for the podcast would entice the most people, I’d happily do that.

Is my humor a product of social marginalization? Would I levitate towards self-deprecation as much if I wasn’t disabled? If not, would that be an example of disability being generative, a concept I’ve heard proudly spoken in disability circles? Most importantly, am I perpetuating social marginalization by using comedy to insert my voice?

I still believe that satire is the way to go. But I also wanted to acknowledge its side effects.

For better or for worse, I’m sticking with the comedy bit. I do believe I am innately comedic; I am perpetually in pursuit of the laugh. I think it has something to do with my disability, something to do with having funny parents and a whole lot to do with factors I am not able to discern.

But it would be nice to one day run out of ammunition.

Basic Able is available in closed caption video and text format, as well as on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play and Stitcher. Season 2 begins in September.


Getty image by Cookelma.

Originally published: July 22, 2018
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