Tasmania’s Hannah Gadsby had been steadily making a name for herself in Australia’s comedy world for over a decade when her landmark special, Nanette, debuted on Netflix in 2018 and seemingly transformed her overnight into a worldwide household name.
The show is a bit of a misdirect. Gadsby begins Nanette as a shy, tea-drinking lesbian sputtering self-effacing jokes. Over the course of its hour, however, she builds steadily in confidence and rage as she takes on, well, the entirety of global patriarchy. Gadsby announced in the show that she was done with comedy.
Ironically, the special made her one of the biggest comedy stars in the world. And not without her detractors: The late Norm Macdonald, Saturday Night Live‘s Michael Che, and especially Dave Chappelle, have all laid into her at various points. Gadbsy, in turn, has proven herself quite capable of throwing back a punch.
And so Gadsby did the Cher thing when it came to her Farewell Tour — she mounted two more tours. Nanette was followed with 2019’s Douglas, whose rollout was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, for the past 18 months, Gadsby has been touring Body of Work — by Gadsby’s own accounts a happier show, due in large part to having recently married her producer, Jenny Shamash.
In the three years since Douglas, she has remained in the news, however, most memorably in her fiery criticism of Netflix and its chief Ted Sarandos after the streamer’s backing of Chappelle’s The Closer, which was widely criticized for transphobic material.
When Sarandos cited Gadsby’s specials as proof that the company embraces all points of view, Gadsby snapped back on Instagram: “Hey Ted Sarandos. Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess. Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial world view.”
She continued, “You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real world consequences of the hate speech dog whistling you refuse to acknowledge, Ted. Fuck you and your amoral algorithm cult.”
Now Gadsby is rolling back into L.A. with Body of Work, which she’ll be performing June 17 and June 18 at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Ahead of her return, she spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about L.A. audiences, what she’d like to say (or not say) to Ricky Gervais, and whether she’ll have time for a power lunch with Sarandos while she’s in town.
So you will be performing at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, which is where your second Netflix special, Douglas, taped. It’s a pretty huge, Gothic, weird theater. Do you like performing there?
I quite like performing comedy in the those kinds of spaces. I like people coming in to the audience feeling like it’s an occasion. I like to give my audience a comfortable chair because I’m going to give them a bit of a ride and something to look at while their phones are being locked up.
What do you think of L.A. audiences?
Well, see, as this interview’s going to be published there, I’m not going to say I hate the guts of it, but I don’t know all that I like it. I think it can be a little industry-heavy, but I think that only really matters in really smaller-proportion audiences. So if you are doing something where you want industry to come, and it’s a 300-seater, that affects the vibe of a show. But larger spaces, I don’t think it really matters. There’s enough [people] in the room to drown out the seriousness of the industry.
And what’s the new show about, or what are you trying to do that’s new that we haven’t seen from you yet?
Do I have to do something new? Is that the rule?
No. I mean —
No, I’m just teasing. It is new for me, I think particularly for the North American audience. Not so much for Australia and UK, because I have a much longer career there, but it’s a storytelling show and it’s a feel-good show. And it’s funny. It’s sort of going back to what I have always done, in that I’m sort of splicing jokes into stories, as opposed to just constructing stories out of jokes.
You came on the scene with a big splash with Nanette, but was Nanette way off course in terms of what your comedy had been like until that point?
No, not way off course. Nanette was a bold show. So of course it was new in many different ways. The most significant departure was that I talked about comedy. And of course the premise of the show was not to let people off the hook with a laugh. The first 20 minutes or so was pretty much my standard delivery, but I wasn’t storytelling heavily — which is kind of the irony of that show, in which I was saying stories are much more interesting than just jokes. And here’s a show where I didn’t really tell many stories.
But every time I wrote a show, I shape it around what I’m thinking, what’s interesting to me at the time, what sort of feeling I want to impart the audience. I don’t go in tryin to be who I think other people want me to be, because that way is a corner. And I think you lose touch with your own voice if you sort of get comfortable with your so-called “persona” on stage. And if you don’t tackle that, I think you can really become the persona you are on stage as opposed to shaping it off stage.
Is that good or bad?
Becoming your persona.
The persona is a thin veil. It’s not a full human. And that’s what stand-up is. It appears like you are who you are off stage, on stage, but it is just an appearance. It’s a manipulation of stuff. And if you believe the hype, then everything you think off stage is angled in order to extract humor or a joke or that kind of thing. You begin thinking in terms of how can I make this situation funny instead of just living and then later on going, gosh, in hindsight, there’s humor there. I think the longer you do stand up, the more danger you’re in to stop living life normally and living it in order to mine for comedy. And I just really think that’s a great path for your own humanity.
So could we talk about Netflix and things you’ve said?
What have I said?
You said some pretty strong things. And I thought that was quite admirable, but I guess it’s the ultimate biting the hand that fed you. They made you a star.
So that’s how you speak truth to power. You don’t cuddle up to that. You don’t cuddle up to power. That’s the ultimate expression of faking.
So I guess my question is, what happens after you make a statement like that? Does that end your relationship with Netflix?
Well, on their terms, it shouldn’t, because it’s my artistic expression. And if they don’t like it, perhaps Netflix isn’t the place there to work. There is no line in comedy, according to Netflix. So everything I say is a joke. So if they don’t like what I’m saying, then perhaps they don’t believe what they’re saying entirely.
I think it’s interesting. There is a line to Netflix and it’s the bottom line. It has nothing to do with their culture. It’s just what’s going to make the money and that doesn’t inspire me. I wouldn’t have written a show like Nanette, if that was what motivates me. I think it’s an interesting time at the moment. I don’t think I have the best perspective of what’s happening, but I have my own ideas.
Has Netflix expressed interest in putting out other Hannah Gadsby specials?
You know what it’s like. There’s a lot of chat. I don’t sit down with Ted, do I? Probably not now. He might be a little scared of me. Rightly so, Ted. Rightly so. I’m just joking. It’s very funny, isn’t it? It’s a very funny situation.
Well, let me switch it. Would you want to be there again? I mean you obviously are very offended by some of the things they’re putting up. Are you even interested in being on Netflix again?
I’m of two minds, I guess. One thing is people have Netflix. And so maybe putting content on that [platform that] is not so deeply transphobic would be a good space to put my work. I’m not motivated by where my work is on a streaming service. I’m a performer. Netflix has given me the opportunity to build my audience, which I’m grateful for, but I’m not beholden to.
I don’t know where I am at the moment, because I’m on tour and I can only do one thing at a time, but like most things in this world, it’s not black and white. There’s no right decision, no wrong decision.
Have you ever in your travels or your comedy goings-on crossed paths with Ricky Gervais?
No. He didn’t have to stand up by the time I started. His sort of U.K. world was pre-mine, but I’m aware of his comedy, if that’s where you’re building, to.
What would you say to him if you ran into him at an award show or something?
I’m the sort of person where it wouldn’t matter because people don’t talk to me. I really have a fuck-off energy and I really enjoy it. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to talk to him because I just don’t think there’s any point. He’s made up his mind. He doesn’t seem like a nuanced thinker. I don’t think we could solve the issues backstage at an awards show. He’s set. There’s no changing his mind. So why bother?
Do you think there are people that think the same thing about you?
Probably. I mean I’m open to have my mind changed. I always find it interesting that people think about me. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? I always like going back to where I came from, which is invisibility. The first 30 years of my life, extreme invisibility. So the idea that people have to talk about me is incredibly funny for me.
And yet you hit it exactly the right time and you pressed exactly the right buttons to the point where, I mean, everyone was talking and thinking about you.
It’s probably all about timing. I’m very good. I’m very good.
I like that. You say that in your show: “I’m very good at what I do.”
Yeah. I mean, I’m not saying I’m the greatest the whole time. I’m not that arrogant. But I’m all right.
Who are your comedy heroes? I get a bit of George Carlin out of some of your material, like your riff on the color blue.
I’m not American and I didn’t grow up with a lot of pop culture invading my personal spaces. So George Carlin wasn’t on my radar. He had such a broad career, from what I can gather. He ran the gamut of style. So I think everyone can be a little bit George Carlin. Even George Carlin is a little bit George Carlin.
I really love [certain comedians[ because of the way they engage with their audiences. They are like personal friends. Like Margaret Cho and Maria Bamford. They’re both great comics, but also it’s their attitude toward their audience, which I really felt was remarkable.
Carlin had done a lot of acting, but I haven’t seen you act. Are you interested in that at all?
Oh, let’s have a look at who George is, as an intersection of his identities, and then who I am, and let’s see how many roles there are. Imagine the old man. There’s a lot of roles for that type, in film and television. It’s basically built around that kind of personality and type of person. You have to have roles created for someone like me. There’s just not that many stories floating around and I’m not physically what people are looking for, even if my type of persona is. I sort of would be interested, but I’m not in a hurry. And there’s another problem. You really do need to be in a hurry in this world.
[After Nanette] my world was suddenly so unfamiliar. And I’m autistic. I really struggle in new situations and it takes such a long time to process. It is, after all, a processing disorder. And so I had a brand new world to deal with and I thought the best way to deal with that is to do something I’m familiar with and that is creating a stand-up show and touring it. So that was incredibly overwhelming. There was a huge amount of pressure on it.
Then the pandemic hit — and I just sort of thought, “I can’t invest in me right now.” I couldn’t process my new world. It was a giant rupture in the fabric of our world. And I still don’t really know what to make of it, but I think that’s perhaps the right way to feel about. Now I’m back in the world. My decisions are really based on what I think is creatively interesting to me. And of course what’s interesting to me might not coincide with what is available in casting. So acting may or may not be in my future.
You were married recently.
I was, and I continued to be, thank goodness.
That’s good. That’s the idea. How’s it going?
I like it. We work as a team and that’s a nice thing for me. My wife … [Borat voice:] “Mah wahf!” My “spouse lady” as I like to call her, is also my touring producer. And I don’t believe that I would be doing a feel-good show if I didn’t have such a great producer. For someone on the spectrum, touring can become incredibly hostile. I get overstimulated, over exhausted. I’m just delighted that I’ve stumbled into such good fortune, being partners with such a great producer.
My new show is a feel-good show because I’m able to navigate the world in a way that I haven’t been able to before. If I was to paint my persona as someone who’s slightly bumpy and confused in the world and borderline angry, then that’s the corner I would be painting myself into. Becoming the persona. So the show is a shift in that, and it’s reflecting an easier path through life, having someone who can help me navigate the world.
That’s all any of us could want. So congratulations.
Yeah. Thank you. I mean, it could all fall apart, but life is uncertain so you should make the most of it, right?
Hannah Gadsby on Ricky Gervais, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “You Don’t Cuddle Up to Power”