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“Artists are not gods,” says Hannah Gadsby in her new show Douglas. It’s always good to be reminded of that in a hyper-accelerated pop-culture landscape of ranking and judging art, but she also directs that statement inward.
At the Austin, Texas, stop of her new (phone-free) show, the crowd signaled that the comedian’s success stateside hasn’t waned. With her 2018 Netflix special Nanette, Gadsby, who’d already been working in Australia for a decade, disarmed audiences and opened herself up in the extraordinary final act. It connected with many people who felt marginalized, invisible, and that comedy should be about emotion and experience. It made people think more critically about misogyny and homophobia. It was also predictably turned into a punchline and declared not comedy by online comedy experts.
On a recent episode of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Gadsby said she’s been “living in the shadow of Nanette,” and had to embrace the possibility of failure with her follow-up show. She addressed that in Douglas, which is named after her dog but extends to so much more. Gadsby is “fresh out” of trauma to talk about, but follows that up with an anecdote about people now wanting to package their trauma-sharing with a selfie. She addressed her new life in Hollywood and the surreality of having people who now tend to her physical appearance. There’s still self-deprecating humor in Douglas, but it’s more in response to Gadsby trying to navigate this change of life.
An extended bit about the history and naming of the Pouch of Douglas, also known as the rectouterine pouch in women, extends to an exploration of the history of men naming things, and it’s one of the reasons Gadsby is such a singular talent: She reexamines history through a different lens and finds the oh-shit moments. (Fittingly, she’s rebranded the Pouch of Douglas at her merch table.) After that story, the name of the show takes on a different context. Later she offers a Powerpoint-assisted “lecture” on Renaissance artists in response to the “feedback” she received from people (mostly men, she notes) who asserted that Nanette wasn’t comedy: It was a “lecture” or “monologue.”
Like Nanette, Douglas’ third act shifts into more personal space: Gadsby had already been diagnosed with autism when she filmed Nanette, but didn’t want that to shape or distract from what she had to say. She discussed what it’s like to be a woman diagnosed with autism and how autism makes her very trusting, which makes existing in Hollywood more risky.
Gadsby said in Nanette that she was quitting comedy, something that obviously hasn’t happened, but she told the New York Times in April: “Quitting was always a theatrical device, and I’m delighted everyone took it so seriously. It was basically to defuse the obvious criticism: ‘That’s not comedy.’ But that theatrical device, as I relived trauma night after night, felt really good to say it and mean it. I think I meant it and still mean it in the sense of the strictest definition of what comedy is—yeah, I’ve quit that.”
Douglas will be released by Netflix in 2020, and it might look a little different than what people see this summer: Gadsby is still working on its progress. She’s not a god! There are more traditional, observational jokes in the special. A bit more levity. But more indicative of Gadsby’s pull were the conversations after the show let out. The bathroom lines full of strangers trading ideas. Friends conversing about their favorite parts as they took off into the night. Parents telling their kids they’re so glad they asked them to come. Not talking about what it was, but what it did.
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Audra Schroeder is the Daily Dot’s senior entertainment writer, and she focuses on streaming, comedy, and music. Her work has previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle, the Dallas Observer, NPR, ESPN, Bitch, and the Village Voice. She is based in Austin, Texas.